Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Reforming Auckland Local Government



Made on 3 March 2008

Michael Bassett
Minister of Local Government at the time of the last major change.


1. The 1989 structure was the best that was politically achievable at the time (29 territorial authorities into 7, with a regional body) but weaknesses have shown up with the structure and especially at the regional level where the voice is weaker than intended at the time. That regional voice needs to be strengthened.

2. The world has changed since 1989. Auckland's population has grown, not as rapidly as in earlier times, but other developments have placed huge pressure on the region's infrastructure. Tourist numbers were 850,000 in 1989, and are now about 2.5 million annually. There's been more than a 50% increase in the total number of motor vehicles on Auckland's roads since the reforms of 1989. Pressures on the airport and the waterfront have increased hugely, and leisure patterns have changed, partly as a result of the increased affluence due to a reasonably well-performing economy. And the requirements imposed on local authorities through tightened rules and new requirements have added pressure to the financial and structural entities that evolved post 1989.

3. Auckland has never spoken in unison, and the reforms of 1989 didn't fix the problem. I am constantly reminded by people that foreigners wanting to conduct business are confused about who to talk to. At present there is no "el supremo", but there needs to be.

4. Money has always been tight, never more so than now with the tightening of credit and rising interest rates. It's time to review the overlapping functions of the Auckland Regional Council and the territorial authorities, and the rapidly increasing costs of bureaucracy. The seven territorial authorities and the ARC together saw their total number of employees rise by 15% between 2003 and 2006. Was this necessary? I doubt it.

5. The costs of major infrastructural developments such as rail, roads and the increasingly urgent need for a second harbour crossing, are now beyond any existing local structure or structures, with their current income streams.

6. While there is a need for a stronger regional voice, it is not clear that the community input to decision making at the territorial level is now being made in the most effective manner. Community input is a vital ingredient to local government, but the role of community boards needs re-examining. There are faster, and ultimately more democratic ways for the voice of the people to be expressed directly than through community boards. Remember: in 1989 the internet didn't exist. The controversy in 2006 over a proposed sports stadium on the Auckland waterfront revealed that people gave their opinions directly to the territorial councils and the ARC and the media by email, with community boards playing little or no part in the debate.

7. If a poll taken in July 2007 (Herald, 1 August 2007, A7) is to be believed, there is 61% support for a greater Auckland scheme. This suggests that the opportunity should be seized.


8. Strengthening the regional council by forming a Greater Auckland Regional Authority covering the whole area. The parliamentary electorates can be used as the units/wards, with the newly-elected GARA of 23 or 24 members electing a chair from amongst the members. He/she could be called either the Mayor of Auckland, or the Lord Mayor of Auckland, and be the only person carrying the title "mayor" within the region. Electing by electorates would guarantee at least three Maori on the authority, although in all probability there would be others as well. The existing territorial councils would continue to exist, although Papakura and Franklin could be combines. The functions of the territorial councils would be reduced to a point where some might regard them as enhanced community boards or neighbourhood councils. Their loss of functions to GARA would meanm enhanced community responsibilities. I'll come to existing community boards with their 147 existing members later.

9. The GARA would be responsible for operating a regional growth forum that would take advice from the six or seven territories and have the power to enlist specialists. GARA would be the region's planning authority.

10. GARA would, as always, be responsible for the regional parks, and for access to beaches.

11. GARA would be the principal body within the Auckland region with responsibility for transport and infrastructure. The concept of what constituted regional roading might need reviewing to ensure that all roads important to the roading network were part of the region's responsibility. Land Transport New Zealand would interface with GARA. The regional body would also be responsible for all public transport. And the region would be responsible for waste management. The territorial councils would have input to the Auckland Regional Transport Authority or whatever its successor might be, but the buck would stop with GARA. Watercare should be owned by GARA but run as a stand-alone organization. Ports of Auckland should also remain in GARA hands, although the current confusing legislation dealing with governance through Auckland Regional Holdings needs refinement.

12. GARA would have civil defence responsibilities, liaising with the territorial councils. GARA would assume funding responsibilities for the central art gallery, the library system, the zoo, and organizations such as the Philharmonia the opera, sea, search and rescue etc according to an agreed set of principles. With the delivery of several of these services the territorial councils could continue to be involved on contract arrangements with GARA.

