Super-council idea dismissed

Dunedin City Council chief executive Jim Harland believes there is still no case for a super council in the South, despite Local Government Minister Rodney Hide unveiling plans by which to consider further council mergers.

Mr Hide, addressing the Local Government New Zealand annual conference in Auckland this week, unveiled his "Smarter Government - Stronger Communities" project to examine the place of local government in New Zealand.

The project in part aimed to clarify how the Government would respond to "local pressure for further amalgamations" following the reform of Auckland governance.

"We are seeing some of that debate under way already, some of it very heated and potentially polarising," Mr Hide told the conference.

Mr Hide said clear and transparent principles were needed to judge calls for any further amalgamation.

Mr Harland, who was in Auckland for the conference, said when contacted it was up to communities to decide whether they saw benefit in a pan-Otago council replacing the likes of the Dunedin city and Otago regional councils.

Prime Minister John Key addressed the conference, telling delegates Auckland's amalgamation would be the Government's last, with any further changes having to be community-driven, Mr Harland said.

However, Mr Harland could still see little merit in the idea, and plenty of hurdles - including the distance between Otago's diverse communities and their unique issues.

The Otago Daily Times canvassed Otago and Southland mayors and council chief executives while investigating the topic in April last year, and found little support for further amalgamation.

Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin and Queenstown Lakes Mayor Clive Geddes were against the idea of a pan-Otago council.

However, Mr Chin felt there "may be an argument" for amalgamation between his council and the Clutha District Council, while Mr Geddes and Central Otago Mayor Malcolm Macpherson both supported possible future amalgamation of their councils.

Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt was a lone enthusiastic supporter of a more radical change, suggesting one southern council could span Otago and Southland.

The Dunedin City Council has been through reforms, including amalgamation in 1989 - incorporating borough councils including Mosgiel, Port Chalmers and Green Island into an expanded Dunedin - and Local Government Commission changes to the wards system earlier this year.

However, Mr Harland said as far as he was aware there had been no further consideration of amalgamation, and he remained sceptical change was something the community wanted.

Stronger cases could be made in other parts of the country, such as between the Hamilton City Council and Waikato Regional Council, he believed.

"As far as I know, there's no pressure being brought to bear in Otago and Southland."

As well as regional co-operation - through shared services and organisations like Otago Forward - the council was already under pressure "to ensure we are getting best value for the ratepayer dollar".

"I guess it comes back to what is the problem with the current governance."

However, Mr Harland was encouraged by Mr Hide's plan for extra scrutiny of Government policies, and their costs, imposed on local authorities - a problem that prompted regular complaints during council deliberations in Dunedin.

"New programmes, new initiatives, new rules just rain down on you from above," Mr Hide told the conference.

"It's too much, it's overwhelming, and it's costly."

Mr Hide's 'project examining local government would take two or three years, with analysis of operations leading to a discussion document and consultation with local authorities, before any changes.

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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