In the weeks ahead the people of the Auckland region will be encouraged to express their views on issues relating to local government arrangements for the Auckland region.
Should we take up this invitation? Does it really matter whether or not we participate? And what are some of the issues?
The invitation is from the Royal Commission on Inquiry into Auckland governance and is one that we should not refuse. It matters that we participate because the commission is required, under its warrant, to consult with the public in a way that allows people to express clearly their views.
Furthermore, it is required to investigate and report on the best and most cost-effective way to optimise our region's well-being now and in the future, and how to maximise our region's contribution to the national economy and the Asia Pacific region.
Last year's Inquiry into Local Government Rates followed public concern at rates increases and significant financial pressures facing local government. It recommended that local government needs to show more restraint in its expenditure and improve its planning function which drives this spending.
However, it did not recommend new funding tools to replace local body rates. Instead it recommended that councils make better use of debt funding and volumetric charges for water and wastewater expenditures, and a new petrol tax.
Because the commission is required to take into account the implications of the rates inquiry recommendations, it is implicit that local government's reliance on our rates dollars will continue into the future.
Therefore, no one should doubt that it will be our rates dollar that will be spent on addressing the challenges we face in the years ahead. Who has the power to spend it is in the commission's hands. It is also in our hands, that is, if we choose to participate; that is why it is so important the Auckland regional public be consulted and heard.
The decisions made by our local government representatives affect us daily. They are decisions which influence where we shop, how we get to work, where we can build our homes, where we allow our children to play, how much we will pay in rates, and how this money will be spent.
They are decisions which tell us how to dispose of our rubbish, where our hospitals will be located, when our beaches will be cleaned and why our rates will be increased.
Our local government political system determines who makes these decisions. The rates inquiry report emphasises the need to contain local government expenditure and thereby gain efficiencies for ratepayers while at the same time avoiding rates increases. It is the commission's task to report on how this can best be achieved.
A possible way forward could be a three-city option whereby the existing six city and district councils are reduced to three cities, with community boards or committees delegated to decide on local issues, and a regional body to decide on regional issues.
Another could involve abolishing all existing councils in favour of an expanded metropolitan or regional council, possibly with community boards established throughout the region tasked with locally-based responsibilities, such as local parks and roads maintenance, beach cleaning, dog control, local community services and planning, and resourced accordingly.
Key regional services such as public transport, arterial roads, integrated water services, emergency management, regional parks, strategic metropolitan planning, waste management, air quality management, coastal/foreshore preservation, and the like would become the responsibility of the metropolitan council.
At the time the Auckland Regional Authority, now the Auckland Regional Council, was formed 45 years ago, most ad hoc bodies in New Zealand and overseas were special purpose authorities, responsible for one specific service only, such as drainage or harbour management.
The ARA, however, was unusual because it was responsible for some 10 services in the Auckland region, ranging from regional planning, regional parks, regional refuse and civil defence. In addition, the ARA took over the responsibilities of the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board and bulk-water supply functions of the Auckland City Council.
The ARA also became the Airport Authority and Regional Water Board. In 2003, amid considerable controversy, the ARC acquired direct regional rating powers.
In recent years, as in the past, the relationship between the regional council and its constituent city and district councils has often lacked mutual support and respect, and has been scarred by bickering and point scoring.
It will be the task of the commission to clearly identify which local government functions are truly regional and which rightly belong to local communities and their local councils.
Regardless, however, of who does what, when and how, if central government wants the Auckland region to be (as stated in the commission's terms of reference) "the growth engine in the New Zealand economy" and perform "its role as a key transport hub for New Zealand and the Pacific region" as well as "compete internationally as a place to live, work, invest, and do business", and "to respond to economic, environmental, cultural, and social challenges" then central government will need to urgently consider ways to assist our region financially.
These challenges must be met nationwide and be assisted by taxpayer money. It cannot be left to the Auckland region's ratepayers alone. That is why it is so important that each of us take this opportunity to have our voices heard by the commission.
* Wyn Hoadley QSO, barrister, former North Shore City and Auckland Regional councillor, former Mayor Takapuna City.