With amalgamations on the agenda in WA and the super city taking shape in Auckland, I’ve been thinking about how we set local government boundaries.
Existing boundaries rarely reflect a considered design but are rather the latest compromise in the battle between the opposing forces of efficiency and community of interest. If we could start with a blank page and logically design Council boundaries, what would be the best way to go about it?
The start point for many boundaries has been traditional natural boundaries like rivers. A community on one side of a significant river was traditionally largely independent of a community on the far side. As infrastructure such as bridges connects the communities more strongly, the interactions become more frequent, the ties stronger until you only have a single community; now split by a boundary. There are many examples of this problems such as Buda and Pest and closer to home Tweed Heads and Coolangatta.
From a resource perspective, the historical boundary is even more damaging. The best efforts of one government to improve water quality in the common river counts for nought if the government across the river promotes development that uses the rivers as a destination for industrial waste.
The Case for Catchments
Setting boundaries by catchment makes a lot of sense from a natural resource perspective. Having a single entity managing a single catchment should mean a cohesive approach to the way land is used in all areas that affect a river system.
Land use planning for the catchments can consider the capacity of the catchment in terms of both natural resource capacity as well as built environment considerations. The gravity fed nature of water and waste water systems also means that land use planning and infrastructure planning will be congruous.
The problem is that natural resources catchment often conflicts with the patterns of human settlement. the scenic areas on the ranges are attractive places for settlement. But a community at the top of the range is one split between two or more catchments. One community, split by an administrative boundary. People on different sides of the same street getting different standards of service and having to drive to different centres to get that service.
Catchments and Communities?
So where does that leave us. We can’t use the river at the bottom of the valley as the boundary and we can’t use the tops of the mountains as the boundary. Is there no ‘right’ answer? The answer is different boundaries for different outcomes. Resources should be managed by catchments and services delivered by communities of interest.
This implies two organisations with two different charters. Regional organisations based on catchments undertaking resources planning. Territorial organisations based on community of interest to deliver consistent services to a whole community.
The Kiwis nearly have this right. Unfortunately the regional Councils, charged with resource planning and broad scale land use planning, seem to have boundaries that reflect historical compromise rather than natural catchments. Despite this I think it is a better bet than the completely random state boundaries in Australia which are neither regional nor catchment based.
It will be interesting to see if the unitary model we see in Auckland is a one-off like the City of Brisbane or a more general trend. I hope not!