We’ve had a unified Auckland Council since 2010 – it replaced seven district/ city councils and one regional council, in the largest local government restructure in New Zealand since 1989. With such a major, complicated process, it’s a given that it won’t have been perfect: things that could have been done better, and things that should be revisited now that we’re seven years on.
At a more basic level, we can simply ask if Auckland’s boundaries are in the right place.
Since 2010, at least two areas have considered splitting off again (Waiheke and North Rodney, with the entertainingly named NAG website). There’s also been quite a bit of growth just outside the Auckland Council’s southern border in Pokeno. Most of these new Pokeno residents work in Auckland, and they may use various other Auckland services too.
In this post, I’m going to look at the “splitters”, Waiheke and North Rodney, and in the next post I’ll look at whether Auckland’s boundaries should be extended to the south.
So, how did Auckland’s boundaries come to be the way they are today? Let’s take a quick look at the history.
The 1989 Reforms
In 1989, New Zealand had a local government overhaul, the biggest in more than a century. Counties and boroughs were scrapped, replaced by district/ city councils.
The 1989 reforms dramatically reduced the number of local government authorities across NZ – from around 220 independent councils to 70. This was supposed to make councils more efficient (economies of scale, etc), with the tradeoff being a loss of local representation.
The tension between having cost-effective councils (meaning lower rates) and local representation (meaning more local democracy) is still important today. People wanting change – amalgamations, splitoffs etc – need to recognise this tension. The basic theory is that a larger council should be more efficient, but will struggle to reflect all the local wishes, and vice versa for a smaller council. If you’re arguing against that theory, you should really be bringing some solid evidence.
You don’t hear the word “unitary” much outside of the Unitary Plan, but it’s an important one for councils. The 1989 reforms established two levels of local government: regional councils and territorial authorities. These levels have different functions. In simple terms, regional councils look after the environment and other ‘region-wide’ functions which tend to work beyond territorial boundaries. Those include public transport, often regional facilities like venues and parks, and a lot of high-level strategic planning.
Regional councils are first and foremost about the environment, so their boundaries tend to be based on water catchments. This is important, as any boundary changes (and potential splitoffs like Waiheke/ North Rodney) will require some environmental rationale.
Territorial councils look after more local stuff: local roads, services and infrastructure; resource and building consents, etc. This is actually most of the work councils do, so typically the rates bills from territorial councils are 3-5 times higher than the ones from regional councils.
Looking at Whangarei, for example, properties have to pay rates to the Whangarei District Council and the Northland Regional Council, and it’s a similar story for most of New Zealand, “Unitary” councils are ones which are responsible for both levels, regional and territorial.
The Auckland Council Merger
Across New Zealand, there have been many proposals for changes to councils since 1989. People have argued for both amalgamations and split-offs, but very few have gone ahead. At the region level, Nelson-Marlborough split into three in the early 90s, and at the territorial level, the tiny Banks Peninsula merged with Christchurch in 2006. The merger of the seven Auckland councils has been the only major change out of the 70-odd councils across New Zealand.
Take it away, Te Ara:
Between 1989 and 2010 Auckland was organised into four cities – North Shore, Waitākere, Auckland (which included islands in the Hauraki Gulf) and Manukau – and three districts – Rodney, Papakura and Franklin. An Auckland regional council had responsibilities across the entire area bar the southern part of Franklin District (which was affiliated with the Waikato region). Business leaders claimed that a single council would put an end to squabbles between councils and make more progress on issues common to the whole city, especially infrastructure and economic development. In 2010 the government mandated a single Auckland council, which came into existence after elections in October 2010. The southern part of Franklin became part of Waikato district.
So, that’s a good summary of the 1989-2010 period. As a bonus, it used the word “squabbles” which I hadn’t heard for a while. Good word, that. Merging all the councils into one certainly did get rid of squabbles between councils, by default. But people have still squabbled since 2010. When will the squabbling end? Squabble.
