David Thornton: Super city must have two-tier system

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Speculation has been rife that the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance will recommend a 'London' style of regional governance, with a directly elected (lord?) mayor for the Auckland region.

The suggestion of a super city council does not, however, imply that there will be just a single elected body for the whole region.

Even the most energetic supporters of a super city concept acknowledge that there must also be, at least, a second tier of governance closer to the community.

It is less than 20 years since the last major changes in local government structure under Dr Michael Bassett, Minister of Local Government in the then Labour Government.

Since then, there have been occasional changes to the structure of regional governance in the Auckland region, initially by a National government, which removed some of the powers of the old Auckland Regional Authority. Several years later, successive Labour governments increased the powers of the Auckland Regional Council to somewhere near the original 1989 position.

That a royal commission is currently finalising its proposal for a new governance structure for the Auckland region is a clear acknowledgment that the 1989 structure has not worked - at least in Auckland, and almost certainly in other parts of the country.

During the course of the royal commission hearings it became obvious that most submitters were in favour of a strengthened regional authority, with increased powers for community boards.

Following this line of the public's thinking the royal commission has been led to consider what could be the role of the current cities and districts within the framework of a strong regional authority and strengthened community boards.

Such consideration must include the option to abolish the cities and districts of today and replace them, and the current community boards, with a single tier of local authorities, producing a two-tier governance structure.

It would have the advantages of regional oversight of all major planning and infrastructure provision service delivery functions, with purely local facilities and services under the control of elected local councils for local communities.

The Greater London structure has long been held as a model for Auckland to follow.

However it is important to look at the London governance structure as a whole - and not simply the position of a powerful directly-elected mayor.

Apart from the unique Court of Common Council, the Greater London region is divided into 32 London Boroughs, each with its own mayor and borough council. Most mayors are chosen from within the elected council although three London boroughs have opted for directly-elected mayors by virtue of referenda allowed under the UK Local Government Act.

While such a structure could be introduced into Auckland there are major differences in the responsibilities of the regional level of government.

In London the mayor is responsible for the police, the fire and emergency services, and the regional planning agency.

This difference in responsibilities is reflected in the way councils are funded in London. In Greater London ,local borough councils are funded partly by central government and partly by council tax (a property tax somewhat similar to New Zealand's council rates).

However, the office of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority are funded almost entirely by central government.

The borough councils are the only local bodies who can levy council tax, the mayor and Greater London Authority

precept upon the borough councils, much in the same way that the Auckland Regional Council, prior to 2003, charged a levy to local councils to pay for regional council services and costs.

The London regional precept on borough councils funds less than 10 per cent of the regional budget.

Most supporters of an Auckland super city expect that a new greater Auckland authority would be the principal tax gatherer (rating authority) which would also make all spending decisions.

All of this background leads to the conclusion that, whatever changes are proposed by the royal commission, there must be proposals specifying what powers each of the two tiers must have, and how each tier is to be funded.

The framework for such funding proposals is already in place - courtesy of the Rates Inquiry Report, the findings of which must be taken into account by the royal commission.

Concerns have already been expressed by the Public Service Association that many of its members in the 6000-strong

Auckland local government bureaucracy will lose their jobs in any major changes.

But changes there must be.

A two-tier system will save money - but only if the royal commission's recommendations are strong enough to enjoy public support, and enhance the power of the people to influence decision-making within a truly democratic local government structure.

* David Thornton is a local government commentator, Glenfield Community Board member and former member of the North Shore City Council.

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