In March 2012, the Government announced a series of local government reforms under the "Better Local Government" policy.  Amendments to the Local Government Act 2002 made in December last year gave effect to the government's policy by creating streamlined mechanisms to amalgamate and abolish councils.

The new law bore its first (albeit unripened) fruit last week, when the Local Government Commission issued its draft proposal for reorganising local government in Northland.  The Local Government Commission proposes amalgamating the Far North District, Kaipara District, Whangarei District and Northland Regional Councils into a single unitary authority.  The aim of the reorganisation is to provide for a single council which can better advocate for the region and meet the demographic and economic challenges of the coming decades.  In short, a body that can "speak with one voice".

From here the Local Government Commission needs to call for submissions on its draft proposal and seek the views of a range of organisations and groups, including the affected local authorities, iwi and relevant central government ministries.  The Commission must then consider the submissions and may consider holding further hearings or other types of consultation before deciding on how to proceed. 

The proposed Northland reorganisation is an interesting commentary on how local councils need to be careful about what they wish for under the new local government laws.  The reorganisation process began in December 2012 when the Far North District Council applied to the Commission to become a unitary authority.  That is, the Far North District Council wanted to be both the District Council and Regional Council in its territory.  Having applied to the Commission and triggered the reorganisation process, the Far North District Council's proposal met alternative proposals from other submitters.  After considering the original proposal and the alternative proposals, the Local Government Commission decided that amalgamating all the councils was a far superior option.  Consequently, a process begun by the Far North council could well see that very council disappear from history.

If the Local Government Commission decides to issue a final proposal abolishing and merging existing councils, then there is a 60 day window in which electors in one or more of the affected districts can call for a binding poll on the Commission's final proposal.  The binding poll must be held across the entire area affected by the Commission's proposal.  Therefore, if 10% of the voters in the Kaipara District (that is 1,290 people) were to sign a petition for a poll then a binding poll across the entire Northland region of 152,000 people would need to be held.  The poll would determine whether the final proposal will proceed or not.

The Northland proposal also provides some salutary lessons for the Wellington region.  In May, the three district councils in the Wairarapa (Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa) submitted a proposal to the Local Government Commission suggesting that the three districts become a unitary authority and take over the Greater Wellington Regional Council's responsibilities in their area.  Then in June the Greater Wellington Regional Council proposed a new Wellington supercity comprising the three Wairarapa District Councils plus the Kapiti District Council and Wellington, Porirua, Hutt and Upper Hutt cities.  The proposed supercity would have a mayor and 21 councillors elected across eight wards.  In response to these two proposals, the Local Government Commission is now considering 11 alternative proposals for local government in Wellington and the Wairarapa.  Like Northland, the Wairarapa councils and Greater Wellington Regional Council might see themselves written out of the history books based on proposals they originally kicked off. 

The Wellington and Wairarapa local government restructuring will roll on for at least another year.  We could expect a Local Government Commission draft proposal in April or May 2014 with a final proposal later in the year.  Any final proposals in Wellington will likely see a poll of registered voters on the proposal, especially if the Commission recommends a Wellington supercity incorporating the Wairarapa.  After all, 10 percent of the voters of Carterton (or 590 people) could sign a petition forcing a binding poll across the entire Greater Wellington region.

The reforms governing how local government can be reorganised introduced last year have certainly speed up the council reorganisation process.  Most of the heavy lifting in the process resets on the Local Government Commission and its consultation with local communities.  Accordingly, we are now witnessing a slow and ad hoc, but nevertheless significant, shift in how local government is organised around the country.

The current reform process is more a rolling maul, unlike the juggernaut of 1989, when 230 city, borough, district and county councils, along with catchment boards, were reduced to 86 councils overnight.  But the long term consequences of the current process will nevertheless be just as significant as 1989.  The most notable feature of the current reorganisations is the creation of large multi-purpose unitary authorities governing significant swathes of territory.  It is conceivable that after the 2015 local body elections all of the country north of the Waikato River mouth will be governed by just two councils, and the entire Wellington region might have just one council (to say nothing of the Hawkes Bay reorganisation plans under consideration).  How these councils and with their mayors directly elected by hundreds of thousands of voters will interact with central government and the long term consequences of having such strong councils governing large territories will be something that plays out over the next decade or more.

The reorganised Auckland Council and the potential for a reorganised Northland Council and Wellington supercity does not herald a return to the provinces of the 19th century which Julius Vogel abolished, but these new councils are certainly tending closer to "province" than "local council" on the spectrum.  Similarly, mayors popularly elected across such large areas could begin resembling the old provisional superintendants.  Just as local councils need to be careful what they wish for when asking for a district reorganisation, central government needs to be careful that it gets what it wished for when encouraging larger and stronger local bodies.  We, for one, doubt whether they would wish for quasi-provinces and alternative power bases.