Letter sent to Len Brown on the 2nd of February 2015
You may have been advised that I intend to lead a process of exploring the idea of a separate District Council for Waiheke.
I would like to emphasise that in conducting this campaign I will work to limit criticism of the performance of Auckland Council and concentrate on emphasising Waiheke’s physical separation – no pipes, roads, etc join us to Auckland – and that we have quite different aspirations about growth and development to those of Auckland.
I hope you will understand, however, that making a case for the likelihood of improved governance and cost containment for Waiheke will require drawing attention to systemic shortcomings in the present subsidiarity arrangements as we see them.
While I accept that it is a matter of perspective, we believe most regional issues mainland Auckland has to grapple with have limited relevance here. People don’t live here to aspire to contributing to the “ever increasing demand for public transport, roads, housing, water [and] sewerage” required by a “great city” [‘Help shape the future of Auckland’ 10 – Year Budget document p.7.]
We have found that the unavoidable division of responsibilities in a large, multi-faceted Council makes project management on our tiny scale very difficult to manage well. Believe me, we have tested this. Even when the CEOs of the AC and AT have personally intervened in multi-faceted projects, those projects have progressed poorly.
The complications arising from the division of accountability between AC and the CCOs exacerbate the problems we have in getting things done satisfactorily. AT, which has pervasive impact here and in most ‘rural’ areas, has recently reaffirmed its belief that it should not devolve any aspects of its functions, as provided for in legislation, because it claims that everything it does has regional ramifications. We simply do not believe this is true in respect of Waiheke beyond some minor matters.
The question of a possible new TLA for Waiheke should be about whether governance and prospective cost control could be more effective with a simpler, more easily accountable local structure for Waiheke. A central consideration for us will be to determine whether and in what ways being part of Auckland Council adds value in our context.
I have been assured by Council finance officers that Waiheke gets more expenditure applied to it than it pays for in rates. However, my instincts, born of long experience in the management of large public and private organisations, plus research I have done on 8 District Councils that have a similar number of rateable properties to that of Waiheke [and typically far more infrastructure to service than we do], suggest that this is true only because we bear costs we would not do if we had the 30 – 40 staff level that is typical of the 8 Councils researched and the reduced costs from simpler governance, communications etc. Obviously we will need to explore the facts around revenue and expenditure as best we can but, especially for the expenditure side of the ledger, the numbers we are able to obtain will reflect what is in place now, not what might be, and this will limit their relevance.
You will understandably be concerned with the possible flow on effects if any campaign to ‘secede’ from AC jurisdiction is successful. You may well oppose any proposal for what you see are good reasons in the event that a formal proposal for change emerges. We also appreciate there will be cost ramifications, in money, in disruption, implications for some staff, new system hiccups etc if there is more change. These sorts of things will be legitimate concerns.
We note, however, that the spirit of this government’s 2012 and 2014 amendments to the LG Act was to make the possibility of successful ‘reorganisation’ proposals more likely by simplifying processes and wiping the need for a minimum of 10,000 residents in any prospective new TLA. The Minister and Government Members, as recorded in Hansard in the relevant debates, were very clear about the desirability of making things easier in this regard.
I personally believe in the necessity of a unitary council in Auckland. The big issues for Auckland – transport, water supply and water treatment, fairly sharing facilities, responses to fast growth, etc etc – should be subject to more coherent, single point decision making than was possible in the past.
Again, we feel much of all that has little relevance to Waiheke beyond some relatively minor regional matters. Most of us gain little more benefit from the infrastructure and services located on the mainland than the residents of, for example, the Waikato, Northland or regular business visitors. I believe any objective study would show that our now very capable commuting population more than pays its way in its contribution to Auckland’s prosperity through their applied skills, their purchases and in the rates paid by their employers. A small number avail themselves of transport subsidies on the mainland but even those are under threat.
Meanwhile, there is considerable use of Waiheke’s Council sourced services and amenities by the large proportion of Auckland’s residents that visit here each year. Many of the amenities they use were put in place by the Waiheke County Council and its predecessors. The County Council, when amalgamated into Auckland City in 1989, was the only Council whose books were “in the black”. We paid for our wharves through a tax on [unsubsidised] ferry fares and continue to maintain them thereby. Overall, I believe Auckland residents use of Waiheke’s amenities etc is likely to offset what Waiheke’s 8600 residents avail themselves of in Auckland.
Len, I believe there is merit in us discussing how to limit possible flow on effects and avoiding unnecessary negative publicity in this context. It is rare for anything to be unique, and Waiheke is not. It is, however, an island which makes consideration of the parameters of operational issues and projects easy to calculate. Waiheke has an atypical population that is increasingly highly qualified and, as you know, is strongly biased in favour of community and political engagement. All of the many Waiheke ratepayers I have had contact with are very keen on this idea – I have not had a single negative response thus far. Even the emails I have received from Auckland based house owners have been as supportive as those from residents.
Whatever transpires from exploring this idea, I hope that you will actively assist in ensuring that AC staff respond objectively to our exploration of its pro’s and con’s. If we obtain sufficient, demonstrable support to determine that we should put a formal proposal to the LG Commission, I hope that Auckland Council’s responses to our proposal will be well founded and honestly held.
Thank you for taking the time to read this rather lengthy missive. I hope it will lead to a discussion in the near future.
Regards, John Meeuwsen.