Amalgamation v. Unitary Authority
Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 12:24PM
Bill Barclay

In one of the most significant statements to emerge from the office of the Mayor, Glenn Leach announced yesterday that he has finally come to a conclusion regarding his position in regard amalgamation.

There are of a number of interpretations regarding what this all means, and Glenn’s attempt to reduce them to something understandable fails to ‘hit the mark’ in a number of ways. Having read the statement, I remain confused.

The whole issue of ‘amalgamation’ has become mixed-up in the minds of many  with ‘unitary councils’. Reihana and Geoffrey Robinson raised the issue of the latter earlier this year with a well-constructed campaign aimed primarily at getting the Coromandel in particular out from under the purview of the Waikato Regional Council. This followed the vain attempt of the WRC to impose its will on the District in regard to SNA’s (Significant Natural Areas) and heritage policy in general. The following is an extract from their follow-up 1,000 signature submission and petition to Council yesterday:

In the last 12 months, our people have been forced to resist a completely inappropriate natural heritage policy designed for the western Waikato and plains. At the same time, regional council pest managers have stubbornly ignored our community board and council resolutions for recovery-based pest control programmes.  Major territorial authority concerns regarding the recently drafted Waikato Regional Policy Statement were largely dismissed.

Glenn was obviously well aware of the political implications of the Robinson petition, and sought yesterday to divert it ‘at the pass’ by coming up with his own proposal incorporating part of their proposal, and at the same time back a number of other horses. What he quite clear about is that absorption into a provincial wide unitary Council is unacceptable, and he has clearly become extremely concerned at covert moves in that direction being made at Regional level. This follows on the inevitability of the changes to the Local Government Act later this year that will encourage amalgamations, following on the Auckland experience. The WRC has apparently been very active in Wellington trying to get its Waikato wide unitary council concept accepted at the highest level.  

Picking up on the Robinson proposals, even partially, has an immediate attraction in that Reihana and Geoffrey have already done a great deal of legwork promoting their views, though the equal billing given to their controversial pest control proposals may not sit well with Glenn and his supporters. Leaving that aside, the question as to how wide any amalgamation should be remains moot. The Robinson’s suggest that based on experience elsewhere (e.g. Nelson/ Marlborough, and Gisborne) that amalgamation with other councils may not be necessary at all – that Thames Coromandel has sufficient population, and territory to go it alone.  Glenn clearly favours this solution, just as long as the existing regional powers are secured.

The cost of such an arrangement remain the sticking point, but the Robinson’s cogently argue that the costs estimated by the WRC of such an arrangement are grossly over-stated, and based on their current profligate operation rather than a tight, far less ambitious set-up reflecting the real needs of this District. Recent experience with Simon Friar's travel entitlements have probably given this view a boost. 

Glenn on the other hand diverges into a range of self-serving claims regarding his accomplishments in achieving a 6% rates reduction through ‘“old-fashioned “line-by-line” budgeting”’ – demonstrably false when stacked alongside his borrowing plans. To this are added a whole raft of equally debatable claims regarding ‘re-empowerment' of Community Boards. He states that “it’s a program that does not need amalgamation to make happen”. It is of course an utterly irrelevant claim that could equally indicate that the TCDC was surplus to requirements. Glenn’s other argument is that “if cost-efficiency is the aim, then amalgamation is not the vehicle”. He correctly argues in my view that “shared services” between existing councils could lead to further major savings, and that “amalgamations won’t leads to improved democracy”. Certainly absorption into the head office of a large provincial-wide authority would not improve democracy. There is no argument there.

Glenn then sets a list of “non-negotiables” on amalgamation that must appear on any analysis to constitute a complete rejection of the Waikato, or Bay of Plenty wide solution, in favour of a unitary authority based a combination of Matamata-Piako, Hauraki and TCDC, or Hauraki / TCDC, or TCDC alone. But he makes it difficult, if not impossible for the other two when he rejects negotiation over any deviation from the newly empowered community boards on which he has expended so much political capital, and which remain such potentially extravagant drains on resources. Boards are an anathema to Mayor Tregidga, and Mayor Vercoe has said “amalgamation with TDDC will be over my dead body” – pretty clear-cut, I would say.  

Glenn reduces antagonism to a Waikato Authority to that which has arisen over the velodrome and mangrove debates – pretty thin gruel!  He then goes on to indicate that a local unitary authority “would need to be costed” – that seems pretty obvious, and that an amalgamation “of three or four districts as potentially more successful”. He sums up by stating that any move towards a unitary authority needs to be driven by the ballot box, while stating that he personally favours the current set-up that is a creature of the “positive momentum” that he has created through a new way of thinking.

After all that one can only remain confused as to just what it is that Glenn wants. He appears to have a dichotomous vision around ‘unitary’ and ‘amalgamation’, that allows little room for negotiation, and thus risks the likelihood of an imposed solution. That a Waikato-wide solution is unacceptabel is a given - what is no so obvious is just what constitutes an accepotable alternative in his eyes. 

It is time that he and his Council got serious, and either unequivocally back the Robinson proposals, or come up with a reasoned argument why some other specific solution is preferable. The ‘mish-mash’ that he has put out there is the product of inadequate analysis, again heavily influenced by unjustified hubris surrounding his claimed but unproven achievements.  

Finanlly, it is not at all clear whether this paper represents the musings of the Mayor, or is to be the adopted policy of the entire Council. That this should even be suggested withoiut adequate consultation on such an important matter is questionable. Mayor Leach has forwarded his 'vision' to the other councils in the region, and presumably, this will elicit a response in due course. 




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