The Impact Of The Auckland Model On Local Government Reform

Mike Reid

The suggestion that Auckland has an impact beyond its borders is hardly radical. Yet it is not just the city’s economic clout that is having impact, it is also serving as a laboratory for local governance. Despite the widely held view that the Auckland model was designed to address the specific circumstances of the Auckland metropolitan it has had considerable influence on recent amendments to the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA 2002) and consequently local government elsewhere.

The creation of Auckland Council was notable for the fact that it was the first major deviation from the virtually universal model of local government established in 1989, that is, separate territorial local authorities and regional councils with the regions given very narrowly defined roles. [1] It’s creation appeared to acknowledge that NZ is too diverse for a single model of local governance yet recent options put forward by the Local Government Commission (LGC) appeared, at least until the Minister of Local Government stepped in, to take us back to a one size fits all approach – that one size being low budget replicas of Auckland.

The design of the Auckland Council included a number of key differences from what existed in the rest of the local government sector, such as the requirement for a spatial plan; a shared governance approach between the governing body and local boards, a Maori statutory board; additional roles and powers for the mayor (including guaranteed funding for a mayoral office) and a major role for Council Controlled Organisations. A number of these features have now been incorporated into what we might refer to as mainstream local government legislation – almost all of them as a result of the Better Local Government programme and its subsequent impact on the LGA 2002. Two particular features involved the role of mayors and a new approach to re-organisation.

Mayors’ Powers

Three year after the Local Government (Auckland) Act 2009 the Minister of Local Government, the Hon Nick Smith, released his Better Local Government paper(BLG) which set out the direction of future local government reform which consisted of eight reform areas, one of which involved strengthening the role of mayors. The paper described the problem with the role of mayors as the “mismatch in the current local government framework between the high level of interest, scrutiny and engagement in mayoral elections … and their limited formal powers over the governing body of a council (BLG January 2012). [2]

In 2012 the LGA 2002 was amended to give all mayors similar powers to those possessed by the Auckland Mayor. The Act made it clear that the role of mayors is to provide leadership to:

  • the other members of the territorial authority; and
  • the people in the district of the territorial authority
  • the responsibility to lead the development of council plans, policies and budgets;
  • to appoint the deputy mayor;
  • to establish council committees; and
  • to appoint chairs to those council committees.

There were two notable difference from the powers of the Auckland Mayor – the changes did not include the authority to determine the nature of engagement between the council and its citizens and neither was there any guaranteed funding for establishing a mayoral office (although a number of mayors have since done exactly that, with the agreement of the majority of their councillors). As it turned out the changes were not smooth sailing with the Select Committee, concerned about misuse of such powers, amending the provisions to allow councils to over-ride any appointments made by the mayor.

In relation to the appointment of the deputy mayor and committee chairs mayors outside Auckland were given powers that were significantly less than those held by the Auckland mayor and not surprisingly many mayors chose not to use them[3]. It was a similar situation with the role of leading members, the community and the development of plans and policies. While the mayor of Auckland has a stand-alone mayoral office to provide advice and information this is not the case in the rest of NZ unless councillors agree, and in fact a number of mayors (such as the Mayor of New Plymouth) do have access to their own advisors. Without “independent” advice it is difficult for mayors to fully meet the leadership assumptions now reflected in the legislation.


Arguably Auckland’s most direct impact on local government reform was the re-design of local government’s re-organisation provisions. As part of the Better Local Government programme the Government made extensive changes to the provisions in the LGA 2002 governing re-organisation. The most significant change, and the one most directly influenced by the Auckland experience, concerned the criteria for evaluating options.

When assessing a re-organisation option the Local Government Commission must be satisfied that it meets the criteria of “good government”. Good government involves being able to promote the purpose of local government and facilitate improved economic performance, as well as achieving:

  • efficiencies and cost savings
  • productivity improvements (in councils, households and businesses)
  • simplified planning processes (reduction in number of plans or integration of statutory plans)

Putting aside the difficulties of assessing the productivity and efficiency tests of any option the new criteria, particularly the importance of “simplified planning processes” has led the LGC, at least based on their re-organisation proposals for Northland, Wellington region and the Hawkes Bay, to favour Auckland-lite models. In each case the Commission favoured unitary councils with boundaries coterminous with the boundaries of regional councils in which governance is shared between governing bodies and local boards.[4] In the Hawkes Bay option a version of Auckland’s Maori Statutory Boards was promoted.


The degree to which ideas and concepts have been first tried out on Auckland and then offered more widely covers a broad range of statutory and non-statutory. In addition to those discussed above they include:

  • The adoption of spatial planning
  • The shift of responsibilities to Council Controlled Organisations
  • Special housing areas

Until the Minister of Local Government, the Hon Paula Bennett, informed the LGNZ conference that she “will be asking the Commission to be creative and think seriously about the different kind of local government structures that will help our communities continue to prosper” it looked as though local government in New Zealand would be a variation of Auckland. Without reflecting on the efficacy of the Auckland governance model the lessons from 1989 and 1992 suggest that we need to be able to develop governance approaches that are appropriate for our different communities and locations. One size does not suit all. It is a lesson that legislators must try not to forget.

[1] There were some exceptions; Greater Wellington was responsible for bulk water and, with the Auckland Regional Council, regional parks. Some regions had a large role in funding public transport.

[2] While it should not undermine the importance of mayors as democratic leaders with a ‘whole of community’ mandate we should note that electoral turnout for mayors is no more than for councils generally

[3] Source: Local leadership: the role of mayors and the impact of the LGA 2002 Amendment Act 2012, LGNZ expected publication date December 2015.

[4] The Northland option included community boards as the ability to establish local boards was not provided until sometime after the final options was presented for consultation. The LGC indicated it desire to establish local boards if and when the legislation would allow it. The change was made in July 2014.

Mike Reid
About the author

Mike Reid

Principal Policy Advisor - LGNZ
Mike has been with LGNZ since 1996, having previously been with Creative NZ and Christchurch City Council. In his role he provides thought leadership, sector advocacy and stakeholder management in relation to governance, public policy, constitutional issues, performance, ethics and the overall legislative framework under which local government operates. Mike has published widely on local government, including journal articles, book chapters and co-authored two books on strategy in NZ local government. He completed his PhD in public policy in 2011 and is also on the board of the Institute of Governance in Policy Studies.