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Are “local boards” and “community boards” real democracy?

  • February 28th, 2021

For some reason I forgot to post this when I drafted it in 2014, when National was secretly pushing for more SuperCity amalgamations.

Luckily they failed. This is now a reminder of how facile is the reasoning behind that kind of push. But with Nanaia Mahuta even less use than National’s Ministers in challenging central government arrogance,  I post this now. It is a reminder of how little changes in the objectives of Wellington’s busybodies.

“Local Government Minister Paula Bennett has been saddled with an indefensible position on local government amalgamation. She inherited the official National line that the government does not have a position for or against amalgamations, and that it is up to local ‘communities to decide’.  They are sticking grimly to that line, clearly determined to minimise any September election effect of fears of more Auckland style ‘super-city’ centralisation.

But the ‘communities will decide’ line collides with the Nick Smith 2012 law change that removed the longstanding power of communities to vote no, and replaced it with a hostile takeover charter. A Local Government Commission merger plan can now be forced through against even 100% opposition from a smaller community, if it gets a 50% vote from the region as a whole. That applies irrespective of the scale of amalgamation. Some regions in the sights of the ‘think big’ planners would effectively create a form of provincial government, remote from the communities they would claim to represent..

This matters, because many smaller councils have had careful management. As the Fairfax/Taxpayers’ Union comparative research shows, there is no obvious connection between Council size and efficiency or financial soundness. Councillors closer to their communities may lead pragmatically. Metropolitan centres with party political machines may suffer under long term domination of socialist big spenders. So big-spending councillors can seek temporary relief from their debt presssures by taking over the assets, low debt, and the rating capacity of their more prudent neighbours.

The think big planners were perhaps counting on ratepayer disinterest in local government, to apply the Auckland model nationwide. But it appears they’ve had a rude awakening. Hundreds of people have turned up in Northland, and now Hawkes Bay, to protest against loss of local self determination.

OIA disclosure reveals that the Local Government Amendment (no 3) Bill on its way through now, had urgent supplementation. It enables extension across the country of the Auckland supercity two-tier unitary authority model. It adds lots of local boards. These patsy boards get some extra powers in the Bill, meant to reassure ratepayers that they can still elect some locals to listen to local concerns. The result, paradoxically, could be that after amalgamation there might be even more paid elected representatives than before. The real difference would be that most of them are political eunuchs.

A briefing to the Minister of Local Government just released under the OIA recommended that the Minister ask the Commission:

Would the Commission be likely to abandon consideration of reorganisation options for an area if it considered that change was not viable or justified without some form of local board amalgamations?” [OIA response 29 May 2013 Information Briefing: Aide Memoire – Discussion with chair of the Local Government Commission about two tier governance options”- hyperlink to LDC website?]

The Minister was also prompted to ask whether the Commission could delay the Northland and Hawkes Bay amalgamation proposals until after the legislation was passed.

We don’t know the answers. The Commission is not subject to the OIA and has not responded to requests to volunteer the information.

The Commission was to have released its Wellington amalgamation proposal several months ago, but postponed it till June. I think they will now defer publishing any decision on the Wellington application and the Northland and Hawkes Bay draft proposals until after the Bill is passed and probably until after the Election.

So why does the Government and Commission think local boards will reassure communities worried about being ruled by remote [urban] majorities?

Unlike councils, local boards will not be able to employ staff, determine rates, raise debt or control regulatory activities. They may (if their governing body agrees) control some activities such as libraries and swimming pools. They will have the awe inspiring authority to ‘negotiate agreements’ with their governing body..

The think big brigade’s sensitivity about the pseudo-self government offered by local boards was shown in a radio debate between Wellington Regional Council Chair Fran Wilde and the Lower Hutt Mayor Ray Wallace. Fran said the operating expenditure of Auckland local boards was about 25% of the operating expenditure of Auckland Council. The figure under local board control is actually more like 12% (2012-2013. Local Board expenditure $331 million. Auckland Council  group operating expenditure $2,671 million)

The Auckland Council Annual Report also said only 25 percent of residents felt they could participate in local board decision making. It can hardly be surprising if local boards do not attract community leaders. Few people who do, rather than talk about doing, will want to spend their time in talking shops. Local boards specifically confined to transmitting  wishes to their ‘governing body’ and to be local apologists for its decisions will attract the kinds of people who like process and political action. They are not the practical people already too scarce in local government, who are there to get things done.

When the decision-making is elevated to a remote council of full time political types, local government loses the special people prepared to offer part time oversight. They have better things to do in their own businesses and lives. Consider the prospects for a rural area like Wairoa. A sole representative on a new Hawkes Bay council will have daily meetings over a hundred kilometers away in Napier or Hastings. How would they stay in the locality to rub shoulders with those they represent and keep life tolerable?.

The OIA material to date shows no sign that the Government and Commission have subjected their second tier local board system to any rigorous fitness for purpose test. We’ve seen no sign of proper cost/benefit analysis, let alone analysis of the effects on the emergence and health of local initiative, self government and leadership. Nor have people been told that the New Zealand average number of people per local government unit is over-size in relation to the averages of the countries whose democracies we might admire.

The economic analysis obtained by one target council (given that successive Ministers and the Local Government Commission seem to have felt no need for research) told it that there could be material efficiencies to be obtained from increasing the scale of some capital hungry utility functions, like water and sewage services. So sensibly, they are plannng for the amalgamation of those utility functions. There is no reason why amalgamating utilities requires the amalgamation of local democracies. It may even enhance the quality of candidates for local government, if they know they do not have to pretend expertise in utility services. They can concentrate on self determination for their areas.

Comments

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  • David W
  • February 28th, 2021
  • 2:35 pm

No one appears to ask the question, “Did the Auckland SuperCity experiment achieve the efficiencies its residents were promised?” Is there any mechanism to reverse the worst of the amalgamation’s effects?

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