Amalgamation: forget it

Categories: Politics business and economics.

Units of local government rarely agree to merge with each other. It does happen, but most mergers are forced upon councils.

They are imposed from outside, in the case of Auckland by central government following the recommendations of a Royal Commission, or in the great re-organisation of 1989 when the Local Government Commission reduced over 700 units oflocal government to 80 city, district and regional councils.

The case for a smaller number of units oflocal government sounds deceptively simple. Really, the argument runs, in a country of 4.5 million people, how many councils do we actually need to do the stuff councils do: clean streets, fix potholes, maintain parks, pools, libraries and gardens, provide water and remove it again. All basic stuff. Surely we don’t need a council in every town?

The rational answer is no, but try to take a council away from people and stand back and watch the reaction – sharper and more vicious than an angry pitbull. Amalgamation into larger units oflocal government necessarily means a loss of democracy. There really is no running away from this. The further the council sits geographically away from the people in their houses and farms, the remoter it will seem, and the less control voters will feel that they have over the council.

Merging a council with 15 councillors with a council with 13 councillors – as would be the case if Wellington and Hutt cities were to merge – and ending up with 28 councillors would be nonsensical.

Surely about a dozen would do the job, advocates would argue. And they are probably right – in terms of efficient decision-making. But this will inevitably be seen as less democracy.

Forget it. No one will campaign for, or vote for less democracy.

So the next argument is efficiency gains and cost savings. There will be some, but not necessarily very many. Only one chief executive will be needed, but the jobs of the heads of the functional units of the merged council will be bigger, which will be used to justify larger salaries for those holding the new positions.

And remember that a good deal of the rationale for a larger council is that it will be able to do bigger projects, to tackle region wide problems – like economic development, funding the arts and events, and tackling infrastructure.

The budgets for those activities will be increased – and many will support that. Arguably there has been too much local investment and not enough regional investment over the years. So don’t expect your rates to drop through any amalgamation.

Bigger councils will want to do more, at least in part because they think they can and should do more in regional development, in providing better infrastructure, more parks and recreational areas, more of all the things that voters like.

For example, a region-wide policy to improve the number and standard of playing fields for our amateur sports teams might be necessary, and would be widely welcomed, but it would also cost more. Many other examples of the same phenomenon can be found. We may well get better facilities from decisions made from a regional perspective, but it won’t necessarily be cheaper. Efficiency gains from any merger will quickly be absorbed by the demand for more regional projects.

There is one particular elephant in the room when it comes to a region-wide merger of councils in the Wellington area. Wellington City has been carrying more than its share of costs for the provision of services for the region for many years.

The reason for this is simple. Wellington City has always seen itself as the leader and driver of the region and it has had a long line of ambitious and visionary leaders (and some wannabes as well) who have proposed all sorts of projects for the region.

Leaders of the other councils have learned, from experience over the past thirty years or more, that if they just play it cool and do not commit their own council’s funds too quickly, then Wellington City will get impatient, and go ahead with the project all by itself, or at least with minimal contribution from the others.

That way the non -Wellington City residents have got benefits substantially paid for by the residents of Wellington.

What this now means is that Wellington City rates are higher than they would otherwise be, if this “screw it, let’s do it” attitude had not been so prevalent. And rates in the other centres are lower than they would otherwise be if their council had been contributing to regional projects on a more equitable basis over many years.

Now here’s the crunch. If there is to be one council in the Wellington region, then the ratepayers from Hutt City, Upper Hutt, Porirua and Kapiti would almost certainly have to pay more than they are currently paying – leaving aside any other considerations like better sports grounds, and the like. Combined with less democracy, a merger is a hard selL What non-Wellington politician is going to go to the people of their area and say: “Vote for me. I am in favour of a merger with Wellington City. Your rates will go up and you’ll have less say at the council table, but overall it’s a good thing.”