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New Zealand: A Testbed for Metropolitan Restructuring

Written by Peter McKinlay on December 24th, 2010.      0 comments

New Zealand seems bent on becoming the world's laboratory for metropolitan restructuring, testing the strengths and weaknesses both of government-directed change and of voluntary approaches. I've just been re-reading PricewaterhouseCoopers's governance review for Wellington region councils. It's a must for anyone who wants to get a good idea of why it is so hard to make real change even when it looks as though almost everybody will benefit, and why it must be so tempting for a governement to intervene.

The authors have clearly been walking on eggshells, trying to draw a fine line between highlighting opportunities for change, and not wanting to upset councils which are clearly protective of their local democratic role.

It's a real wake-up call as Wellington reflects on how to respond to the changes in Auckland - the Western world's most recent example of a large scale and comprehensive city restructuring. The authors are clearly aware of the increasingly important role of metropolitan centres both nationally and internationally and make the aspirational case for Wellington to join this increasingly important international network. But that means change. Reading between the lines it's not clear they have convinced their client councils as a group that this is the direction they need to travel.

Why should this be so when the case seems so strong? The answer may lie in the way in which in New Zealand we think about local government as reflected in the following statement from the executive summary: "This … has again highlighted the key tension that exists in local government reform relating to the reconciliation of the community connectiveness of small authorities with the strategic and efficiency opportunities available in larger or special purpose authorities." Readers from other jurisdictions, especially in the English speaking world, will recognise the dilemma.

At least since the reforms of the 1980s, we've done a couple of things which differentiate us from much of the rest of the world. We have treated representation as a cost rather than a benefit, and we have believed that bigger is better. Both of these treat local government as essentially efficient deliverers of services and overlook the equally important role of local democracy (notwithstanding the lovely words of section 10 of the Local Government Act).

This has made it very hard for us to work seriously with the concept, common elsewhere, that different functions of local government require different scales. Delivering a functioning metropolitan region needs local government at a regional level scale. Local democracy needs decision-making at the neighbourhood or community level, and representation which allows most people most of the time personally to know one or more of their immediate representatives. This is not the resident to elected member ratio of 10,000:1 which categorises Auckland's local boards. It's much more the less than 1000:1 ratio typical of much of European local government.

Building a strong metropolitan region in Wellington, able to make its mark internationally, and with real efficiency and scale in service delivery through shared services or other options does not mean abandoning local democracy. It does mean standing back and thinking carefully through how to deliver the best outcomes for Wellington's citizens, and Wellington's businesses. In a nutshell, it probably means strengthening Wellington both regionally and locally so that the region's citizens feel that they are in control of what matters locally, but benefit from the strength of an effective metropolitan region.

There is clearly a debate to be had. Hopefully the councils, their advisors, and the citizens and businesses they represent will do this reflectively and realise that this is not the either/or of choosing between a strong region or strong local democracy but an opportunity to show the rest of New Zealand, and indeed local governmetn in other jurisdictions, how to have the win/win of strength at both levels.



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