4 Dec 2014

Mayors' anger at plan for supercity

7:28 pm on 4 December 2014

Wairarapa's three mayors say they are devastated their proposal to stay separate from the rest of the region has been shot down in favour of a supercity - while the capital's mayor says the plan will struggle to gain support.

The Local Government Commission is proposing the nine councils in the Wellington region, the Wairarapa and Kapiti Coast merge into the equivalent of a supercity.

It suggests a governing body of 21 councillors be elected by people in eight newly-defined wards covering the southern North Island, from Kapiti to Wairarapa.

Under the proposal, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Kapiti Coast, Porirua, and the Wairarapa would have one local board each.

Wellington City would be split into three boards; Ohariu, Lambton and Rongotai.

The commission has been considering applications for a reshuffle of the nine councils in the region for almost 18 months and released its draft proposal in Wellington today.

It said the region's economy was one of the least diverse in the country, focussed on people-intensive service industries and local markets.

Planning should be aligned across greater Wellington to expand economic opportunities and keep businesses and skilled workers in the region, it said.

If the Auckland-style merger of the greater Wellington and Wairarapa regions into one supercity goes ahead, it would create New Zealand's second largest metropolitan area by population.

Wellington council

The Local Government Commission is proposing to merge the nine councils in the Wellington region into a single uber-council. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said the commission's recommendation for "one uber-council Miramar to Masterton" would struggle to gain support in a referendum - and the area was too big for one council to cover.

"The proposal appears to address this by giving more power to the local boards but if the local boards and the single council have both got, say, transport responsibilities, it looks quite confusing to me. I think there's a lot of detail to be read."

She said the proposal undermined the capital's voice as the economic powerhouse of the region.

Ms Wade-Brown said nine councils for a region of 500,000 was overkill, but a reduction to three or four councils may be more acceptable to the public and simpler than the present system.

Lower Hutt Mayor Ray Wallace said the proposal was a backwards step for the region.

His council had spent $350,000 gauging community reaction and found 80 percent opposed amalgamation, and he was confident a referendum on the proposal would show the same result.

"It showed that 80 percent of our community were not supportive of this proposal, so we put in a very detailed proposal in opposition to the Local Government Commission," he said.

"Sadly, though, it doesn't look like they've either listened to the majority of the community or really understand how the Wellington region works."

Fran Wilde.

Fran Wilde Photo: SUPPLIED

Greater Wellington Regional Council had put in an application for a region-wide council in 2013.

Council chair Fran Wilde was pleased the commission had picked up on the need for strong well-resourced local boards.

"Not as Auckland was set up, where the boards were weak," she said.

"In this case they've put a lot of emphasis on community decision-making around community issues, which we think is really important."

The three Wairarapa district councils - Carterton, Masterton and South Wairarapa - had put in a separate application to join as one authority but not with Wellington.

Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson was disappointed the commission proposed the three councils be merged with the rest of the region.

"No reduction in rates or whatever... We're quite capable of doing our own and providing our own services and meeting the needs of our communities. So really disappointed at the Local Government Commission's draft proposal."

South Wairarapa mayor Adrienne Staples said the commission's idea was ludicrous.

"We have 75 percent of the [region's] land area, in Wairarapa - huge area and five towns to cover so obviously it's going to be difficult for people to access council services under this new arrangement."

Basil Morrison

Local Government Commission chair Basil Morrison speaking this morning at the announcement of the draft proposal. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The Local Government Commission does not want the the debt of existing councils ring-fenced, saying some of the areas with high debt also have lucrative assets.

Local mayors, councillors and MPs were briefed on the proposal this morning.

Wellington city councillor Helene Ritchie said the decision threatened local democracy and must go to a binding referendum.

The proposal will be open to submissions until early next year and will almost certainly result in a referendum.

The councils involved are:

  • Wellington City Council
  • Greater Wellington Regional Council
  • Hutt City Council
  • Upper Hutt City Council
  • Porirua City Council
  • Carterton District Council
  • Masterton District Council
  • South Wairarapa District Council
  • Kapiti Coast District Council
Celia Wade-Brown.

Celia Wade Brown Photo: SUPPLIED

Ms Wade-Brown said Wellington City Council supported Wairarapa's case to remain separate, which argued that the councils represented rural communities with different needs than the rest of the region.

Carterton mayor John Booth told Morning Report today he wanted the town to join with South Wairarapa and Masterton but remain separate from urban Wellington.

"We're a rural provincial area, we have a totally different set of requirements, we need rural-focused people governing our district - and I don't think we need people who think Red Bands are sunglasses."

The Hutt councils have also been vocal opponents of the proposal.

Parliament responds to proposal

New Zealand First MP and former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark said the Local Government Commission would have a fight on its hands to get the proposal through.

Mr Mark said people were seriously upset at the suggestion and Wairarapa residents, especially, felt railroaded by the plan because they had repeatedly voted against it.

"All of the surveys that we have done have consistently brought back 80-85 percent opposition to any forced amalgamation within a Wellington super city," he said.

"People are beside themselves. I'm getting texts, I'm getting phone calls. People are upset. Seriously upset."

Local Government Minister Paula Bennett said Wellingtonians needed to ensure they had their say over the controversial proposal.

She said it was clear opinion on the proposal was mixed and Wellingtonians needed to take a good look at what had been put forward.

"It's a controversial decision. It is a huge decision, and I think everyone is coming from different perspectives and all of those voices need to be heard."

Ms Bennett said it would be up to the people to decide whether the plan goes ahead - but Mr Mark said he found that hard to believe, adding that the commission was in for a scrap.

Submissions on the proposal will close in March.

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