Stephen Selwood: Our once-in-lifetime chance to get it right for Auckland

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The Government's proposal for 20 to 30 local boards provides a real opportunity to strengthen local representation and provide genuine empowerment of communities within a unified Auckland.

The best solution for Auckland governance is one that maximises the contribution of individuals, recognises the value of local knowledge, experience and influence, and capitalises on economies of scale and efficiency at the local or regional level.

The Government's proposal provides this opportunity. Communities should grasp it.

Rather than continue the patch warfare and division that has held up Auckland's development, councillors and mayors advocating retention of the six "local" councils should rally around the Government's proposal and back changes that will genuinely empower local boards to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Auckland needs unified leadership. We need well resourced, highly focused infrastructure agencies to fix the transport system and to provide essential water services and community amenities.

Equally we need a tier of government at the local level that empowers community engagement and interaction with the Auckland Council.

There is no way a middle tier of six large local councils of up to 350,000 people can deliver this. Smaller empowered local boards are the key.

The NZ Council for Infrastructure Development strongly supports strengthening community engagement, participation and authority. We argue this should be achieved by the creation of 23 local boards broadly based on the parliamentary electorate boundaries - including two boards to represent the interests of tangata whenua.

Each community would elect one person "at large" to provide direct representation on the Auckland Council, which would therefore comprise 24 members including the mayor.

While elected from community areas, the specified requirement of the role of Auckland councillors would be to oversee the strategic direction of the region as whole.

Alignment of local boards with parliamentary boundaries is specifically designed to create areas of equivalent size in population with identified communities of interest; and direct alignment between local, regional and central government representation.

A key advantage is that each community will have direct representation at central government level through their local MP, at the city council level through their Auckland council member and at the community level through their local board.

It also enables adjustment to electoral boundaries over time to reflect regional growth. Each local board, including those representing Maori, will have a population of around 60,000 people - consistent with the average population of New Zealand local authority districts, which is 56,000 a district. Each board would comprise five members including a locally elected board chair, who would be the figure head for the community.

The primary role of the local board will be to develop a five-year community plan and to allocate funding in accordance with the plan.

Funding would be provided by the Auckland Council on an equal basis for all local boards.

Equal allocation of funds ensures equity among all local boards so that wealthier communities are not at an advantage over lower socio-demographic areas.

This is important as, without local funding, there is a very real risk that the boards will merely act as an organised lobby group continually having to go cap in hand to the Auckland Council while having little direct responsibility or accountability back to their local communities.

The Community Plan will determine the community's priorities encompassing such things as main street programmes, streetscapes, support for community arts, culture and events, neighbourhood and community support, playgrounds, local parks and reserves, recreation centres and development of sport and recreation.

The community plans will be the primary mechanism for community interaction on local issues and will enable community involvement and influence at the most appropriate local level - that is, at a level where people feel they can influence decisions that impact on their lives.

A high standard of core service provision from street maintenance to parks and reserves to rubbish collection will be expected to be provided across the region by the Auckland Council. The local boards will act as the eyes, ears and voice of the communities they serve to ensure the service standards meet community expectation.

Working within the long-term plan for the city, local boards will be the point of reference for all initiatives that affect a local community.

Whether it is a roading upgrade, a water project or a major regional initiative, the relevant regional agency will be required to have consulted with the local board.

Reform of local government structure provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right for Auckland - and for New Zealand as a whole.

* Stephen Selwood is the chief executive of the Council for Infrastructure Development, a largely privately funded think-tank with 60 members including corporate and other organisations.

- NZ Herald

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