Andrew Williams: Downsize this Super City madness

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It's not too late for the Prime Minister to step in and bring all this very costly, disruptive Auckland Super City madness to a halt.

At a time when the economy is fragile, with rising unemployment, we do not have to turn "New Zealand's engine room" upside down, causing widespread public concern and discontent when this could all be handled in a much more low-key manner. Over the past six months the Prime Minister has done well to successfully defuse other major issues by adopting sensible, workable alternative options. Here is a chance for his good common sense to prevail once again.

The future of Auckland must not be railroaded through by the power brokers who wish to seize control of a third of New Zealand's local government. John Key needs to listen to the people of Auckland, as National promised they would in their election manifesto - to consult with Auckland over the royal commission's recommendations.

And focus attention on what really needs fixing - Auckland's regional governance.

Yes, the people of Auckland agree that we have issues that need solving - but it's at a regional not local level. The biggest one is transport.

The feedback from my community labels transport and Auckland congestion as the big bug bear. Everyone agrees we need efficient integrated public transport, completion of motorway and roading networks, better access to the airport, smarter transport technologies, so we can unclog the region's arteries to bring Auckland together as a world class city.

The people of the region are just waking up to the extent by which they have been fleeced by central government over the years. Between 1990 and 2005, Aucklanders forked out over $7 billion in fuel taxes, road user charges and vehicle fees, and only got a little over $3 billion in transport-related investment in return.

The ledger looks more balanced since then, but the fact remains that there is a huge deficit in transport investment in the region and it is not the fault of local councils that this shortfall in funding has greatly impacted on "getting Auckland moving".

Before the region's ratepayers are forced to cough up hundreds of millions of their hard earned dollars to pay for the Government's Super City plan to replace local with regional governance - which the Government has said is unlikely to yield any long-term savings - there is another far less disruptive way forward to consider.

The regional level is not working because the Auckland Regional Council has been disconnected from the local councils and from the people by the decisions that central government forced on greater Auckland in the early 1990s. What is needed to sort Auckland out is a complete overhaul at regional level, a revamp of the ARC to make it accountable to the region.

It needs to be the glue that brings the councils together to roll out the big picture infrastructure work. A fully accountable ARC made up of representatives from each of the local councils could become the Auckland Council. This then would become the agreed central forum to put in place regional policies; determine strategic region-wide planning and urban development; control regional assets and develop regional tourism and economic growth.

By making this central council the umbrella governing body and a two-way connected partner of the other "delivery on the ground" councils, there would be unity of purpose across Auckland.

At present the ARC is made to work in a silo, is hamstrung by insufficient government funding, and more often than not is at loggerheads with the local councils. And that's why Auckland has been having difficulties with its growth strategies.

Feedback region-wide is that the local councils are doing a good job for their individual communities. Residents and ratepayers generally do not have issues with libraries, parks, beaches, community programmes, rubbish collections and local maintenance. There are high levels of satisfaction with what is provided at local level and councils do not need to be broken up into 20 to 30 local boards.

We have learnt nothing in 20 years if progress means returning Auckland to a vast number of small boards, with limited powers and no rates revenue, to run small pockets in a haphazard way across the region.

That's very similar to what we had before the 1989 amalgamations in Auckland with all the 27 small borough councils such as East Coast Bays, Birkenhead, Newmarket, Mt Roskill and Howick.

I will be urging North Shore residents and the people of the Auckland region to make sure their voices are heard at the select committee hearings, but it is still not too late for the Prime Minister to apply common sense, and simply sort out the regional council and accountability.

At this crucial time for local democracy, it is worth reminding ourselves of those immortal words spoken at Gettysburg in November 1863, when the very notion that power should reside with the people was in question, that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is a basic principle worth fighting for.

* Andrew Williams is Mayor of North Shore City and a former city councillor.

- NZ Herald

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