Amalgamation - it’s a word that has been bandied about in the Western Bay of Plenty and Tauranga for three decades.
Is it time to take the conversation seriously, and look at the future of the region’s two councils?
Western Bay of Plenty District Council mayor Garry Webber thinks it is.
“We're like Siamese twins,” he says. “We’re welded together, not just at the head and the hip, but right the way down.
“The sooner we understand we need to join together and overcome the stupidity of what we have, the better off we’ll all be.
“I believe over the next five years, 10 years at the latest, we should be one organisation.”
There was crossover between the areas’ water supply, wastewater and infrastructure, he says.
Omokoroa’s wastewater is processed by Tauranga and the Waiāri Water Supply Scheme that started in Te Puke provides water to Papamoa, are examples he gave.
Webber says the kiwifruit and forestry industries and the Port of Tauranga are drivers of the local economy. Freight goes through Western BOP to get to the port in Tauranga, so the two regions rely on each other.
Former Tauranga City mayor Stuart Crosby agrees Tauranga is a “huge beneficiary” of the Western Bay’s economy.
He says this is in the area of agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing, but the port is in Tauranga as is a lot of the service industry.
“We rely on each other to grow our economy,” says Crosby. “And our economy has been part of one of the fastest regional economies in New Zealand.”
Stuart Crosby was Tauranga's mayor for 12 years. Photo: LGNZ.
Despite this, the Tauranga mayor from 2004 to 2016, says it is “a little premature” to amalgamate as there is currently a review into the Future for Local Government.
“It may well be a reasonable model, but we need to go through the process first,” says Crosby.
Future for Local Government
The independent ministerial review is looking at a new system of local governance in response to the changing nature of New Zealand.
There are currently 67 local councils and 11 regional councils.
Webber, who started as a councillor in 2010, says there is “a hell of a lot of things” local government could do better.
“Project management in local government is tardy to say the least, it takes us far too long to build stuff,” he says.
“It takes us far too long to work out what we want to do. And then when we work out what we want to do quite often we get it wrong, because democracy is not a skill test.”
“So, we have people making well intentioned decisions, but they haven't got the business background or the technical background,” says Webber.
“A lot of the decisions become political decisions and it's around, in many instances, will this get me re-elected?
“When you're in local government, you need to have a strategic focus because you're there to do things for future generations,” says Webber.
Webber, who is not standing in the October election, does not believe the Future for Local Government review would change much.
“The fundamental change is councillors will become far more accountable,” he says.
Crosby says if local government takes on a new form and role through the review it could be “quite exciting”.
He says local government could have a stronger role in the delivery of health, social housing and employment in partnership with the government.
The review will be the first change in the local government framework in 30 years.
In 1989 local government underwent a restructure. It was proposed the Mount Maunganui Borough Council, Tauranga City Council (TCC) and WBOP amalgamate. Only Tauranga and Mount Maunganui did so.
Crosby says this was in part because the rural sector didn’t want to join the city and it was a “lost opportunity.”
Don Thwaites. Photo: John Borren/SunLive.
Western Bay District councillor and mayoral candidate, Don Thwaites says he is not fully opposed to amalgamation but wants to see projects in the Western Bay achieved first.
These include the Katikati Bypass, a secondary school in Ōmokoroa and building a community centre in Maketu.
As well as work with Tauranga on “projects of interest”, like stage two of the Takitumu Northern Link (TNL), the State Highway 29 Tauriko West bypass and the Ōmokoroa interchange between Ōmokoroa Road and SH2.
“I'd like to get a few things done before we consider joining with the 50,000 ratepayers in Tauranga.
“If we get swallowed into Tauranga, I can just see a big museum being built and lots of stuff and down in the CBD.”
The TNL and Omokoroa interchange have been in the planning stages for close to two decades.
Last year work started on the first stage of the TNL, a 6.8km four-lane expressway between Tauranga and Te Puna, but the Omokoroa to Te Puna section was delayed by the Government.
Webber says in 2004 a SmartGrowth roading structure plan for the sub region was agreed on and WBOP Council have met their capital requirements for the plans over the years.
The SmartGrowth committee was formed in 2004, it provides a unified vision, direction and voice for the WBOP.
Representatives from WBOPDC, TCC, Bay of Plenty Regional Council and tangata whenua make up the leadership group.
“The reason Western Bay is indebted and has high rates in comparison, is because we did what we agreed to at SmartGrowth,” says Webber.
“We put the capital requirement in and went ahead and did it.
“Tauranga City for many, many years failed to put the capital requirements in to meet those plans in their long-term plans.
“They haven't had the intestinal fortitude to make the hard decisions.”
Crosby and fellow former mayor Greg Brownless dispute this, and both say the lack of investment in state highways is a government failure not a council failure.
“We [TCC] definitely pushed the boundaries within our balance sheet, as hard as we could both in rates and debt,” says Crosby.
“Where the governments of the day constantly failed is on our state highway network and that's going back 30 years.
“We had to have toll roads here and do it ourselves or in partnership with the government since 1988.”
Tauranga has two of the country’s three toll roads, the Tauranga Eastern Link and Takitimu Drive, and the Tauranga Harbour Bridge had a toll from 1988 until 2001.
“The real reason why there's been a lack of government input here is because it's a safe national seat,” says Crosby.
Throughout the years the government has changed the rules for investment with some prioritising bus lanes others freight, he says
“Governments can't agree for the long term on a transport system, and it cost this country billions of dollars of wasted time and money.
“Governments, and it doesn't matter what colour, they are kept changing the rules.”
Former Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless. File image/SunLive.
Brownless, the mayor from 2016 to 2019, agrees with Crosby.
“Councils are not required to pay for state highways,” he says. “That is the government’s responsibility.”
“This government has delayed, dithered and downsized, the state highway improvements at Bethlehem.
“It has no plans whatsoever for state highway  through Tauriko. And it is hugely behind and way over budget for the Bayfair to Baypark link.”
Webber says now is the time to start looking at amalgamation to create a thriving sub region in the future.
“We didn't get stuff done 20 years ago, but if we don't do it now, we’re creating a district for future generations, that's going to be impossible.”
-Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air