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Future uncertain for regional council

There’s a new player in the prolonged process of trying to change the structure of local government in Wellington. Sir Wira Gardiner, appointed less than three months ago to chair the Local Government Commission, has ‘met with’ all the mayors. And the Commission says things are different now.

What’s the difference? In its press release last week, it said:

The Commission and the mayoral forum have established a collaborative process and each indicated willingness to work together.

Collaboration hadn’t been evident before the Commission was forced to accept that the supercity plan [1] which it announced last December was seriously unpopular [2]. It gave up the idea early in June, and by the end of that month Paula Bennett had appointed Wira Gardiner as the new chair. She was clear about what she wanted [3]:

“We need local government to focus on delivering sustainable infrastructure, making sensible spending decisions, and listening to its citizens. It is the Commission’s role to look at the structure of local government and ensure we have a strong regional focus to promote job growth and increased social wellbeing. For too long the argument has been on how many mayors we have, instead of looking at key infrastructure and economic growth. I will be asking the Commission to be creative and think seriously about the different kind of local government structures that will help our communities continue to prosper.”

And what does “different” mean for the future of the Regional Council? After a first reading of the Local Government Commission’s announcement last week [4], it might have seemed that the council was being targetted for abolition:

All options are on the table except for a single region-wide unitary council.

When that sentence was constructed, were they thinking of the dead-in-the-water super-city? Or were they pointing to the single region-wide regional council? That may not be clear. But what is clear is the indication that responsibility for transport is to be taken away from the regional council and given to a new and separate organisation:.

Q: What options are there?
A: All options are on the table except for a single region-wide unitary council. The range of possibilities could include different business structures or Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), binding shared service arrangements, recalibrating roles and functions between regional councils and territorial authorities …

Q: Why have the Commission and councils started with transport?
A: It is an important aspect of people’s lives and of local government responsibilities which crosses council boundaries. The Wellington Mayoral Forum also identified it as an important function that would benefit from councils working together more closely.

Q: Are you talking about a council controlled organisation (CCO) for transport?
A: It is too early to say, but it is one of a range of options being considered.

Not really too early to say. The need to remove transport from the regional council’s control was being advocated more than three years ago, when Kent Duston wrote [5]:

The Regional Council 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. Around 70% of that income goes straight back out the door in public transport subsidies, a job that … doesn’t require a Chair, 12 Councillors and a matching bureaucracy to oversee.

And once transport has been taken away, the abolition of the regional council would be a logical consequence. It wouldn’t have enough to do.

Existing 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 Regional Council cost-base.

The subject is no doubt being discussed with Sir Wira as he continues his mayoral meetings. Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown will be giving him good reasons for the change. She’ll be telling him that in her council’s submissions on the supercity plan, three of its four options [6] for reforming local government involved abolishing the Regional Council.