Garth George: Regional merger a horrendous idea

By Garth George

No! No! A thousand times no! Any suggestion that the Bay of Plenty should have a single local authority including Tauranga and Rotorua must be strangled at birth.

The meeting called by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Tauranga Chamber of Commerce for February 1, called "Rethinking Local Government in the Bay of Plenty", should be boycotted by all local body politicians and bureaucrats.

It would appear that the regional council, which failed in its attempt to move its headquarters to Tauranga from Whakatane, is looking for another way to achieve that goal.

And the chamber of commerce, which always talks through its pocket, is no doubt slavering at the thought of a big, fat province-wide bureaucracy based in Tauranga.

Regional council chairman John Cronin says the conference is organised to inform the community about the changes in local body legislation and what options are available.

"If we can do it better, then we owe it to our ratepayers to discuss any options available ... it is our responsibility to make sure we look at all the alternatives for ratepayers."

Yeah, right.

There is no reason, I suppose, why Tauranga shouldn't amalgamate with Western Bay, and Whakatane with Kawerau and Opotiki (they have only 48,000 people between them and are contiguous) but Rotorua and Tauranga, in particular, must retain their separate identities.

Rotorua, a place absolutely unique in the nation with its lakes, thermal activity and Maori emphasis, and Tauranga, with its thriving, efficient, profitable and still-growing port and marvellous beaches, are as different as the proverbial chalk and cheese.

We have ample evidence that the larger local authorities created through the first lot of amalgamations, and the creation of the Auckland "supercity", have failed to deliver the "economies of scale" which were the main excuse used to justify them.

They have turned out to be more expensive and cumbersome than the smaller bodies they replaced, mainly because of the legions of bureaucrats with which they have become infested. For conclusive evidence we need look no further than our rates demands, and at the diminution of the services once provided from them.

My concern, however, is not the economic failure of local body amalgamation, but the social failure.

I wonder about the extent to which the disappearance of smaller local bodies has contributed to a loss of a sense of identity, particularly among young people; to an evaporation of civic pride, neighbourliness and community spirit; and to a corresponding increase in adult carelessness, youthful aimlessness and urban crime.

It seems that our long-lost smaller civic entities - cities, boroughs and counties - were to a significant extent self-policing. Civic pride, neighbourliness and community spirit often saw to that.

Yet now, even in face of the evidence, we still seem prepared to do away altogether with local councils and have one great big cumbersome bureaucracy to govern entire regions.

This reminds me, alarmingly, of the words of the 19th-century French author Honore de Balzac, who wrote: "Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies."

Mind you, Rotorua might benefit from amalgamation, since the Rotorua District Council's pygmies are more numerous pro rata than pretty much anywhere else in New Zealand, according to Statistics New Zealand figures.

Rotorua District Council's wage bill for a population of 68,000 is millions of dollars higher than Tauranga's, with a population of 110,000; and Rotorua's average annual rates are higher than just about anywhere else in New Zealand save metropolitan Auckland - hundreds of dollars a year more than Tauranga's.

Rotorua mayor Kevin Winters and Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby flatly deny the February 1 meeting is about amalgamation.

Let's all hope they're not blind-sided by the regional council, which can't even do its own job properly.

- Rotorua Daily Post

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