Government adopts most of Royal Commission's Super City design

The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance (the Commission) has achieved a high success rate in terms of the number of its proposals which the Government has taken aboard. The Government has altered the composition of the Auckland Council and, as we signalled last week, has made changes at the 'second tier' level of representation. But most of the Commission's design has been accepted. 

This Brief Counsel analyses where the Government has stuck to the Commission's recommendations, where it has departed from them, and why.

The politics

The Government's response will not be put out for consultation. John Key wants to provide strong leadership on this issue. He considers that the Commission's report has already been fully consulted on and that the Government's task is to be decisive. The next opportunity for formal public input will be via submissions on the bill. This process is likely to be truncated because deadlines are tight. The legislation will need to be passed this year if the 2010 local government elections are to be held under the new structure.

Key is understood to have been impressed with the fast foot-work of Act Leader and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide over the past week. Hide can rightly claim credit for getting the Commission's report translated into action so speedily. Like Key, he was keen to maintain momentum.

The Government is not claiming the proposed plan is perfect. It expects some wrinkles will yet have to be ironed out. But having sniffed the breeze (noting particularly the lack of opposition to the concept from all but a vocal few) it has been anxious to capitalise on the opportunity the Commission created.

The planned reform is both grand in scale and far reaching in scope. Already Ministers are expecting the concept to spread like a virus. Until now other cities have capitalised on Auckland's fragmented leadership but in this new world Auckland will be ideally placed to assert itself in Wellington; one leader, one voice, one much larger lobbying force.

The new Mayor of Auckland will be one of the most powerful people in the country. Cabinet has left the Mayor with all of the powers the Commission envisaged. Some long-time observers of politics have noted that only a very new, very popular government would dare to take such a risk. With his own mandate and his own domestic constituency to play to, the Auckland Mayor could well prove to be a major irritant to future governments. A more seasoned Cabinet may have clipped the Mayor's wings, just to be on the safe side. However, the Government has rejected Commission recommendations to establish a special architecture for Auckland within Cabinet (a dedicated Minister and Cabinet committee).

As an insight into how the politics worked; when Cabinet discussed the proposal on Monday a small, but concerted group of Ministers had rallied to block some of the Commission's recommendations, targeting the lack of local representation particularly. In the end, and after more than an hour of debate with neither side budging, Key ruled the Council would be eight councillors voted at large and 12 from wards; discussion over.

Changes to the Commission design

The changes the Government has made to the Commission's recommendations are primarily to representation – both within the proposed Auckland Council and at the second tier level. These changes are designed to address (and to silence?) criticisms that the structure proposed by the Commission was not sufficiently democratic and would not reflect the diversity of Auckland.

But, even as the Government has addressed these concerns, it has been careful not to compromise the integrity of the Commission's "Super City" concept nor the need for strong central leadership to provide a coherent direction for Auckland.

Commission recommendations

Government decisions

23 Auckland Councillors

- 10 elected at large- 10 elected through wards- 3 Māori representatives

20 Auckland councillors

- 8 elected at large- 12 elected through wards- No dedicated Māori seats

Move to a four-year term

Three-yearly term to be retained

A Minister for Auckland

No Minister for Auckland

Permanent Cabinet Committee for Auckland

Temporary Cabinet Committee for Auckland, led by Hide as Local Government Minister, to oversee the transition to the new structure

6 local councils at the second tier 

3 community boards

20 to 30 community boards at the second tier, each of which will be named after its local community. The boards will comprise 125 to 150 members in total.

Significantly, the boards will not be able to raise their own revenue or hire staff. They will be able to develop operational policies for local issues e.g. dog control, liquor licensing and graffiti control.

Accepted recommendations

Although the Government has departed from the Commission's blueprint in some areas, it has embraced the Commission's over-arching vision of "one long-term council community plan, one spatial plan, one rating system, one rates bill, one voice for Auckland".

Commission recommendations which the Government will proceed with include:

  • a single, region-wide unitary authority (the Auckland Council) to replace the Auckland Regional Council and seven territorial bodies. The Council will set policy for all aspects of local government and will take over all staff from the abolished authorities at least in the interim
  • the Mayor of Auckland to have significant powers and patronage. The Mayor will appoint the Deputy Mayor and the 11 committee chairpersons and will propose both policy and the annual budget to the Council for approval
  • one Long-term Council Community Plan for land use and regional infrastructure investment
  • one Waterfront Development Agency with scope for greater central government involvement in waterfront development 
  • all regional assets to be transferred to Auckland Council (museums, stadiums, parks etc), and 
  • one rating system, to be developed and progressively implemented from 2012.

Recommendations that have only been "agreed in principle" with the detail yet to be confirmed are: 

  • one Regional Transport Authority (RTA) responsible for all transport functions. The Government has gone beyond the Commission by giving RTA responsibility for local as well as arterial roads 
  • one Economic Development Plan, and
  • one water and wastewater provider, using one volumetric pricing system. (Estimates are that this will save $10 million a year.)

Transitional arrangements

The Transition Management Group, made up of the CEO's of existing councils plus the CEOs of Watercare Services Ltd and ARTA, "possibly with an independent Chair", will manage the day-to-day business of the transition with the Establishment Board.

The Establishment Board will appoint an interim CEO for Auckland for a period of no less than two years. Membership of the Board has yet to be announced.

The Local Government Commission will decide the exact number of Local Boards and their boundaries.

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

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