Lessons from the history of local body amalgamation

By Wayne Thompson

Should Auckland become a single city? As the four big-city mayors prepare to raise the subject with the Prime Minister tomorrow and a 'one city' campaign begins, we examine both sides of the debate.

Veterans of the last major shakeup in Auckland local government 17 years ago are wary of the new push to reduce the number of councils covering the region.

The mayors of the four cities - Dick Hubbard (Auckland City), Sir Barry Curtis (Manukau), Bob Harvey (Waitakere) and George Wood (North Shore) - have been working on a new structure that they will present to the Prime Minister tomorrow.

But yesterday some of those who fought the 1989 reforms ushered in by the fourth Labour Government said local body amalgamation had failed to deliver on promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness.

Back then the Local Government Commission formed a plan to transform 30 local authorities in the region into four city and three district councils.

It was part of a move that, country-wide, pruned 700 local authorities to 87.

The commission determined the boundaries of the new councils after hearing protests from the communities.

The 103-year-old Devonport Borough Council and many of its residents tried five times to persuade the commission not to lump it in with the new North Shore City.

Independent Devonport chairwoman Coral Foster recalled yesterday arguing that the maritime village was more closely aligned to the Auckland central business district across the Waitemata Harbour than it was to North Shore City.

It feared its identity and its local powers would disappear.

Devonport raised some of the loudest and most persistent protests, which continued through the 1990s with 2000-strong petitions and legal wrangles.

"It's all turned out as badly as we feared," Mrs Foster said.

"Rates have gone up and economies of scale that were touted as the reason for amalgamation have not come to fruition."

Devonport became a ward within North Shore City and was given a community board.

"The community board has no teeth so it's difficult to have empowerment locally."

Mrs Foster said the standard of maintenance of parks and streets had suffered as contractors replaced former borough staff.

She said the one-super-city idea had to offer local communities more power to deal with local issues.

Howick Borough also feared losing its identity and having to subsidise poorer areas when it was absorbed into Manukau City in 1989.

Morrin Cooper, Mayor of Howick from 1974 to 1989, said: "I can't name one thing we got from amalgamation.

"There's no hard evidence to show we are better off.

"There were supposed to be economies of scale but we haven't seen any in little old Howick - only rates rises."

Janet Clews was Mayor of Glen Eden Borough when it was blended into the New Lynn ward of the new Waitakere City Council.

Now that city's finance committee chairwoman, Mrs Clews said the merger had not yielded any great savings in spending "because the work still has to be done".

"There is talk about cutting down bureaucracy with a super city but you still need sufficient staff to do the job," she said.

David Hay was Mayor of Mt Roskill when it became a ward in the enlarged Auckland City. "I opposed amalgamation, but in hindsight a lot of improvements and advantages came out of it."

He said some of the bigger projects, such as the restoration of the Town Hall and Civic Theatre, would not have been possible without the merging of nine local authorities, which doubled the city's population and rating base.

Mr Hay, who is now a member of the Auckland Regional Council, said he supported a single city for the region if it was more efficient but community boards would have to be revamped "to put the local back into local government".

Former Manukau chief executive Colin Dale said the 1989 move was not just about altering boundaries between units of local government.

He said the new legislation created a regime that allowed local authorities to get value for rates money.

Councils were able to look hard at efficient delivery of services and long-term priorities for spending.

Mr Dale said there was an optimum size for a local body so he supported Sir Barry Curtis' proposal for three cities and three communities of interest.

"There's a cut-off point where local democracy becomes compromised by the organisation being too big."

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THE SERIES

* Yesterday: The mayors' views.

* Today: Learning from last time.

* Tomorrow: Behind the super-city campaign.

* Friday: The Brisbane experience.

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