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The A word. Amalgamation

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It’s something previous councils haven’t just shied away from, but have vehemently spoken out against.

The Waikato Chamber has advocated for a serious discussion about the potential for amalgamation of our region’s councils for years now. A rational discussion grounded in data and driven by a desire for better productivity, reduced bureaucracy, and the drive to do better by the community as a whole. A discussion that considers evidence-based information from the likes of Auckland’s Supercity merger where we drill into what’s worked there – and what hasn’t.

In 2018, then-Chamber CEO Chris Simpson drew the ire of most of the region’s then mayors with his call to have an amalgamation discussion. He had, quite rightly, pointed out that the Waikato had 247 representatives compared with Auckland’s 196. The 12 territorial authorities in the Waikato regional catchment were in Chris’s sights when he first compared Waikato’s 136 elected councillors, representing 537,000 people, to Auckland’s 20 councillors who represent a population of 1.7 million. Chris’s research showed that Auckland had a representative ratio of one for every 10,000 people. In the Waikato, it’s one for every 2,000 people.

Of the 10 mayors the Waikato Times spoke to in 2018, none showed support for amalgamation. Then in 2021, I too raised the possibility of having an amalgamation discussion, saying that we, as a Chamber, want to see the region have a united and stronger voice and one involving less bureaucracy.

I said at the time: “Twelve replications, 12 governance bodies, 12 bureaucracies, 12 large cost-centres and 12 voices singing off separate song sheets.”

There was a more measured response from the mayors then, a willingness at least to engage in a discussion. But nothing much more was said until Hamilton City Council’s recent submission to the nationwide review into the Future for Local Government showed support for a large Waikato unitary council combining local and regional council powers for Hamilton and surrounding districts. Waikato District Council gave qualified support to a possible sub-regional unitary body.

Stuff reported that under the city’s new ideas, a “Hamilton-Waikato sub-region” unitary council could be based on fast-growing Hamilton, Waikato district, Waipā and Matamata-Piako, with Mayor Paula Southgate saying, “we’re not looking at a takeover, we’re looking at a partnership.”

We’re the first to agree that there is a strong case to explore a unitary authority. We believe it’s worth looking at the relative competitive advantages of each region. You could have a unitary body that encompasses Hamilton as the major metropolitan hub along with its spokes in Cambridge, Te Awamutu, Morrinsville, Matamata, Huntly and Ngaruawahia. And you then have three other bodies: North Waikato, Coromandel, South Waikato. Each of those regions offers different competitive advantages and should be included in the discussions.

We don’t necessarily need to be a super city like Auckland. Instead, you’d have councillors and community boards so that each town was represented by democratically elected people, but in a pared back way. However, important growth infrastructure issues such as a third bridge in Cambridge, the Expressway extension to Tauranga, the economically important Southern Links project to the Airport to open up the west and Te Awamutu, will be advocated and lobbied for by a united council, much stronger in its weight with Wellington politicians and bureaucracy.

The Chamber doesn’t profess to have all the answers. But we are throwing our support behind our 12 councils being open to having that rational and robust conversation about how amalgamation of some form could happen.

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Don Good

CEO of Waikato Chamber of Commerce