Local government: Is a unitary authority really the solution?

Page updated: 20 October 2023

It’s easy to be swayed by the view that bigger is better, and that larger organisations can use their size to generate savings, create efficiencies, and reduce costs.

Councillor Craig Pauling, Deputy Chair

Councillor Craig Pauling, Deputy Chair

But being bigger doesn’t necessarily mean a better outcome, especially if you’re merging organisations with very different responsibilities, values and skill sets — and particularly where one of those organisations is there to regulate the other.

The role, function, and performance of local and regional government is always topical — for good reason. We collect your money to deliver local and regional services, that not everyone sees as critical to them, but that we are required to do by law.

These matters have been magnified recently by public debate on Water Services Reform, as well as the Government’s Future for Local Government review (read the final report, He piki tūranga, he piki kōtuku (PDF file, 17 MB)), which could have far-reaching consequences for who does what, what gets prioritised, and how everything is funded.

Read our submission on the draft report (PDF file, 786 KB).

Some have also suggested a unitary authority for Greater Christchurch, or a super-city model. But what is this? Will it be better than the status quo — particularly when we consider the challenges we face in relation to climate change, water and biodiversity degradation, as well as upholding the Treaty of Waitangi?

Council roles and responsibilities

As the regional government, we manage air quality, land and water use, biodiversity, and region-wide planning. We're also responsible for public transport services (bus and ferry networks), the Harbourmaster's Office, protection from flooding and river management, environmental incident response, and regional Civil Defence Emergency Management. This work is long-term, geographically diverse, and focused on ensuring the protection of our unique natural resources.

Local councils manage things like roading, building consents, subdivision, land use and development, and community facilities including libraries. They also manage the supply of drinking water and wastewater services. This work is more people-focused and provides the facilities and services needed for communities.

A unitary authority would have all the responsibilities set out above — and while this may seem attractive — we should consider what this may mean, what could be lost and whether alternatives may, in fact, be better.

For example, regional councils currently administer consents to local councils — providing an important stewardship role as well as providing a clear separation between the use and management of our precious natural resources.

How a regional approach adds value

We provide the regional perspective and planning across Waitaha Canterbury, assisting with collaboration, alignment, and benefits — for example, regional land transport, river and catchment management, coastal marine issues, and biodiversity and biosecurity programmes where city and district boundaries don't always take into account key environmental factors.

The regional government has also led the way in building stronger and more meaningful relationships with mana whenua, largely due to the shared interests in natural resource and environmental management that iwi and hapū hold along with the responsibilities of regional councils. These relationships are vital for our future and will enable us to confront the key environmental challenges we face.

New system must deliver for future generations

There will be change, that's for certain. The review is exploring all aspects of what local and regional councils do, including funding, how we give effect to te Tiriti, areas of responsibility, and involvement of the community in decisions.

It's important there is a full understanding of exactly what any new form and function for local government actually means. Ultimately, it must deliver a healthy and thriving environment and one where Waitaha Canterbury remains a fantastic place to live, work, and enjoy.

We need to ensure we design a system that our grandchildren will thank us for, and that is able to confront the key challenges we are facing. This is what we are committed to and we look forward to working with our communities, Ngāi Tahu, Central Government, and all our local councils to achieve. 

Toitu te marae a tane; Toitu te marae a Tangaroa; Toitu te iwi. Protect and strengthen the realms of the land and sea, and they will protect and strengthen the people.

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