Localism or centralism?

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
8 March, 2024

Last week, we applauded Housing Minister Chris Bishop for his housing policy proposals.

Incentives for councils to promote growth perfectly match Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s repeated calls for localism. To address New Zealand’s housing shortage effectively, it champions local solutions to local challenges.

However, a disconcerting report emerged over the weekend in The Post. In the article, Bishop appears to support the idea of amalgamating Wellington’s councils.

Considering the government’s stated commitment to localism, this revelation is startling. It raises concerns about the potential loss of local communities’ and councils’ ability to address their own problems.

Local government, particularly Wellington City Council, is undeniably in trouble. People following Wellington’s local politics are aware of the city’s infrastructure and fiscal issues.

Nevertheless, combining all the region’s councils into a single entity would be fundamentally misguided.

Such a merger strategy would fail to acknowledge the diverse  communities within the Wellington region. As a result, local autonomy would be diminished, and decision-making could become more distant from residents.

The 2015 Local Government Commission’s decision against a similar amalgamation underscores this risk. The decision reflected a clear preference among residents for maintaining local democracy, following strong opposition to the amalgamation proposal.

References in The Post’s article to the Auckland ‘Super City’ as a model for Wellington’s potential amalgamation further complicate the narrative.

Auckland’s experience with increased efficiency and streamlined governance has been mixed at best. Staff numbers and operational costs have increased, challenging the assumption that larger administrative structures result in better outcomes.

Efficiency in local government is not merely a function of size. In its 2022 research note, the Infrastructure Commission found no significant correlation between council size and cost efficiency.

The New Zealand Initiative has long maintained that bigger is not necessarily better. Amalgamation does not guarantee improved efficiency and may, in fact, detract from the quality of local governance.

There are alternatives to amalgamation that would enhance operational efficiency without compromising the integrity of local governance. Through collaborative efforts and shared services, councils can achieve efficiency gains while preserving local autonomy.

Forced amalgamations risk consuming significant resources and attention, diverting focus from pressing issues such as housing, infrastructure, and transport.

Rather than spending energy on amalgamation proposals that may not deliver benefits, Wellington’s councils should focus on addressing these immediate challenges through collaboration and innovation.

It would fit better with the Government’s localism narrative, too.

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