The map above shows that the northern boundary of the Rodney District was also the northern boundary of the Auckland Region. It’s a natural place for a boundary: one of the narrowest points of the country, with only around 15 km separating the east coast from the Topuni River (which leads to the Kaipara Harbour and the west coast).
In fact, this boundary goes back to the 19th century, when it was the Rodney County on the south side and the Otamatea County on the north side. It has been the northern boundary of the Auckland Region since regional governance started to emerge in the 1960s.
The Waiheke and North Rodney “splitter” proposals
The “Our Waiheke” and “Northern Action Group” have each submitted proposals for splitting off their areas from Auckland. Those proposals are with the Local Government Commission, and they’ll now work through a process where the LGC reviews the proposals, maybe gets some external feedback, listens to various other stakeholders apart from the two ‘splitter’ groups, and ultimately comes up with proposals that people can vote on.
Both the Waiheke and North Rodney groups are proposing that their areas become unitary councils. This leads to at least two issues – more on that below.
Waiheke has actually had its own governance in the past. There was a “Waiheke county” from 1970 until 1989, which grew over that time to take in some of the surrounding islands. Then Waiheke was part of Auckland City from 1989-2010, and now the unitary Auckland area.
The group’s proposal suggests that a Waiheke unitary council could also include some of the unpopulated/ sparsely populated islands nearby, as in the map below:
North Rodney is more vague about where its boundaries should be, but they seem to have ended up with the below, which includes Warkworth and a little bit more to the south:
Issue 1: unitary council size
So, both the splitter groups are wanting to become unitary councils. They say they’ve looked at options where they’d become “districts” but stay within the Auckland region, and instead they’ve decided to cut the cord completely.
There are a few unitary councils in NZ. Auckland has been one since 2010, and Nelson, Tasman and Gisborne have all been around for longer. The Chatham Islands are kind of a unitary council, but they’re an extreme case. With a remote population of just 600 people, they don’t have the scale or resources to be self-sufficient. They contract out their regional functions to the Canterbury regional council, and are heavily reliant on government grants to survive (these “recognise the unique position of the Chatham Islands and the desirability of maintaining a viable functioning community with its own elected representatives“).
So, if the Chathams aren’t big enough to be self-sufficient, how large do areas have to be before it’s practical for them to have a unitary council? Nelson, Tasman and Gisborne all have around 45,000 people. North Rodney would have around 25,000 people, and Waiheke a little under 10,000.
The advocates for change in Waiheke and North Rodney reckon they can make cost savings by splitting off and becoming unitary councils. I’m extremely sceptical of this. Could splitting off give better local representation? Sure. Could it save money? I really doubt it, at least without a reduction in services. There’s no free lunch here.
Interestingly, there could be another option for Northern Rodney, but as far as I can see the group that wants to split hasn’t considered it at all.
If they’re wanting to split off from Auckland, why not amalgamate with the Kaipara District to the north, and become part of the Northland Region? This is another area with a pretty sparse population, only a few smallish towns, and not a great deal of growth. A similar profile to Northern Rodney, in other words. Surely there must be some economies of scale, ways in which the two areas can benefit from joining together?
Of course, this would go down like a cup of cold sick with the Northern Action Group, because Kaipara District has made a pretty bad name for itself over the last few years – a wastewater scheme at Mangawhai ended up saddling ratepayers with huge debt, resulting in the councillors getting turfed out and replaced with appointed commissioners in 2012. If they’d suggested this, their proposal would never have gotten any traction. But surely this option makes as much sense as going it alone?
Issue 2: unitary council costs
I’m a layman on these matters, but even I can pick up a glaring hole in both the proposals, so it’s a fair bet the Local Government Commission will too. Both groups have misunderstood (or wilfully ignored, so that they can try to attract more support from locals) the difference between a district council and a unitary one. They compare themselves to small district councils (of which there are plenty), but completely ignore the regional functions which unitary councils have to perform.
Those have big cost implications, and mean that they’re significantly underestimating the cost of going it alone. Typically, regional rates might add another 25% on to district rates bills. Numbers may vary, but those regional functions are going to extinguish pretty much all the cost savings that the splitter groups think they’ll get.
