Local government reform on the agenda

Posted on February 26, 2012 by


The other day in a post I commented that I felt the Government may shy away from local government reform in Christchurch/Canterbury (in fact I said “I have an inkling the government may be cautious about such a prospect given what has happened in Auckland“). I might well be wrong on that as it looks like local government reform is well and truly on the agenda this year, although my point was really that the government will be very cautious about reform in Canterbury, and it won’t be so straight forward as developing a unitary authority in Auckland was, or Wellington might be. The government may also not be happy with the Auckland outcome, and future unitary authority roll out could be more restrictive.

A hint of things to come came in a Press article about Ecan developing a “multipurpose” replacement for its earthquake damaged headquarters due to “uncertainties” around  local government. Of that approach, Local Government Minister Nick Smith said it was “prudent”.

He (Smith) said he had not had any direct discussions with ECan commissioners on future appropriate structures for the regional council and local government in Canterbury.

He was interested in expanding the unitary council model but in an area like Canterbury where water is so critical and the alpine rivers span several districts it was “not an instant answer as some propose”.

“The Government has made no decisions about the future of Environment Canterbury and remains committed to consultation with the people of Canterbury before decisions are made,” he said.

Furthermore, the other day in the Herald there was a small piece indicating that major local government reform was on the agenda for 2012. It is not really clear whether the Government will follow the Auckland unitary model or develop models on an individual basis as suits each particular area. One thing is for sure, change will come, although whether that is in 2013 or beyond remains to be seen (if it is beyond 2013 then I will feel slightly vindicated). One reason for a delay or a different outcome for Christchurch and Canterbury might be the difficulties that the region poses, as Smith alluded to.

I have always felt the lack of a total urban focus made ECan a bit backwards, particularly in areas like public transport. I would prefer if there was a rural/urban divide, but there will always be some people who claim the city needs the region, and the region needs the city. That will be the central issue to be debated in local government reform in Christchurch/Canterbury, and if the final form differs from Auckland or elsewhere then that will most likely be the reason why.

My personal preference for local government reform in Christchurch/Canterbury is not clear-cut, but what I would like to see is an urban unitary authority that covers the area generally considered to be “Greater Christchurch”, with a strong role for community boards. This would perform the functions of the CCC, Selwyn and Waimakariri District Councils and ECan in that area. I simply think Canterbury is too big an area, and that the urban area of Greater Christchurch is simply too different from the rest to have one great big unitary authority for the entire region as it currently is.

Currently, responsibility and authority for transport in Greater Christchurch is spread across ECan, Christchurch City Council, and the Waimakariri and Selwyn District Councils, so a move to a unitary authority would have a huge effect on transport issues and policy. There would be immense benefit from having one authority planning and implementing local transport solutions, but I think it needs to be one with a primarily urban mandate and focus.