Wellington Scoop

A more cost-effective plan than a super-city – why we should abolish the Regional Council

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.


  1. Sridhar, 4. January 2012, 7:32

    Makes absolute sense! What are we waiting for?

  2. Elaine Hampton President Mt Victoria Residents Assoc.,, 4. January 2012, 19:35

    Certainly when we spoke to our RONS submissions, the GWRC processes appeared less than democratic.

    The economic committee recommended total acceptance of NZTA proposals and it appeared just a formality that the main council must accept the recommendation without debate. This was despite a considerable number of ratepayers making oral submissions to the elected representatives at the meeting. Fran Wilde just said the decision is already made and no debate is allowed.

    That is democracy GWRC style.

  3. Helene Ritchie, 5. January 2012, 12:50

    Kent Duston’s article is very good and well researched…

  4. Cr Daran Ponter, 8. January 2012, 2:05

    Very good article Kent. Can’t help but agree with much of what you say.

    The Council’s recent decision on the the Basin Reserve stands as a sad testament to how out of touch with local communities the Regional Council has become, especially regarding roading. The Council prefers to hunt with the NZTA rather than questioning the logic of bigger roads at any cost.

    While I agree that much of what you propose can be relatively easily achieved, what I am concerned that we could loose is the ability to plan and act as a region (not that it has always been that crash hot to date!).

    The mayoral forum would be a poor substitute (we have some excellent mayors in the region, but they have no compunction to work together). The result will be cities (Porirua, Lower Hutt and Wellington Cities in particular) continuing to pull in different directions, each desperately trying to get out of the shadow of the other, not giving an inch, and each continuing to squander ratepayers’ money on duplicated services and facilities.

    In any local government restructuring or reform I would be most concerned that we do not see public transport services (i.e. Metlink) shoved into a Local Authority Trading Enterprise. This really would be the worst of the Auckland model visited upon Wellingtonians. If this were to eventuate, then Wellingtonians would have virtually no say in the provision of public transport services, despite the fact that a large proportion of their rates will continue to be used to subside public transport.

  5. The City is Ours, 8. January 2012, 18:25

    The Wellington Regional Council relies heavily on NZTA funding, and therefore it invariably finds itself supporting their policies in order to qualify.

    Public Transport was run efficiently when WCC owned the buses and had a good working relationship with the Tramways Union and stuck to procedures such as 3.5 meters for bus-lanes not 3 meters like in Willis Street.

  6. Kent Duston, 9. January 2012, 9:43

    Daran – You make a good point about the commercialization of public transport services, which would be a terrible outcome. My preferred model would be to set up a trust that was jointly administered by the councils, which would only be able to invest any surplus into improving public transport services. This would eliminate the tendency to run the operations as a cash-cow to either subsidize other council operations or produce a dividend for shareholders.

    And while I agree the current mayoral forum is largely symbolic, I think it would become much more effective if it had genuine authority, which it doesn’t at the moment. The core problem seems to be that Greater Wellington – i.e. Fran Wilde – is busy pursuing her own agenda rather than using her position as Chair of the Regional Council to foster at a consensus amongst her peers about what’s best for the region as a whole. And it’s hard to see how regional cooperation is being enhanced by Fran’s “divide and conquer” mentality.

  7. Cr Daran Ponter, 9. January 2012, 20:37

    Kent – It is easy to under estimate just how entrenched parochial attitudes can be among the different local authorities that make up the Wellington region.

    I agree that we should be able to find a more constructive means of engaging as local authorities, but at every turn each council has different visions, objectives and priorities.

    And of course some are far less well resources than others. I don’t fancy the chances of making a mayoral forum work for the benefit of the region. And in part I suggest this is why the regional governance paper has been put forward – out of frustration!

    Of course, if the mayoral forum were to operate effectively, it could be called….the Regional Council!!

    In the meantime I suspect that the more immediate focus for local government reform will be in the top of the South Island. The Minister of Local Government, Nick Smith, has long had designs for reforms within his patch.

  8. Kent Duston, 10. January 2012, 21:35

    Daran – You’re right that each council has its own visions, objectives and priorities, because these are in fact the different visions, objectives and priorities that are held dear by their local communities. And I’ve seen nothing that explains why local communities should suddenly subsume their legitimate desires and democratic representation into some uber-Council – which if the GWRC’s track record is anything to go by, will proceed to completely ignore their wishes.

