The future of Northland councils is under the spotlight in a major review of how New Zealand's local government operates.
The review will reshape how Far North, Kaipara and Whangārei District councils along with Northland Regional Council function over the next 30 years, in so doing significantly affecting the lives of almost 200,000 Northlanders.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta yesterday announced the review - the biggest shake-up of how local government works since 1989, when county and town councils were scrapped and more than 800 local bodies amalgamated into 86 local authorities.
Northland council leaders say the review must make sure to keep the "local" in local government.
"We will be particularly keen to ensure that 'local' remains the focus of local government," Far North Mayor John Carter said.
"It is vital that New Zealanders have a say in what happens to their communities. We hope that any change proposed by the review panel will support that fundamental right."
Kaipara Deputy Mayor Anna Curnow said it was important small communities such as Te Kopuru and Tinopai still had a voice into the future.
"Democracy is about local people having a say in where they live. It's about their lives, the places they live, the quality of that life."
Mahuta said the final shape of New Zealand's local government would be in place in April 2023. A review committee has been set up and will report back to Government with an initial report in September. A draft proposal for the shape of New Zealand's local government will be put together in September 2022.
Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai has greeted the review with cautious optimism.
She said it was important Northland's voice was heard in the review.
"The future of local government is of great interest to our communities."
Mai said it was also important the review did not result in local government being centralised to Wellington.
NRC chair Penny Smart said the region's councils would be assisting the newly announced independent review board in a collaborative and consistent way. The review was a positive move for New Zealand.
Mahuta signalled strengthened partnership with Māori in her review announcement.
"Consideration of the future for local government will provide an opportunity for central government to consider how to strengthen the Māori-Crown relationship and actively embody the Treaty partnership," Mahuta said.
Harry Burkhart, Te Kahu o Taonui – Northland Iwi Chairs Forum chair, has welcomed this.
Iwi, hapū and whanau had long been seeking stronger partnership as part of honouring the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
"It's what we've been asking for since 1840," Burkhardt said.
Moko Tepania, Far North District councillor and co chair of Local Government New Zealand's (LGNZ)'s young leaders' representatives, said the community felt local government's current structure wasn't working.
The review was needed for tomorrow's generation. The young leaders' group is for councillors under age 40. The average age for New Zealand councillors was 60 to 64.
Tepania is also a member of LGNZ's Te Maruata – for Māori in governance roles across local government.
Curnow said already-underway "three waters" changes to the way drinking water, wastewater and stormwater were managed had already created a lot of uncertainty and concern in the community and its local government.
Victoria del la Varis-Woodcock, a rural Kaipara District councillor, said these and other major changes to key council functions had already reduced local councils' mana.
She said it was critical the public ownership of water, taking into account Māori sovereignty, was factored into the review. New Zealand's water needed to remain in public, not private hands.
The future of Northland's 42 elected local government councillors and 17 community board members will also be under the spotlight as the review looks into representation and governance across New Zealand's 78 councils.
Former Far North Mayor Wayne Brown - who previously led a failed bid to amalgamate Northland councils - said the review offered new opportunity for this to happen, combining the region's four councils into one with town boards and an almost 80 per cent cut in the region's councillor numbers to nine (including one leader).
Paihia and Kerikeri Residents and Ratepayers Associations chairwoman Jane Johnston said thought was needed for the review.
"We welcome a review looking at functions, role, funding and local democracy or representation," Johnston said.
"…potential changes ought to be supported by strong evidence as to improvement, not just change for sake of change, or to usurp localism for some national centralised control.
"Any review must fairly assess retaining status quo as an option, with tweaks for betterment of highly regarded principles in a modern democracy."