Editorial: So what is wrong with being single?

The push for an Auckland "supercity" appears to have gained the powerful support of the Prime Minister, among others, though Helen Clark is careful to say the proposal she heard from the metropolitan mayors this week is not for a "single city".

We ask, why not?

If Aucklanders are to be put through the fuss and bother of a reorganisation of local government, it should be for something better than a reinvention of the status quo.

Yet the status quo is what the mayors' plan most resembles. It would set up a Greater Auckland Council with a Lord Mayor elected from the entire region and beneath that, three cities would replace the present four. Each of them, too, would have a council and a mayor.

Waitakere City is the only body that would disappear, divided between new northern and central cities but, then, Waitakere's Bob Harvey has already volunteered to be Lord Mayor of the lot.

Beneath the three cities, elected community boards would continue to provide the valuable link between councils and citizens and make most of the decisions about amenities in the neighbourhood.

Essentially a three-tier system of representation and administration would remain.

But the mayors' plan appears to include a radical centralisation of local government finance.

It seems the supercity alone would have rating power and it would disburse a certain proportion to the three cities. At the moment each city and district in the region, and the regional council, raises its own rates.

One bill sounds better than two but it may not be. Rates are part of the contract between residents and those they elect to make decisions for them.

Elected people enjoy making the decisions much more than they like asking residents to pay for them. Councils would love to be relieved of the need to charge rates. They are constantly asking the Government to supply a greater proportion of the revenue they spend.

The mayors' plan would pass all responsibility for rating to the Greater Auckland Council and the three cities would become instruments of spending in their districts and advocates always for more of it. Ratepayers need to ask themselves whether this would be a recipe for restraint and accountability, or an overall bill even bigger than the sum of those they face now.

Even worse for accountability, the plan envisages that not all of the supercity council would be elected. Some of its members would be appointed for their leadership in business or their other connections.

One of them would be the Minister for Auckland Issues, Judith Tizard.

There is an undemocratic impulse behind this whole idea. It is driven by impatience with the divided and disputatious ways of the present and a belief that Auckland needs a single decisive body to be a supercity in every sense.

The mayors' solution falls between two stools.

If a strong regional council is what is wanted, then the ARC is there and its seats will be open for election next year.

Why re-create that tier of governance while also refashioning the cities beneath it? Change its brief, expand its powers and elect its leader directly, but there seems no strong reason to create another body as a mirror image of the existing regional council.

If, instead, one local government with one strategy and fewer costs is the aim, then create one city council, full stop. Leaving three mutant authorities to supposedly implement another body's wishes seems destined to disappoint.

The mayors have fallen captive to compromises, probably because they are too close to the affairs and cultures of their own councils to let them quietly concertina into history.

A bolder plan is required.

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