13. The electorate system of election for GARA would save money since the mechanism and the rolls exist for parliamentary purposes. Given the way in which electorate boundaries are determined, they enable every citizen's vote to have equal strength. Single systems for rating and property valuation across the region would also save money.

14. There needs to be a new approach to financing the additional responsibilities that GARA would shoulder. The regionalizing of functions currently performed at the territorial level would see a shifting of existing resources across to GARA. A regional levy on fuel that has been promised for so long should also be implemented. An additional user-pays element is needed in the form of congestion tolling at peak hours, and probably on an even wider scale. And more money needs to come directly from central government towards major infrastructural developments such as roads and bridges, possibly by way of a formula - I've heard it referred to as "shadow tolling" - that is determined nationally. Government would set the rules for eligibility for matching funds if certain agreed goals were met regionally.


15. The role of the territorials would be greatly reduced and consist of maintaining non-regional roads within their area, neighborhood parks, footpaths, and the hearing of building consents. They might contract to run regionally funded services such as rubbish collection, libraries and some works like drainage separation within their areas. They would also retain responsibility for urban renewal within their areas, and would be expected to make a case to GARA for any large expenditures for new facilities/projects/renovations deemed necessary within their areas.

16. I envisage that the territorials would be elected on the same overall boundaries with wards as at present, with only Papakura and Franklin possibly merged. This would ensure that a key element of local feeling is represented at the council level. There would be no separate mayoral elections. Each council, as with the GARA, would elect one of their members to chair the council. This issue can excite controversy from incumbents and wannabees if the Local Government Commission's past experience is any guide. But all local authorities, GARA and the territorials, need to have their titular heads enjoying similar mandates if confusion is to be avoided. Only GARA's head, once elected, should be differentiated by title. He/she would be the Mayor of Auckland.

17. Existing community boards need to be examined carefully. At present there are 147 elected members of existing community boards in the Auckland region. They were my idea in the first place. The loss of so many territorials in 1989 (down from 29 to 7) risked removing community access to elected representatives. Community boards were a guarantee at that time that neighborhoods could relate to their councils. Community boards have limited powers and roles. They have not been a roaring success, and they are expensive to service. Some councils around the country have tried hard to involve them within the overall scheme of things; others have treated them as little more than an irritating add-on to the body politic. Some community boards are mostly gum-beating exercises involving a small number of regular attenders who can make a pest of themselves. Most individual ratepayers ignore them, except in geographically isolated areas such as Waiheke and Great Barrier islands, and parts of Franklin. The average ratepayer doesn't know where or when his/her board meets, or what is discussed, preferring instead to advance suggestions or objections to proposals when individual issues arise directly to the council or the media, often using the internet. Since some territorials have websites or email addresses where communications can be lodged, an increasing portion of the public uses them. On major issues like the proposed stadium in 2006 the media proved up to the challenge of representing individual ratepayers' views.

18. In line with clause (f) of the terms of reference, I think the Royal Commission should submit that territorials be given the power to abolish urban community boards if they conclude that there is no longer a need for their services and they are engaged in nothing more than make-work. The future of community boards in geographically remote places should be protected until there is clear evidence that they are superfluous to requirements.

19. A phase-out process for urban community boards could be accompanied by a requirement for the territorial authorities' ward councilors to hold a monthly forum within their wards with a view to providing a direct link to the territorial councils. If/when no one showed up except for the ward's well-known squeaky wheels, the requirement for a forum could, by resolution of the territorial authority, be dispensed with. Ward councillors' phone numbers would need to be advertised more effectively if this were to take place.


20. I propose that over a year or two a three-tier system of governance in Auckland involving 264 elected representatives should be reduced in most parts to two with 135 representatives (25 GARA representatives plus 110 TA councillors), plus a relative handful of CB representatives in protected areas. It may be that the territorial councils will be seen as no more than enhanced community boards. What is in a name?

21. Inevitably the workload of the GARA councilors would increase to the point where they were full-time jobs. Higher levels of remuneration would be required to reflect that fact. The commitments of city councilors would, when coupled with an end to community boards, remain roughly the same as now.

22. The new system of governance should mean considerable streamlining of systems, and therefore some savings.

23. And above all, Auckland could speak nationally and internationally with a clearer voice.