Bruce Bisset: Change needed but not merger



Hasn't taken long for the amalgamation debate to ramp up, has it? Although, coincidentally, I had already planned this week's column on the subject, since it's the major social and political challenge for our region for the year.

But the brochure dropping into letterboxes from lobby group A Better Hawke's Bay (ABHB) and the newly-formed HB Democratic Action Association fronted by Napierite Bill Dalton are neatly polarising the pros and cons as I write.

So, best to give them a quick critique to properly set the scene, eh?

Regular readers will know I'm not a fan of amalgamation, at least, not for the sake of it. I've been intimately involved in one and carefully watched another, both in Auckland, and seen little in the way of actualisation of claimed benefits from either.

That's not to say there may not be positives from merging public bodies; just they are rarely (if ever) as forecast and the downside is, inevitably, glossed over as if of no import.

Primarily, the main negatives are loss of democracy and loss of robust environmental protections.

Both of which, I would hope, are of concern to all.

An amalgamation that protects - or better, enhances - those two facets would be a wonderful thing. But the slick cosy proposal from the genteel folk from ABHB doesn't promise to deliver either.

A unitary authority (as proposed) removes the main gate - some would say block - that is built in to our present system: An independent, separate regional council charged with overseeing all environmental matters, thus providing a check and balance to any territorial authority's whims.

Without it, madcap schemes (leaving aside HB Regional Council's own) could potentially run riot, to our cost, especially since the only appeal then would be via the courts.

As for democracy, it's discreditable to say councillors cost money. Sure, they do, but it's minuscule in the overall budget; besides, a good local councillor more than makes up his or her salary by pursuing workable solutions for local issues based on intimate local knowledge.

And while community boards are great in theory, and sometimes practice, unless you give them reasonable powers, which most councils don't, they're effectively a sop, not a boon. Economy is the major "sell" argument from ABHB, but portraying Auckland as a good example when the wage bill of staff and consultants there is more now than ever before shows how wide-eyed the "$25 million in savings" claim is.

Nor do I like the trite reference to an $800 million annual public spend in the Bay because a good $650 million of that is central government money controlled by central ministries, and nothing at all to do with local councils. Too, the ministries already take a regional view; what could change?

And, for example, would one mayor arguing the case for the railway line have more mana than five collectively arguing as one? Surely such unity highlights the real depth of feeling.

On the flip side, Bill Dalton's status quo group appears at first glance to be predicated on petty parochialism: Napier is better, Hastings has more debt, never the twain should meet.

Exactly the attitude that gets up people's noses and, in its way, makes the merger case seem reasonable.

Napier is not "better", just as Wairoa is not "worse"; people choose to make their lives where they do for their own reasons, and should neither adopt a superior attitude nor be marginalised because of that.

Moreover arguments about the relative benefit of different places often ignore or minimise underlying problems - of which there are quite a few, anywhere in Hawke's Bay - and act as a barrier to change.

So do I think change is needed? Yes.

But most of the wish-list of benefits ABHB sees as coming from amalgamation could be achieved without it (through shared services, shared planning rules, greater co-operation) without lessening local democracy or increasing environmental risk.

The councillors who actively stand up for those options are, I suggest, those who really have the whole of the Bay at heart.

Electing them and theirfellows later this year should give even the biased-but-pretending-not-to-be new Minister of Local Government Chris Tremain pause before he raises the rubber stamp.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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