Combined district plan 'best fit' for West Coast

The West Coast will not get one unitary council or merged councils, the Local Government Commission announced today after two years of investigation.

Instead, it says its preferred option is the transfer of district plan preparation from the Buller, Grey and Westland district councils to the West Coast Regional Council.

The commission has been considering whether the West Coast has too many councils, prompted by a petition signed by about 400 residents.

It found that financially, a unitary council may bring the best gains for the region but it would not be best for democratic local decision-making.

Yet it also found that most people wanted some sort of change.

Lead commissioner for the West Coast reorganisation, former Timaru mayor Janie Annear, started in Westport this morning and then drove to Greymouth and Hokitika to personally inform the mayors.

The commission's preferred option is to set up a joint committee of the four councils to be responsible for developing and approving a new combined West Coast district plan.

The Grey, Buller and West Coast Regional councils already back this, but the Buller District Council rejected the suggestion four times.

The commission says it will now work with the councils to prepare a draft outlining the details of the proposal and invite submissions from the community in the New Year.

Mrs Annear said that while a number of options for local government had been canvassed, only three were found to be reasonably practicable options:

* The transfer of the statutory obligations for preparing district plans under the Resource Management Act from the Buller, Grey and Westland district councils to the West Coast Regional Council.
* A unitary authority council.
* The status quo.

Combined district planning was the best fit, Mrs Annear said.

"This option retains existing democratic decision-making structures while also introducing a single set of planning and development rules for the whole area.''

Mrs Annear noted that over the past two years the commission had worked closely with the West Coast councils through a relationship agreement, focusing on regional efficiency initiatives.

Building on that work, the councils had already initiated a move towards joint Resource Management Act planning.

While the legal mechanism for shifting district planning preparation responsibilities would involve a formal transfer from the three district councils to the regional council, a joint committee involving all the councils would be established to prepare and approve the combined district plan.

Mrs Annear acknowledged that the West Coast with its vast area, relatively small, widespread population and limited rating base faced some acute challenges, particularly in resourcing and capacity to meet infrastructure, service delivery and planning needs.

"Our engagement and community surveys on the West Coast indicated that the majority of people wanted change, be that councils sharing the provision of some services to increase their efficiency and cost-effectiveness, or amalgamation in some form."

The commission will now begin work on preparing a draft proposal with input from the councils.

It will hold hearings and consider the submissions received before deciding whether to issue a final proposal.

Brief history of the application:

* In August 2015 the Local Government Commission agreed to assess a reorganisation application from Westland residents Anthea Keenan and Peter Salter and was supported by a petition with 367 signatures.
* In March 2016, the commission and West Coast councils signed a relationship agreement to collaborate on regional efficiency initiatives, with two initiatives identified as initial priorities: roading arrangements and RMA planning services.
* In August 2016 the commission agreed there was sufficient evidence there was demonstrable support in the three districts for some form of change.
* In February 2017 the commission invited alternative reorganisation applications and other proposals for change, and received 23 responses including 19 proposing some form of structural reorganisation or shared service arrangement.
* In October 2017, the commission arranged for a phone survey.

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