City and ORC merger unlikely

Any progress towards one or more unitary authorities in Otago will be difficult, largely because of the region’s geography.  The Dunedin City Council this week ordered a report into a possible merger between it and the Otago Regional Council, and it would be surprising if proposals which might emerge make much headway with the Local Government Commission.

The frustrations and desire for one authority are understandable.

While, generally,  regional councils have responsibility for environmental matters and are concerned with the natural resources of water, land and air, there are occasions when the division is not clear, at least in the public’s eye. 

That can cause confusion and potential duplication. And as deputy mayor Chris Staynes said, there are plenty of instances of two bureaucracies working against each other.

Then there is the issue of cost. 

Logically, fewer councillors and one organisation should reduce overheads and increase efficiency.  Unfortunately, bigger is not always better but can simply mean more layers of bureaucracy and higher salaries, as evidenced by this country’s giant unitary authority, Auckland City.

A fundamental principle of the reorganisation of local government in 1989 was the separation of the overriding environmental policy and enforcement from the doing of local government; roads, rubbish, parks, libraries.

Thus, for example,  territorial authorities would not be able to grant to themselves sewage discharge rights or landfill consents.  At that stage, with its isolation and community of interest, only the greater Gisborne area was given unitary authority status. Since then this has spread to Nelson, Tasman and Auckland.  In other places, like Hawke’s Bay or Whanganui and Ruapehu, there have been moves towards unitary authorities but without success.

There is something to be said for that separation, although — with the proper protections and policies — unitary authorities have and should be able to perform those duties effectively and fairly. There have been those in the city peeved the assets of the Otago Harbour Board, notably all its commercial land, went to the regional council when local government was reorganised. 

Since 1988, the council has received a total of $148.9million in dividends and special payments from Port Otago. How the city must  covet that cash. Given the city’s pressures on Delta/Aurora for dividends and the regional council’s hands-off attitude to the Port Company, it would seem, however, the regional council has been a wiser council-company owner.

Regional councils were built primarily on the bones of the former catchment boards, and river catchments were a guiding criterion for their boundaries — North Otago being a partial exception. It is here the idea of a separate unitary authority for Dunedin begins to falter again.  Otago’s major rivers, notably the Clutha and Taieri, have catchments across different districts.

Managing them and water rights and pollution would be degraded by divided oversight. The regional council would also be gutted sans Dunedin.  Surely, each district would not necessarily want, or be able, to cover regional council roles. A weak regional council would struggle to survive.

One idea would be to have one unitary authority for all Otago, one major council as in Auckland with strong community boards in various districts.  This suggestion was put forward in the late 1980s by Dunedin City before the 1989 reorganisation.  It failed to gain traction, and it is easy to see why. 

Queenstown and surrounds have  grown to be an even more  distinct area.  It is a long way geographically, and perhaps even culturally, between Dunedin and Queenstown.

This newspaper, Otago rugby and personal and property ties help hold the province together but not a lot else actually does, including the low-profile regional council.  Nevertheless, it has developed useful areas of expertise that are applied across the province that will be challenging to replace.

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