3 Feb 2017

Push for a single Dunedin council growing

7:50 am on 3 February 2017

A push for Dunedin to be run by a unitary council is gaining momentum, and might spark a full review of local government across Otago.

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Photo: Flickr / Samuel Mann

Dunedin city councillors last week unanimously ordered a report on the pros and cons of merging its operations with those of the Otago Regional Council in the Dunedin area.

The councillor pushing the unitary council idea, Lee Vandervis, said the city was hamstrung.

"We basically have two councils now running Dunedin, and as history shows, no animal with two heads has survived very long," Mr Vandervis said.

A unitary authority would cover both the regional and city functions - meaning everything from buildings and roads and rubbish to rivers and hazards.

The conflict between the city and regional councillors has been simmering for years, fanned by court appeals to stop buildings in flood zones, and frustrations about the bus system.

The biggest reason for the new push appeared to be the city seeking a stake in Port Otago and the large amount of harbourside land the port controls through its subsidiary, Chalmers Properties.

Mr Vandervis said that was holding the city's waterfront back.

"It needs to be able to develop the harbourside without having this... regional council-owned cash-making focus that, quite frankly, is the reason that [Dunedin] is the only undeveloped harbourside in the country."

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull said councillors backed investigating the possibility of a unitary council because they wanted simmering problems brought out into the open and dealt with.

It was a valid question whether Otago harbour, which had recreational and visitor potential, should be controlled by a commercial entity, he said.

He did not know whether a unitary council would improve the situation, but that was what the council's report needed to find out, Mr Cull said.

Stephen Woodhead, chairperson of Otago Regional Council

Stephen Woodhead, chairperson of Otago Regional Council Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Otago Regional Council Stephen Woodhead said he was surprised by Dunedin's move and still could not see what the problem was.

No one had identified any major problems that need fixing with a merger or structural overhaul, he said.

"We're open for a discussion... around which is the most efficient services which the Otago community needs, and we should not be discussing the structure. That comes later," Mr Woodhead said.

But Otago regional councillor Michael Laws, who has been very critical of his own council, was keen to grab the opportunity for change.

Dunedin's move was a sort of thermo-nuclear option that would blow the regional council into pieces, but there might be better ways, he said.

He would table a paper and motion at a council meeting next Wednesday to widen the debate into a whole-of-Otago local government review.

"If you are not going to review the way in which you have run yourself for thirty years you are not doing your job properly," Mr Laws said.

"No other organisation or corporate would do that, so it's long overdue."