It’s not at all clear what proportion of people in either Waiheke or North Rodney actually support the proposals, but given that the splitters have campaigned on two main platforms – better representation and cost savings – it’s a fair bet that people would be a lot less supportive if they realise that one of those platforms is a myth.
Issue 3: the Northern Action Group can’t see the forest for the trees
There are quite a few regional parks in North Rodney. The NAG proposal suggests that these parks are “accessed in high proportion by people from outside [North Rodney]” and “an appropriate arrangement would be for… the net costs of Regional Park operations… be apportioned on the basis of population between [Auckland Council] and [North Rodney Unitary Council]”. That is, North Rodney should only pay around 2% of the costs of its regional parks, with Auckland paying the other 98%.
However, the NAG seems completely oblivious to the fact that North Rodney residents would also use Auckland Council resources. The glaring example being roads and transport, which are of course the largest item in the Auckland Council budget (at least a third of all rates money is spent on transport). North Rodney’s proposal seems to assume that they will be able to use these roads free of charge.
Which, of course, they will. Transport is a cross-boundary issue for many councils. This post is getting pretty long already, so I’ll save the transport discussion for part 2 where I look at whether Pokeno and nearby areas should become part of Auckland.
But there are other cross-boundary issues too. Northern Rodney residents would lose access to most other Auckland Council services outside their newly defined area, including libraries, pools, public transport connections to Auckland, etc. The new council could negotiate with Auckland to retain access to some of those services, but they’d probably pay more than they currently do.
The real issues: representation and satisfaction
The Our Waiheke group and Northern Action Group might think they’re paying too much in rates (who doesn’t?) and they’re not getting enough in return. Their proposals both suggest that they can cut rates, which they could, but that they’d continue to have exactly the same levels of service, which they wouldn’t. This might be intellectually dishonest, but no doubt it helps them get support among local residents. But this isn’t the real issue.
The splitter groups talk about having more local representation. Their proposals would certainly deliver that. But it’s not the only way to help local views be heard. Auckland Council’s local boards could have more say, for example. The balance between Auckland Council and its local boards will no doubt evolve over time, in terms of how much decision making and funding goes to each level.
The other issue is general satisfaction with the Auckland Council. There are dissatisfied people in all parts of Auckland, but presumably people outside the main city area feel more disconnected from the council’s actions and spending. That’s fair enough. But there are several ways to address it. One, Auckland Council improves what it’s doing. I’d hope that’s an eternally ongoing process. Two, Auckland Council improves its communication so that people actually understand what it does, the value it provides, and the journey that our city is going on.
Satisfaction will probably improve even if the council didn’t do any of those things, simply because we’ve already been through the hardest years. These were the transitional years when there were shocks to some rates bills, the shift to a Unitary Plan, the council taking on debt to help it provide for growth.
Stuff.co.nz had a good article on the proposals to split off Waiheke and North Rodney, and I’ll just quote part of it here:
Massey University local government expert Andy Asquith disagreed [with the proposals].
“It’s completely ridiculous,” he said.
“If you think about the resource required, the expertise required to run an autonomous local body then it ain’t going to happen on Waiheke.”
Rodney had never wanted to be part of the super city and had at one time considered merging with the nearby Kaipara District Council, he said.
Kaipara later ran into major problems over the cost of a wastewater project which blew out from $17m to $58m.
Similar problems were seen in other small local authorities, he said.
“Smaller councils can’t afford to employ people of the right calibre and competence to deal with these big infrastructure projects,” he said.
The government had spent the last six years trying to get Auckland working because it understood how crucial its success was to the rest of New Zealand
“All of a sudden to break it up again is a recipe for disaster,” Asquith said.
Personally, I think the requests to split off Waiheke and North Rodney are daft. I’ll be very surprised if either of them goes ahead. This doesn’t mean things are perfect the way they are – it just means that it’ll be much easier to improve outcomes in Waiheke, North Rodney and everywhere else in Auckland by working to improve the Auckland Council we already have.