The councils of Wairarapa and Wellington region have the opportunity to merge. There are nine district authorities and one regional council for a population of less than 500,000 people. It makes sense to look at local government structure because the region has too many elected councillors, mayors and management staff for the population it serves. The problem Wairarapa and Wellington faces is that three proposals are being debated.
Wairarapa wants to cut ties with Wellington and become a Unitary Authority, where the local council takes on the role of the regional council as well as local functions. The Hutt councils want a Unitary Authority and the rest, Wellington City, Porirua, Kapiti and the Wellington Regional Council, want to have a region-wide single council. Frustratingly for ratepayers, none of the groups are considering the others' positions. The Wairarapa and Hutt councils are taking parochial positions because they do not want to lose the power and control they currently have.
A sensible solution would be for the councils to allow ratepayers to consider the proposals, listen to their feedback and submit a joint region-wide proposal to the Local Government Commission. However, common sense, practicality and good governance do not always go hand-in-hand in local body politics.
Instead, the Wairarapa councils are trying to play pork barrel politics, attempting to convince ratepayers that a single region-wide council is bad for Wairarapa and we would be better off without Wellington.
The only thing we know for sure is if Wairarapa cuts off Wellington we will need to find all the funding for a Unitary Authority from Wairarapa ratepayers, borrow more or go cap in hand to the Government, because we will be on our own.
At the end of the day the ratepayers will carry the costs of mistakes made by the council amalgamation. Wairarapa does not have the population to continue the services currently funded by the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), let alone the local council costs for sewerage, roading and water, without large rate rises for all ratepayers, especially farmers. One risk small population areas face is they cannot afford to fund infrastructure development projects which have a public good for the region and the surrounding areas.
A good example of this is the Wairarapa Irrigation Project. This has funding from the regional council for $3 million. This funding allowed an application to be made to the Government's Irrigation Acceleration Fund, which was successful and matches the funding GWRC has committed to.
This project could be at risk if Wairarapa cuts ties with Wellington and becomes a small Unitary Authority as a good part of the funding would then have to come from Wairarapa ratepayers. A shame, because this proposed irrigation project has the potential to change farming on the dry Wairarapa plains, increase environmental river flows during summer and have a huge impact on the GDP of Wairarapa.
Wairarapa Federated Farmers is asking local councils for more information on this and to slow down in rushing for a proposal for change.