Arguments for amalgamation ‘stronger’

From top left: Buller District Council; Greymouth District Council; West Coast Regional Council...
From top left: Buller District Council; Greymouth District Council; West Coast Regional Council and Westland District Council. Photo: RNZ/Google Maps
Amalgamation of the West Coast's four councils should happen now, says the woman behind a petition which is calling for local government reorganisation in 2025.

Former Westland District councillor Anthea Keenan, who with Peter Salter instigated the referendum which resulted only in the Te Tai o Poutini Plan (one district plan), said yesterday the argument was even more urgent now.

Mrs Keenan said the current four-council structure was unaffordable with "an overload of administration".

What was needed was "a really good strong voice" in a pared-down administration for the region that was significantly more doable than in 2015.

"We've got technology to help that now — there's other means of communication."

Last Friday afternoon the region's mayors, chairs and iwi leaders issued a statement on amalgamation, noting it had been bandied about for some time.

They said they were now trying to assess the advantages and disadvantages because the current system "is unsustainable".

"Every council around the country is struggling with large rate rises compounded by rising costs in infrastructure and delivery of services. The funding model is not coping, and our local ratepayers are suffering as a consequence."

The forum said an appraisal for shared services in a collaborative approach was needed now.

First-term West Coast Regional councillor Frank Dooley said that collaborative approach between the four councils was pretty thin at present.

"I think it's a joke: from the point of view of councils working together for shared services to date, that hasn't happened."

However, the reality of escalating costs in a region with a high ratio of pensioners and beneficiaries meant the conversation was now unavoidable.

"I think the only way for affordability for the West Coast is one council."

But it needed "a proper analysis" by a body independent of the current leadership.

The major issue of infrastructure and organisational capital expenditure based on "sustainability and affordability" immediately came to mind, particularly around three waters.

"We need to have a very, very serious look at one council … and look at that and say, ‘what are the advantages?’."

It would mean districts ceding control, Cr Dooley said.

"You win some and lose some … You just have to accept that."

Greymouth Mayor Tania Gibson said they acknowledged "a lot of talk and a lot of angst" as West Coasters faced huge rates increases — with an underlying feeling of "disenfranchisement".

"A lot of people are screaming for the one council.

"I think we need to be sensible and work together … the model is not sustainable."

But simply moving to amalgamation might not meet ratepayers’ expectations either.

"People do not understand, it might not be the golden egg," Mrs Gibson said.

West Coast Regional Council chairman Peter Haddock said the TTPP set a precedent for the region.

"That would be the catalyst … In the interim we should be working towards shared services," he said.

An appetite for amalgamation "in the long term" was real.

"I would like to think if it doesn't happen in the next triennium then [the] one after."

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine said the effectiveness of the status quo had eroded but "a lot of runway" remained for a move to shared services across boundaries first.

Resourcing and accommodating "communities of interest" and the cost of new management structure needed better analysis.

"Look at the challenge of the regional council now, with their (23) rating districts up and down the Coast against that for just one town."

Westland District councillor Steven Gillett saw amalgamation as a pragmatic necessity but at the same time the region's ratepayers were "very parochial".

However, the rates-funding basis for the region was now "out of proportion" for a small council like Westland.

"I get the feeling there would be warmish support," Cr Gillett said.

He noted the Hokitika council chambers needed replacing after council "kicked down the road" that issue due to new seismic requirements.

 - LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

By Brendon McMahon