Hide seeking to define local councils' role

Elections are looming. That will have many at today’s local government conference a bit on edge. But there is much more in the wind.

Not since Michael Bassett slashed the number of local bodies from more than 600 to 88 (now 85) in 1989 has there been so much uncertainty over councils’ futures: super-Auckland, changes at ground level and in the groundrules — and now, a drive by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide to settle councils’ “proper constitutional status”.

He plans to initiate a two-to-three-year “first-principles” inquiry with a discussion paper next year. There is much to discuss.

Since 2008 Hide has mostly been engaged in two enterprises. One is super-Auckland, now two months away and the focus of a closely watched election. The other is big changes in the Local Government Act in a far-reaching bill noted here on June 14.

But much more is going on. Come back in 10 years and local government is likely to look and feel different.

The most visible change is that Auckland’s government will be far bigger than that of any other town in the country.

Hide and others say the executive mayor will be the second most powerful politician after the Prime Minister. That is debatable — much will rest on whether the mayor can make Auckland an international metropolitan centre, adding real value and not just a more efficient deliverer of services. Nevertheless, someone representing, or claiming to represent, a third of the country (and rising) will carry weight in Wellington.

That in turn may well prompt some in other regions — Waikato, Wellington and Canterbury — to try to form competing super-councils. The government’s position is that it will not push such mergers but it will respond to expressions of local will.

Elsewhere expect more collaboration between councils on planning, services and infrastructure. The logic is that scale and efficiencies are achievable without loss of political identity.

There are many examples and many variations, though also limits to councillors’ willingness to cede control. A notable success is the Bay of Plenty Local Authority Shared Services back-office-services company owned by nine councils from Tauranga across to Gisborne and down to Taupo. It has expansionary ambitions.

Next, note Nick Smith’s Environmental Protection Authority, which is taking over planning functions of national importance. Logically the EPA might in time take over much of what regional councils now do. If a national water authority emerges from the Land and Water Forum “collaborative governance” experiment, regional councils would lose much of their reason for being.

If that happens, the alternative for regions that don’t get super-councils would be for district councils to form unitary councils, taking over regional council activities. Four already have. The National party has long favoured that.

Then there are Auckland’s local boards and the community boards elsewhere. Can they be made more representative, influential and active? If so, they might come to resemble the old boroughs or counties.

Note “might” not “will”. But that in turn touches on Hide’s need for more clarity about local government’s constitutional status: “why and for whom does it exist?” He will explore this in a speech to the conference today.

Hide says he has been on a “steep learning curve” as minister. That showed when last year he praised Manukau City Council’s COMET educational trust, thereby implicitly greatly expanding what he thinks of as “core” business for a council. COMET aims to get families more involved in education and to get local business backing for that.

Hide will canvass five main issues in his speech which will underpin his discussion paper.

First, he wants clear criteria for any future amalgamations so they are not done ad hoc.

Second, he wants to explore how to get the central government to take all local councils seriously and not just super-Auckland.

Third, he wants to scrutinise the rush to co-governance agreements imposed by the central government on councils in Treaty of Waitangi deals.

Fourth, he wants some principles to govern how the central and local governments interact. He worries that the central government treats councils like government departments, there to do ministers’ bidding, and dumps responsibilities on them, often without funding and consultation.

Fifth, he notes that super-Auckland will have a budget of around $3 billion but the central government spends around $18 billion all up in the city. Could the central government use local knowledge to do that more efficiently and effectively?

This is a big agenda. Underlying it is a once-much-talked-of principle of “subsidiarity” — taking decisions as close as practicable to those affected. Hide says councils are “closer and more connected” to citizens than Wellington can be.

Much of Hide’s music will be sweet to the ears of local politicians and their executives. Next he has to get his national colleagues on the dance floor.