CHANGE is coming, like it or not, so make the best of it. That was the message to Wairoa district councillors this week when staff brought them up to date on the Better Local Government reform programme.
“This is the most significant change in local government in probably the past 50 years,” council chief executive Peter Freeman said.
Wairoa district, with a small and declining population, was unlikely to retain its autonomy, he said.
The big issue, then, was how to get the best possible representation in the new set-up.
Mayor Les Probert said the council could start by meeting local body politicians north and south of Wairoa “for a discussion, not a confrontation”.
“We don’t know whether we are talking about amalgamation or just shared services,” he said.
Councillors backed Mr Probert’s suggestion that letters be sent to community leaders in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne suggesting talks to deal with the issues “for the good of the whole community”.
Mr Freeman said local bodies would not be able to change the direction of government policy.
“What we should be doing is working out how we can do best for this community given the situation.
“I don’t think it is an option to wait and see what is going to happen. We have to try to look at how services are going to be provided and, more importantly, how political representation will be achieved.”
Wairoa district’s population of 8300 was expected to drop below 7000 by 2020.
“Is it likely, with these reforms, there will be a local authority in Wairoa to represent six and a half thousand people?” Mr Freeman said.
“I don’t think that is a likely scenario.”
That brought the issue back to representation on the body that absorbed Wairoa.
Mr Freeman said the Auckland Council had boards, which had some delegated powers and control of a budget.
“They have some input into decision-making. If that is where we are going, we need to be talking with the people who will be making the decisions.”
Mr Freeman said change in Hawke’s Bay local government seemed likely. Groups there had been pushing it “for a considerable time”. It was even possible that the term of the current Wairoa council might be extended beyond the scheduled election date, if amalgamation were imminent.
Mr Probert said representation was key to ensuring Wairoa got what it needed. On top of that, the district’s identity should be preserved. Even if it were part of a bigger council, Wairoa could still have its own leader or mayor representing the community.
Governments came and went, leaving changes in their wake. But they would never admit they were responsible for a lot of the costs on local government.
“The 10-year plans, the auditing councils are required to do . . . when you have a small rating population, it bears heavily on them,” Mr Probert said.
Council engineering manager Neil Cook said nothing was ever all good or all bad, and he could see “upsides” in service delivery if Wairoa were more closely aligned with a neighbouring authority.
“I don’t think we are inefficient, but that is not to say we can’t be more efficient,” he said.
Policy analyst Sonia Anderson had reported to the council on the Better Local Government reforms.
The eight-point programme announced in March was set to be implemented in two phases. Phase one was focused on getting councils to concentrate on “core services”, introducing requirements for fiscal responsibility, strengthening governance and streamlining reorganisation procedures.
Phase two would establish an efficiency taskforce, develop a regulatory framework, look into how efficiently infrastructure was provided, and review the use of development contributions.
Phase one of the programme is already in motion. July 26 is the closing date for submissions to the select committee considering an amendment to the Local Government Act 2002. Local Government New Zealand and the Society of Local Government Managers are making a joint submission.