Northland public submission process now complete
Date: 21 May 2014
Northland public submission process now complete
The Local Government Commission has completed public hearings into proposed reform of council structures in Northland and is now analysing the information before deciding its next steps.
The Commission Chief Executive Donald Riezebos has released a summary of the public hearings process and identified several points which submitters asked the Commission to consider further.
Mr Riezebos also noted that Parliament’s Local Government and Environment Select Committee has reported back on proposed changes to the Local Government Act which allow for greater use of local boards within council structures. The bill is now awaiting its second reading.
Mr Riezebos said the Commissioners held public hearings and met iwi and hapu in ten locations throughout Northland over 15 days between 5 and 30 April 2014. “The Commission travelled to Dargaville, Mangawhai, Whangarei, Waitangi, Kerikeri, Kaikohe, Kaitaia, Leigh, Kaeo and the Waipoua Forest. Almost 200 people spoke to their submissions and discussed their ideas for the best shape of local government in Northland,” Mr Riezebos said.
“The public hearings process has been highly valuable. The input from individuals, councils, iwi and hapu, business groups, community groups, employers and union representatives has helped the process immensely. We have always been open to hearing if there are better ideas for the future shape of local government in Northland,” Mr Riezebos said.
“The Commission will now give careful thought to the ideas and questions raised during the submissions process. It is grateful for the effort and preparation that many submitters put into their arguments and can give an assurance to all those involved that they have been heard.”
Mr Riezebos said the next steps in the process are guided by a number of requirements in law. The Commission is able to undertake further inquiries and consultation with other groups, if needed. It then has four options: issue the draft proposal as a final proposal; modify the draft and issue it as a final proposal; issue a new draft proposal based on a different option for local government in Northland; decide not to issue a final proposal at all.
The Commission heard detailed submissions on a number of central themes in its draft proposal, particularly relating to Māori representation and local boards.
- Local boards and community boards. Some submissions sought changes to the proposed number of community boards, their boundaries and membership, to better reflect local democracy and local communities of interest. Most opposed the use of community boards and either preferred local boards with more powers, or wanted the Commission’s draft proposal to be abandoned. The inability of a local board or community board to levy rates was cited as a significant reason to oppose changing the status quo.
The Southland councils’ model of Local Development Associations for more remote areas was cited as a useful device, alongside local boards, for engaging and servicing local communities.
A few submitters wanted a local board option for existing territorial authorities, suggesting it would improve local democratic input without the disruption of more extensive structural change.
- Māori representation on council structures. There was much discussion about the ideal degree of local authorities’ involvement and partnership with Māori.
Some expressed opposition to any perceived ‘special’ treatment.
Other submissions emphasised the real examples of success where local councils do work with Māori. Some supported change and others wanted to retain existing structures and relationships. The latter view was most strongly held by Māori in Whangarei district, particularly those involved in the Nga Huinga and Te Karearea local authority forums.
Some Māori groups and individuals emphasised the importance of the Treaty and its principles (notably partnership) and wanted a stronger statutory basis for Māori to participate, either through Māori seats or via a model such as the Auckland Independent Māori Statutory Board. Some wanted tangata whenua status recognised through Māori Wards.
Some emphasised the synergy between the present Treaty settlement process and the reorganisation process, pointing to the involvement of Māori in wider economic development opportunities.
Some argued the Commission’s draft proposal did not involve Māori enough in decision-making structures and suggested the potentially temporary nature of a Māori Board would be a problem.
Hapu-based groups wanted more input into Māori consultation bodies created through proposed reorganisation, as a “bottom up” democracy that recognised the Treaty and mana whenua more effectively than perceived ‘crumbs at the table’.
Some wanted the Commission to slow down and consult further, given ongoing processes such as Northland Treaty negotiations.
- Rating arrangements. There was discussion of the relative merits of capital value vs land value rating. There was much discussion of present rating arrangements, seen as a “burden” by some, particularly those on fixed and/or low incomes. Concern was expressed at the inability of ratepayers on low incomes to pay any more in rates. There was discussion of the current rates arrears in some council areas.
