Editorial: Last Super City bill will leave powers vague

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The third and last piece of legislation to set up Auckland as a single city is ready to be put before Parliament and it contains two curious features. One of them is the absence of specified powers for the local boards that must ensure a single Auckland Council remains within reach of its citizens. The other is a proliferation of arms-length agencies called, perhaps ironically, council-controlled organisations.

These "CCOs" are set up with appointed boards to detach them from day-to-day political direction. The Auckland region's water supply has long been operated this way and more recently the Auckland Regional Council's commercial holdings and public transport planning have been vested in semi-independent management agencies.

The Super City plan envisaged three such agencies, for water supply, transport and waterfront development. But the latest bill will provide for four more. Stand-alone agencies will also be set up for economic development (including tourism and events), property holdings, major facilities and council investments.

With those seven areas of administration largely removed from the council it might reasonably be asked, what is left for the council to do?

The answer from those who design these arrangements is that the elected representatives set policy and make long-term plans for each agency but it is for the agency board to decided how these are met.

This model might work well enough in the corporate world but the distinction between ends and means is not as easy to observe in public affairs.

No issue dear to the hearts of elected representatives or their electorate is going to be left to the discretion of an appointed board, even if the issue concerns means, not ends. Means are usually more contentious; almost everybody can agree, for example, that Auckland needs a system of public transport that fits the city's commuting patterns. But the elected council is unlikely to leave an appointed board to decide whether any part of such a service might best be decided by rail, bus, trams or mini-vans. The council will have definite preferences and impose them.

The attempt to separate policy-making from its delivery results only in councils and agencies devoting inordinate time and resources to paper exercises such as long-term plans, statements of intent and agreements on principles and goals. This was not the work Super City advocates had in mind when they aimed to unite the city for strong, visionary leadership.

If the council is going to have to delegate some of its operation to seven dedicated agencies, it will be under no such obligation to delegate very much to the 19 local boards. The absence of specified powers for those boards in the legislation is disappointing.

The Auckland Council will be able to largely decide what it allows each of the boards to do. The law will require it only to work on a principle that decisions should be devolved to boards "unless the nature of the activity is such the decision-making on an Auckland-wide basis will better promote the wellbeing of the communities across Auckland".

If the council prefers consistency to variety, as bureaucrats do, very little will be delegated. Boards will be able to ask the council to rate their area for particular activities and amenities but anything in the area that is provided from ordinary rates is likely to be decided a long way from ratepayers.

When the boards come into being with the council at the local body elections next year, any powers they start with will have been defined by the Auckland Transition Agency. That body has been given a task the Minister of Local Government and all his advisers have plainly found too hard.

- NZ Herald

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