by Kent Duston
The Dominion Post was this week doing its best to talk up Wellington local body amalgamation again, with a thinly-disguised opinion piece from Colin James masquerading as news. The theory is that the “threat” of the Auckland super-city needs a counterweight in Wellington, and that the only solution is some kind of regional amalgamation.
However the usual lack of enthusiasm from the locals is noted – with apparently no-one other than Fran Wilde and Colin James in favour of the idea.
As the article notes, the Auckland super-city has not exactly been a roaring success. Despite Rodney Hide’s overblown claims for the “efficiency benefits” that would come from amalgamation and the reduction in democratic oversight, rates have risen rather than fallen, and Mayor Len Brown can only point to $81million in back-office savings – a mere fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars it cost to amalgamate the councils in the first place.
So it appears that much of the economic benefit of a super-city lies in some fictional never-never land where the Act Party develops its economic policies and the NZ Transport Agency gets its cost-benefit justifications for new roads.
However there may be a simple way to achieve the vast majority of efficiency gains whilst simultaneously improving local democracy – by disestablishing the Greater Wellington Regional Council.
This is not the hare-brained idea it may seem on first blush. Greater Wellington raises around $130 million in rates and other revenues from local families and businesses each year, and gets about $140 million in subsidies from central government. And around 70% of that income goes straight back out the door in public transport subsidies, a job that certainly doesn’t require a Chair, 12 Councillors and a matching bureaucracy to oversee. A further 20% of Greater Wellington’s expenditures are in water supply and flood protection, a job that already has the inter-Council coordination of Capacity.
So with some judicious re-allocation of tasks between the existing local Councils, the extension of the role of Capacity into flood protection, and the establishment of an inter-Council body to handle the allocation of funding to public transport, we could simply wave goodbye to the costs and bureaucracy associated with the regional council altogether. Existing Greater Wellington staff could be transferred to the relevant Councils so that knowledge about the region and the way it operates is retained, but we can lose the Chair, the Councillors, the CEO, many of the management layers, the HR department, many of the IT costs, and all the rest of the accumulated Greater Wellington cost-base.
But what about the impact on democracy? Well, as a great many Wellingtonians know, Greater Wellington has a less than stellar track record when it comes to listening to ratepayers and residents. GW Chair Fran Wilde has consistently backed roading projects that make no economic sense for the region, despite (at last count) 78% of submissions being opposed to her plans. And patsy GW Councillors such as Chris Laidlaw and Judith Aitken have dutifully gone along with her intention to despoil the city without so much as a murmur.
When it comes to the election cycle, most Greater Wellington Councillors – with the honourable exception of Paul Bruce and Daran Ponter – don’t even bother campaigning, relying on name recognition and public apathy so they can go back to warming their ratepayer-funded seats. Compared to the hard work put in by the majority of WCC Councillors, our Greater Wellington representatives – again, with the notable exceptions of Crs Bruce and Ponter – are lazy, out-of-touch and ineffectual.
So let’s do the sensible thing and disestablish the Greater Wellington Regional Council. It will improve our democracy, lower our rates burden, ensure our region has better governance and increase accountability. Best of all, it’s an easy process – a simple private member’s bill supported by our local MPs may be all that is needed, in time for ratification at the 2013 local body elections.
We have nothing to lose but our GW rates demands.
Kent Duston is convener of the Save The Basin Reserve campaign, a past-President of the Mt Victoria Residents Association, and Wellington’s leading skeptic on the worth of the Greater Wellington Regional Council.