- Treatment of debt and income from assets. There was discussion as to whether ring-fencing of both debt and the income from assets in each area was realistic. There were questions as to how long a future council would be required to keep the ring-fencing in place. The concept of debt equalisation combined with targeted rating as proposed by the regional council received some support. The supporters stated it was the most efficient mechanism to handle debt, given the potential for significant costs of infrastructure upgrades required across the region in the near future. Ratepayers in Whangarei in particular tended to express concern at the Kaipara debt situation and were opposed to debt equalisation.
- The environmental role of the Northland Regional Council. The importance of retaining the environmental checks and balances currently carried out by the regional council was widely discussed and questions were raised about the ability of a unitary council to provide comparable checks and balances. A related issue was the desire to keep resource consent decision-making at a local level. Most submitters felt the regional council was competent and capable. There were concerns about the potential conflicts of interest between the operations and regulatory responsibilities of a district council. Some felt a unitary authority might duplicate those perceived conflicts at a regional level. Some submitters were not aware the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Office of Auditor General had produced a report into this issue.
- Transition costs. The Commission was asked for further details of the cost of transition and the extent of savings to enable comparison with other options such as the status quo. A number of those opposed to the proposal considered the projected savings of a single council in Northland would be minimal or would be out-weighed by transition costs.
- Service centres. The location of the proposed service centres or council area offices was a point of discussion. Some wanted the Commission’s proposed arrangements strengthened to better protect future access to such offices. Others argued that a few well resourced larger service centres should provide most services and that other smaller centres should have a lesser role.
- Other issues. Some submitters argued for change to the status quo but through means other than a unitary authority. They suggested either a “transfer of obligations” between councils or for two unitary authorities, one in the Far North and one combining Whangarei and Kaipara. A few wanted some functions placed in a Council-Controlled Organisation to allow for improved governance.
Some submitters had reservations about the quality of service offered by existing councils. They raised issues such as governance, inefficiencies in roading and transport, the management of large infrastructure projects or networks and conflicts between councils over environmental issues. Many supported greater adoption of shared services between councils and emphasised the increased collegiality between the councils since the 2013 elections. There was concern at inefficiencies in existing arrangements and poor strategic outcomes where there is divided decision making and planning.
Some submitters expressed confusion at the meaning of ‘one regional voice’, believing it literally meant one person rather than a united strategy or kaupapa.
There was some comment that Whangarei ratepayers should not be responsible for funding other areas in the region, although a few submitters stated that Northland should be viewed as a single economic region.
There were some calls for an increased number of councillors in the proposed unitary authority, so as not to diminish the existing level of representation. Submitters emphasised the importance of having access to local representation.
The written public submissions lodged on the Commission’s draft proposal are now also available for viewing on the Commission’s website.
THE DRAFT PROPOSAL
Full details of the Commission’s draft proposal, issued in November 2013, are on the website. In brief, the Commission proposed:
- One council, one mayor, one plan, one strategy for Northland.
- A second tier of community boards (or local boards) to represent diverse local areas.
- The name of the new local authority would be Northland Council. It would be a unitary authority, combining the functions of district councils and the regional council.
- Northland Council would replace Far North District Council, Whangarei District Council, Kaipara District Council and Northland Regional Council.
- Northland Council would have nine councillors elected from seven wards. The mayor would be elected by all Northland voters.
- Northland Council would have seven community boards (or local boards) with 42 elected members. The seven council wards and seven community boards would share the same boundaries.
- The proposed names of the wards and community boards are: Te Hiku (far north), Hokianga-Kaikohe (north-west), Coastal North (north-east), Coastal Central (east), Whangarei (south-east), Coastal South (south-east), and Kaipara (south-west).
- Northland Council would have a standing committee to ensure the views of the large Māori population are heard. The Māori Board would include elected members of council and representatives of all local iwi. There would also be a Māori Advisory Committee to advise the council committee responsible for issues under the Resource Management Act.
- Northland Council administrative headquarters would be in the current Whangarei District. The council would also have offices in a further nine towns: Kaitaia, Rawene, Kaeo, Kerikeri, Kaikohe, Kawakawa, Ruakaka, Mangawhai and Dargaville.
- Existing council debt, rates and other financial arrangements would be ring-fenced to the communities which incurred them or benefit from them.