22 July 2013
Speaking at the annual Local Government New Zealand conference today, New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development CEO Stephen Selwood called for a transition to strengthened regional governance nationwide through local government amalgamations.
"Regions matter, says Selwood. New Zealand is the sum of its parts and, to quote Minister Joyce, the ability of regions around the country to provide economic opportunities and jobs for people that live in each region add up to the ability of the country as a whole to do the same.
As a small, isolated nation, we need to realise the full potential of our regions which underpin our national economic performance
Currently 67 sub-regional city and district councils and 11 regional councils plan, regulate, control, fund and deliver essential infrastructure that supports our economy and local communities
Most of those councils are very small. Many face challenges of declining and aging populations. Many more struggle to attract and retain the technical, commercial and financial capability needed to realise the full potential of the regions they serve.
Too often the sole focus of communities is on containing increases in rates and not regional economic growth and development. Too often there is a rural urban divide rather than a true understanding of the dependencies between town and country.
To compound these issues further, New Zealand's principal planning laws, the Resource Management Act, the Local Government Act and the Land Transport Management Act are complex and contradictory. While linkages exist, the Acts were never designed to work together. Consequently, there is often poor alignment between strategies, long term plans, funding, and regulation needed to deliver infrastructure in a timely way.
In this context it is hardly surprising that infrastructure investment has so often failed to keep pace with development needs or deliver value for money over time. Nor is it surprising that real economic growth across most regions has been disappointing.
NZCID commends the initiatives underway to benchmark performance and agree shared service arrangements, including joint ventures and clustering. But, we have strong doubts whether the pace of change is sufficient or that the goodwill and political commitment that is necessary will be sustained over time.
We favour full council amalgamations using the two tier unitary council model used in Auckland as a template for governance reform across the nation.
The power of one council united around one vision, one plan, one voice and the size and scale to be able to influence government policy and to implement and deliver are already plainly evident.
Similar to Auckland, we envisage reform of local government in New Zealand into twelve or so provincial unitary councils based largely on regional council boundaries. These provincial councils would be supported by empowered local boards with delegated authority to levy targeted rates for local amenities and services where there is community support.
When combined with puplicly owned utilities to deliver water, roads and regional facilities, reforms to planning laws to provide for spatial plans, and enhanced national guidance and leadership, the two tier unitary council model provides a good balance between leadership and local democracy, vision and strategy, scale and specialisation.
The latest rounds of local government and planning law reform will tweak incremental improvement of our complex planning laws. Increasingly we will see councils start to work together or even amalgamate. Generally speaking that is a good thing. But the pace of change is very slow.
Wouldnt it be so much better if we could lift our vision beyond the back yard and effect change aimed at fully realising the full potential of our regions, working in partnership with central government, the private sector, iwi and local communities.
Its time for bold moves in local government and planning law reform and that means addressing the structures which have held back the progress of our regions, says Selwood.