Governance changes sought in Wellington

Hard on the heels of Auckland's forthcoming formation into one regional city, the Chair of Wellington Regional Council is proposing changes to the governance of the Wellington region.

Fran Wilde is proposing a single regionally-based council responsible for all strategy, planning, infrastructure and network issues, and with the sole rating power in the region.

She wants to retain the current territorial local authorities as "community councils". 

This differs from the Auckland model, which replaces the seven city and district councils with one super council and up to thirty community boards.

Ms Wilde, who was an MP for eleven years and a previous Mayor of Wellington, is now in her second term on the regional council, her first as chair.

Her approach builds on the high degree of collaboration among existing councils.

"The Regional Council already delivers bulk water to the four bigger cities, and water infrastructure is an obvious candidate for a regional approach, together with waste water, storm water and solid waste.

"Mayors in the region are taking this seriously, and we are now exploring what more we can do together."

Her desire for change is shared by the Wellington regional chamber of commerce. Chief executive Charles Finny says Wellington has to respond to Auckland's changes.

"Wellington currently has eight councils for a population of less than half that of Auckland's which is soon to have just one.

"The person who runs Auckland will carry a lot of weight with Cabinet ministers, and if Wellington doesn't move, we risk marginalizing ourselves.

"So it's a political necessity, but I am not sure that central government has the courage to it to Wellington, so we need to get together as a region on this.

Wilde says the Auckland changes will put a "gorilla" into the local government sector - with the rest of New Zealand fragmented and having to fight for attention against a single voice representing a third of the population.

She's also mindful of the government's priorities about getting more value for money from local government and says the big issue is rating powers - ensuring that ratepayers aren't hit twice if some delivery is moved "upstairs" to the regional level.

Local government Minister Rodney Hide has previously proposed legislation to limit rate increase to the total of the rate of inflation and population growth. Any higher increases would need to be approved by voters in a special poll.

She suggests only one rating body, with the community councils bulk funded on a rolling three year basis and "able to sort out their own priorities and services".

Finny backs the broad thrust of her ideas, but would want some changes "to get the chair of the region elected at large rather than elected from the council itself."

Currently regional councilors elect the chair but the new Auckland Council Mayor will be elected at large.

Published in the National Business Review of 22 May 2009