Phil York: Think of the farmers when it comes to Super City

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With all the talk of Auckland becoming a Super City, it's easy to overlook the fact that the vast bulk of land in the proposed Auckland Council area is outside metropolitan Auckland.

More than 90 per cent of the proposed Super City's land resource is rural and sparsely populated. That is why Federated Farmers has to ask: How are these rural areas and townships to be managed in the new Super City?

The needs of rural areas are vastly different from that of metropolitan Auckland, yet it seems inevitable that the real power will lie with the Auckland Council's metropolitan majority.

It follows that there is a real danger that urban domination could adversely impact the viability of Auckland's farming areas. Sadly, no leadership is coming from the district councils on the issue.

Rodney is focused on self preservation and seems intent on hanging on to its metropolitan Hibiscus Coast and becoming a unitary authority.

Papakura continues to plead it should remain separate, while Franklin wants to become a district council in the Waikato region.

So, what are the facts?

The influence of metropolitan Auckland spreads well into rural Auckland. Thousands of Rodney and Franklin residents commute into the city daily.

It's hard to see how their interests could be anything other than joined at the hip with the interests of metropolitan Auckland. Yet these people appear to see themselves as separate from the new Auckland.

If anyone could make a case for not being part of the Super City, you'd think it would be the region's farmers.

However, a recent Federated Farmers survey of members throughout its Auckland province overwhelmingly indicated that they saw themselves as part of Auckland.

Only in outlying areas, beyond Wellsford in the north and Glen Murray in the south, did responses become more mixed.

So how do we ensure that the rural areas outside of metropolitan Auckland have a voice in the new Auckland? And, more importantly, how do they remain viable?

The royal commission thought it important for the region's rural and township areas to be separated electorally from its metropolitan areas.

It proposed two rurally based local councils in the new Auckland, tentatively named Rodney in the north and Hunua in the south. Each would have a single representative on the new Auckland Council. Given their populations, that is as much as can reasonably be expected.

How then do we keep the "local" in Auckland's rural local government?

Either of the present proposals - the royal commission's six local councils or the government's 20 to 30 local boards - seem workable.

The question of where Auckland's boundaries should be presents another issue.

In the north, some say Wellsford and its surrounding farmland should become part of Kaipara District and the Northland region.

They argue that a parasitic Auckland will suck Wellsford dry and that Kaipara District and the Northland region are more rurally oriented.

The reality is Auckland's rural rating base is small compared with that of metropolitan Auckland. Even if rural areas paid zero rates it would have little impact.

Farmers in the Rodney District already pay almost four times the amount farmers on equivalent farms in Manukau City pay, so an Auckland-wide rating system is hardly likely to result in higher rates for rural Rodney.

Furthermore, a local board for Wellsford would likely be based in Warkworth, much closer than the Kaipara District Council's more distant base in Dargaville.

The south has different boundary issues. Many farmers in the south of Franklin feel closer ties with Pukekohe than with Te Kauwhata or Huntly in the Waikato.

From their point of view it would be sensible for the new Auckland Council boundary to be further south of its proposed location at the Waikato River.

The issue is compounded by the Waikato Regional Council wanting to retain sole management of the Waikato River and by the Franklin District Council's wish to be part of the Waikato region.

But even if Franklin was to go into the Waikato, it would be inevitable that its strategic land use decisions, already being made by the Auckland Regional Council, would be made by the new Auckland Council.

The real issue for Rodney is how it will ensure it has sufficient rural population to continue to justify its seat on the Auckland Council.

The real issue in Franklin is how to ensure it has a voice around the table where its strategic land use decisions are made.

The debate should be over how to keep the rural areas of Auckland, and in particular farming, viable.

All four of the present cities have some farms and the relationships with them are mixed.

Manukau City makes a genuine effort to support farming, while Waitakere City treats its few farmers dreadfully.

What is needed for the new Auckland is a structure that will ensure rural areas don't become urban playgrounds that are "protected" in a way that excludes any viable use.

It is vital that these areas remain agriculturally productive so they can contribute to the new Auckland and the country as a whole.

So, let's turn the debate to these issues: the structure, the sharing of governance, keeping rural Auckland viable and the boundaries.

Let's not get bogged down in pointless debates about who should be running what. Not yet anyway. The election campaign comes later.

* Phil York is president of the Auckland Province of Federated Farmers of New Zealand and sits on the national board of Federated Farmers.

- NZ Herald

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