Should Wellington super-size just because Auckland did?

This article first appeared in the Dominion Post on 16 March 2010.

The super-sizing of Auckland has provoked debate about whether Wellington should follow suit, and there are some arguments for it – the question is whether they are strong enough.

The biggest argument is that we need to bulk up to counter the super-city’s vast weight.  But a quick comparison of vital statistics with Auckland shows how quixotic this is.  Greater Auckland has a population of around 1.5 million and contributes about 36.5 per cent of national gross domestic product (GDP).  The Wellington region by contrast has just under half a million people and contributes around 14.8 per cent of GDP.

And Wellington is not dysfunctional in the way the Royal Commission and, by implication, the Government consider Auckland is – at least not to anywhere near the same extent.

There is not the same level of dissatisfaction with resource management processes, we haven’t had a rates revolt, the different councils seem able to work together on matters of regional importance and, while some projects have incited opposition, there does not seem to be a general feeling that local government repeatedly fails to listen to the people. 

Granted the Wellington region’s passenger rail service requires marked improvement but the bus services in each of the three major cities are (for the most part) regular, reliable, clean and safe and seem vastly better than their Auckland counterparts, and better integrated.

As for Wellington roads, they can be congested at peak travel times – particularly the State Highway 1 corridor and the Ngauranga interchange - but congestion on an Auckland scale?  Hardly.

So, if we don’t have Auckland’s problems, why do we need Auckland’s solution?  Especially given the scale of disruption and upheaval which would be involved?

Applying the Auckland template, using the existing territorial boundaries as a rough guide, and assuming Māori are not given dedicated representation rights; the new Wellington super council might have a mayor plus 14 other members – four from Wellington City, two from Hutt City, one each from Porirua, Kapiti Coast and Upper Hutt, one for the combined districts of South Wairarapa, Carterton and Masterton and four elected at large.

If the point is to create a Wellington counterweight to the new Auckland powerhouse, will 15 members be enough?  Can a greater number be justified?  And what of ratepayers’ ability to influence the shape and character of their region?  Could a single body feasibly reflect the interests and character of:

  • a vibrant capital city with high public sector employment and a strong hospitality and arts culture
  • a city known for its ethnic diversity and relaxed lifestyle, but also subject to issues associated with low socio-economic status
  • two dormitory cities with large residential populations and a strong retail focus but declining levels of industry
  • a long coastline which is popular with retirees and home to new residential housing developments, and
  • a large rural territory dominated by farming, horticulture and vineyards?

Critics of Super Auckland point to the 1:68,400 representation ratio as proof that the local is being taken out of local government.  Assuming Super Wellington had 14 members and a mayor, the representation ratio would be 1:31,906 – not as cumbersome as Auckland, but a significant jump from where we are now.  This matters because the international evidence suggests that voter turnout decreases as representation ratios increase. 

Perhaps this is the price to be paid for strong regional leadership able to speak with one voice.  But participation in local government elections is an important exercise of democratic values and is important to social cohesion and strong communities.  It is worth asking how those values will be reflected in any amalgamation.

Will Māori, having been denied dedicated seats in the Auckland restructuring, fight for them in Wellington?

Will boundary issues prove as problematic?  Wairarapa residents may feel far removed from Super Wellington, and not just because of the Rimutakas.  Infrastructure upgrades and services are likely to focus on dense population centres.  Kapiti Coast District Council struggles now to deal with basic services such as roading, rubbish collection and water supply.  It would no doubt derive some benefits from incorporation in a larger entity but could it also lose its identity and become completely submerged.

Our current local governance arrangements are working relatively well, we are never going to be able to match Auckland’s size and there is much to be lost from rationalisation.  Given this, it seems not unreasonable to demand that the proponents of change first demonstrate clearly that there is also much to be gained.

Siobhan Hale is a principal at Chapman Tripp.  The views conveyed here are her own.

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Related topics: Public law; Auckland Super City; Local Government


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