What do we want? How do we get there?

by Andy Foster
What do we want and how do we get there? That was the title of last week’s day-long Rotary Forum about potential changes to the way local government is organised in the Wellington Region. (The ‘super city’ etc issue) There was a good mix of speakers, but not much link between the two questions.

There was a focus on ‘what do we want ?’ Some, notably students Ben Guerin, Brittant Trilford, William Guzzo and Rangimarie Teautama, and City Missioner Susan Blaikie, focused on the kind of Wellington they wanted. They spoke about energy resilience, caring for the environment, being inclusive, celebrating weirdness, and caring for our most vulnerable. Recurrent themes from other speakers were that we want quality lifestyle; good, creative, fulfilling jobs that would keep more of our children here. (or attract them back after the benefit of overseas experience). Another strong and welcome theme was about the importance of local participation in democracy and community development. In addition some very good information was provided.

However it seemed to me that overall there was too little connection made between the kind of Wellington we want, the barriers to achieving that, and the leap to the assumption that local government reform would be a silver bullet.

What is the fear ? The economy and infrastructure were unsurprisingly the biggest concerns. There’s that big Super City up north, the huge focus on Christchurch, and we’re seen as missing out on resources and attention. The underlying assumption seems to be that a bigger more assertive Wellington could ‘get more’. Somebody asked whether such an entity might have changed head office relocation patterns? Unlikely in itself. It was also rightly pointed out that competition is international.

Loving our key businesses was one theme which I think needs more focus, as was more integration between education and business. Those again probably are unrelated to local government boundaries.

Local Government isn’t a job creator in itself. However it plays a critical role in providing the environment – the infrastructure, the lifestyle opportunities, doing the planning, being the cheerleader and telling the Wellington story, opening doors internationally.

There is an argument that one voice (Super City or similar) is more compelling in doing those roles, and can achieve it better than a chorus. New Zealand produces some great individuals, and some great teams!

Is it doom and gloom for Wellington? Clearly the public sector is under pressure, and many people are fearful about employment prospects, which then affects spending patterns. That of course isn’t unique to Wellington. Our growth rate as a region has been relatively low. However there are good things happening. A recent Technology Institute Network report said Wellington had outpaced the rest of the country in technology performance, with Auckland interestingly lagging. Last year there was an excellent BIG (Business Innovation Growth) expo of 70 Wellington creative industries at the Beehive.

In terms of infrastructure, the big issues were clearly in transport, roading and airport capacity. Wellington City is very keen to see long haul air connections, and there has been work done for several years now to attract an airline(s) that can connect Wellington direct to Asia. I’m not sure if there is a requirement for (significant) airport extension to achieve that with the (delayed) new aircraft now being produced.

Roading is another matter. As with anything in transport, it is highly debated in the community. Some people’s economic salvation is others’ road to ruin. As usual the truth of their benefit or otherwise is probably in between, but in any event roading investment decisions are now made not by local but by National Government.

That leads me to the current Government’s evident schizophrenia when it comes to local Government. They have created a big Auckland, which seems to be working. But there are some warts there too. The Government appears keen to create a big Wellington, and it is suggested would be doing the same in Canterbury if it weren’t so rightly focussed on things of much greater importance. Other smaller mergers are undoubtedly being encouraged. However at the same time – and in the case of the Local Government Act Amendment Bill, in the very same legislation that encourages amalgamation – they are busy taking local influence away and centralising it. The clear pattern of changes to the Resource Management Act, and current changes to the Local Government Act and to the Land Transport Management Act, all give much greater powers to Central Government Agencies and often directly to Ministers.

In my view there is a very dangerous pattern of ‘we know best’ going on which New Zealanders would be well advised to be wary of. However we can already see tensions for example over transport funding in Auckland, Just imagine the potential clash if a big Auckland, big Wellington, and big Canterbury are all on different pages to the Government of the day.

The most glaring current example is ministerial (not agency) direction in roading investment, which is frequently imposed on communities, while many community ambitions are frustrated through lack of funding.

So Sir Geoffrey Palmer will attempt to make sense of all of all this when his panel’s independent report is released on Tuesday. I fully expect it will make a big contribution. There is absolutely a conversation to be had, and some change resulting from that conversation is I think probably inevitable. What we need to know is first what we are seeking to achieve, then the role of local government in this, and which are the best structures to achieve the ‘Wellington we want.’

Andy Foster is a Wellington city councillor

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