Sharing the financial load

Various attempts have been made over many years to combine the voices of Otago's local bodies, the most successful during the post-war period being the Otago Council which fought for, and eventually succeeded, in obtaining a South Island electricity differential in the early 1970s to recompense local users for the impact of the hydro-electricity schemes.

Cheaper power, it was argued, would enable industrial growth and help keep down the costs of living in the South, slowing the "drift north". 

If the perceived benefits of an electricity differential were real, the effects were short-lived, for the subsidy, like so many others, was abandoned upon the arrival of the Rogernomics era. Nevertheless, the exercise demonstrated that a united southern voice could have some political influence on increasingly Auckland-dominated governments, especially where marginal electorates were involved. No similar circumstances exist today.

MMP has greatly watered down the prospects of pork-barrel politics succeeding, and both major political parties have adapted policies to the current economic fashion where market forces lead guiding principles.

Nevertheless, at a time when the South's political voice is getting weaker simply through circumstance and population changes, there has never been a time when unity has been needed more.

News that southern local bodies are to look for new ways to speak with one voice when dealing with the government of the day is therefore not just long overdue, but welcome. The proposals as outlined recently seem, however, to be rather tentative.

A new mayoral forum is to be established involving six councils. It is proposed members should meet "at least" every three months to discuss common issues, including regional economic development and co-operation. The need for a common approach across Otago certainly exists now in several areas.

Just on the basis of recent events, these could include dealing with the problem of campervan waste, preparing programmes for Rugby World Cup visitors, matters arising from Forsyth Barr Stadium funding, the difficulties being experienced on some of our major arterial highways due to increased industrial traffic, provision of modern health-care facilities in the Queenstown Lakes area ... it is not difficult to find subjects where unified policies are needed.

And, while the mayors of the six councils probably feel they have quite enough meetings to attend as it is these days, modern technology such as video-conferencing could be employed to ensure a monthly discussion of current issues.

The councils have been talking about one quite significant area of co-operation, the sharing of services. Here, ratepayers rather than central government will be particularly interested in seeing results, especially if the prescribed purpose of saving money is adhered to.

It seems at this stage a decision is required to proceed with an investigation of the idea. The wonder of it is why such a study has not previously been initiated. A similar exercise in the public health arena has resulted over several years in many millions being saved by combined procurement for district health boards.

Local body services that would seem to offer potential for shared savings by eliminating duplication, mainly in office functions, include such areas as a information technology provision, office procurement, finance, library services, and possibly human resources.

Such a programme also sits tidily in line with the present Government's focus on local body amalgamation. The prospect of more so-called "super councils" along the lines of the Auckland model lies in the back of the minds of many local body officials as a long-term likelihood and seem bound to become a reality should the projected savings from the Greater Auckland experiment eventuate.

The argument that there are far too many local bodies for a country of this size is a compelling one, even today where there are far fewer such entities than there were.

If, as the Minister of Finance keeps telling us, we are facing dire economic times for at least the next decade, the pressure to save costs at every level of local and national government is bound to increase. That might mean forced amalgamations if cost savings can be demonstrated.

The chief danger to the success of the proposals in Otago is parochialism. If that can be overcome, and an acceptance achieved that centralisation does not need to mean capture by one or other centre of population - the bogey of Dunedin dominance, in particular - then the idea is one that should deserve the broadest public acceptance.

 

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