    It seems that the the very existence of the GWRC is an argument in favour of its immediate dissolution. If – as you suggest – the Regional Council is the manifestation of good regional governance, why is Fran Wilde now proposing amalgamation? Is it a tacit admission that she is, in fact, entirely rubbish at creating consensus amongst allegedly divisive local councils and that she has been singularly unable to lobby the government of the day on Wellington’s behalf? Because by your reckoning, she has both the mandate and the moral authority to do both these things, yet by any reasonable measure they are both failures under her leadership.

    If the Regional Council was going to add value to Wellington’s governance, it would have done so by now. It’s had more than enough years, resources and effort put into it, yet it’s succeeded at nothing more than being a conduit for directing central government subsidies to public transport operators and continuing a few regional initiatives – such as flood protection – that operated very effectively before the Regional Council even existed. The one thing it has succeeded in doing is building a large, expensive and unaccountable bureaucracy, which in these straitened times we can ill afford.

    I appreciate that you’re one of only two Regional Councillors who actively consults with the community – and you should be warmly commended for this. But it’s time for the Greater Wellington Regional Council and all of its unnecessary costs and unaccountable decision making to go.

  9. Cr Daran Ponter, 13. January 2012, 19:49

    Hi Kent – I agree that different visions, objectives and priorities put forward by different local authorities in many cases reflect the views of the communities that they serve. And so they should.

    My issue is that all too often councils are unwilling to compromise and find consensus with each other on cross boundary and common issues. The consequence can at times be huge inefficiency and lost opportunities. That I believe is what we need to focus on. And that does not require heavy reform of the type that Fran Wilde is proposing.

    Do I think that getting rid of the Greater Wellington Regional Council is an answer? Well, possibly. And indeed Fran Wilde would tell you that that is precisely what her model proposes. But it will still leave a question of how we deliver the functions and services that the Regional Council provides. And while I agree with your concerns about the Regional Council’s recent performance on the Basin Reserve, I am not so sure that territorial authority decision-making processes are that crash hot either.

    As noted in my earlier post, I think this is all possibly rather academic. The government is not showing any sign of moving fast on reform in the Wellington region. The Auckland reforms were given momentum by the Royal Commission Report. The basket case that Auckland was, was clearly crying out for something to be done….anything almost!

    One of the principle reasons given for the regional governance proposal is that Auckland is gaining an upper hand with the government and is able to get easier concessions and bend Ministers’ ears. Concessions and ear bending that comes at the expense of other regions. I am not so convinced.

    The commitment to the Auckland Rail package, huge roading investments, a Minister for Auckland, significant investment in public housing etc all preceded the Auckland local government reforms. i.e. Auckland was already quite capable of securing government’s attention on any number of issues. With the Auckland Supercity that has just become more evident.

    As noted above I agree that the Regional Council’s Basin Reserve decision was hugely embarrassing and damaging both in terms of process and the Council’s decision. It has exposed the Regional Council for a poor engagement processes. Cr Paul Bruce and I will be working to try and address this situation. For the Chair to effectively say “whoops, sorry, won’t happen again” is not good enough. Had the Basin Reserve issue gone to the full council for debate and a decision, I feel confident that Cr Paul Bruce and I would have been joined in our opposition to the NZTA proposals by at least another four councillors (the Regional Council is 13 members, including the Chair.

  10. peter brooks, 14. January 2012, 20:22

    Nick Smith is an active politician and I would not count on him leaving the larger city governance structures untouched over the next three years. There is pressure from the business lobbies for change and there is an item in the ACT/National Party agreement which suggests some action which might have governance implications for Wellington. The two parties have agreed to simplify the planning process and say they will legislate to ensure there is only one plan (a unitary plan) for each district.

  11. andy foster, 15. January 2012, 11:00

    Hi Peter – the one bit about unitary district plans that gets skimmed over is that it would entail the entire process of developing a new plan, probably pre-notification consultation, notification, submissions, further submissions, hearings, appeals and resolution of appeals potentially through the court process. Unless there is a short cut (in legislation) on the basis that a new plan is simply an amalgam of existing – and then you’d wonder what the point would be – the cost and time involved will run into many millions. The Wellington City District Plan took two – three years to get to notification and 6 years from notification in 1994 to becoming operative in July 2000. From memory there were 2500 thousand submitters raising 7000 approx sets of issues, and that process cost 5 or 6 million dollars. Every policy, rule, zone would be up for grabs again.

    Two other things to consider. One is that again under existing Resource Management legislation, until new planning policies and rules become operative, the existing policies and rules have to be considered alongside the new proposed policies and rules. (indeed a recent change to the RMA meant that the new proposed policies and rules have with some exceptions, no weight, until at least post the hearings decision. Therefore anyone dealing with a resource consent has to consider two sets of rules etc.

    Final comment is that if the intent is to have one plan, so that rules are uniform across all areas then a one plan also won’t work. For example in Wellington we have different sets of policies and rules for several suburbs (eg inner city character suburbs) or different sets of suburban centres. In simple terms our District Plan recognises that all areas are not uniform, and therefore neither should the Plan be. ‘Sense of place’ is really important, especially in a city with the topography and varied character that Wellington has.

    One plan across the region could have some efficiency benefits, but there would be very signficant costs in getting to that point, and it is unlikely (indeed undesirable) that it gave us a uniform outcome.

    Warmest regards

    Andy Foster
    Wellington City Councillor

  12. peter brooks, 15. January 2012, 17:35

    I am sure you are right Andy that the process of amalgamation would not be easy, but I assume that the two parties were aware of that when they made the commitment, one which it seems they were not obliged to make by any overt commitment to the public, or (as far as I am aware) to special interests.

    I assume that the process of creating one plan out of several is one which Auckland has to undertake and it would be interesting to know what is their timetable and what governing critieria (if any) controll the process.

    I agree that a single DP applying the same objectives, policies and rules throughout a district is not consistent with the ability of communities to influence the nature of their neighbourhoods. But that may be an indication that there is a conflict between the objectives of commerce (which would want consistency and rapidity) and communities which would wish to conserve the valued special characteristics of their neighbourhoods.

    It is not in the nature of these inter-party agreements (the price for essential parliamentary support) to be ignored, unless it is in the interests of both parties to do so. It may be up to the territorial authorites to do just that. I hope that they are working now to find out more about the government’s intentions and to be prepared to discuss details and implications, both with Ministers and with the general public..

  13. andy foster, 19. January 2012, 10:11

    I’ve said before that we absolutely should talk about regional governance, though it doesn’t seem of great interest to most people.
    There are three key outcomes we should be looking for :
    1. Co-operation between local authorities recognising that we have a small regional population and that we need to work together
    2. Maximising efficiency
    3. Maximising opportunity for engagement between Councils and the communities they represent.

    1. There is progress on shared services. More is needed. Areas with potential include water services, waste management, IT, rates collection, economic development, events and visitor attractions etc etc. In my view Councils need to show action on this.
    There will be areas of policy disagreement between Councils, and that’s actually fine if Councils are acting in what they see as the best interests of the region, not just parochially. There would of course be disagreements within a super Council too ! The areas of disagreement locally don’t seem to be that extensive, and it seems the personalities involved are working more collaboratively than in the recent past.
    In terms of co-operation, Celia has kicked off working with Councils throughout central New Zealand, and there’s also collaboration amongst metropolitan authorities on many issues.
    The backdrop of thinking about regional governance encourages this collaboration, and that’s good.

    2. Efficiency – there seems to be a widely held view that there’s probably not a huge amount in this, and not much more than shared services could deliver.

    3. Community engagement. There is little doubt that bigger Councils will change the relationship, and reduce accessibility of decision makers, and the ability to participate in the democratic process.

    Warmest regards

    Andy Foster
    Wellington City Councillor

  14. Cr Paul Bruce (Regional Councillor), 23. March 2012, 11:39

    There is now an urgent need for a wider discussion given that the Regional Council has an agenda item for next Tuesday (27th March) outlining the government’s position on local govt reform, with recommendations for an independent Review Panel, criteria for their selection, terms of reference, engagement, timelines etc. It proposes to delegate to the Chair and Deputy chair the responsibility to work with participating organisations to select and appoint members of the independent review panel, and directs the Regional Council’s CEO to put in place administrative and funding arrangements to support the independent review panel and subsequent process.


    As fuel price rises and we start to get periodic shortages, transport and employment opportunities will become even more important to the survival of those communities. Decisions need to be made at the lowest level possible. This means neighbourhood groups working on share schemes, community gardens and orchards and care for local streams and the environment.

    The cross boundary and common issues need to be dealt with at a higher level as Cr Ponter has said. Neighbourhood groups, residents assns, community boards, City Council and the Regional Council are all important. However, engagement needs to be deliberative at every level, with multiple ways of engagement.

    Representatives may make the final decisions after these debates have been held, but they need to be accountable with limited tenure (ie no long life politicians), and to note that if there is no consensus, then the status quo can still be the better option.

    Decisions need to made at the most appropriate level, with a catchment based regional council to maintain a base water supply, flood control, workable transport networks between urban islands, pest control, emergency management etc. The level at which decisions are made needs to be continuously debated. Decisions on social welfare, education and health are made at the national level, but there also must be local engagement.