The Board of Inquiry final decision on water quality and the proposed dam. Big issues tackled in preparation for our five councils’ next ten-year plans, including a huge investment in tourism. Controversies over water bottling, the airport name, and mushroom odour.

Plenty to write about in my usual Political Buzz article, but this time amalgamation must be the focus. I wasn’t planning to write on the subject myself, thinking I’d yield the space entirely to other voices. As an advocate of amalgamation, I’ve written plenty in the past.

But then I saw the latest pandering on the issue by MP Stuart Nash … his grandstanding parliamentary bill that would seek to alter the current ground rules under which amalgamation will be decided … decided by a democratic count of all voters in Hawke’s Bay in the window from 24 August to 15 September.

Nash wants less than a dozen voters in Rangitikei to be able to thwart the wishes of a likely 50,000+ voting residents throughout the region. That’s his vision of democracy. He’s entitled to it.

Tom Belford

But what’s disappointing is that Nash chooses to distract and divert from the real issues on the table. He might accept that there’s an important choice before Hawke’s Bay, and proffer a substantive case as to how Hawke’s Bay might progress without amalgamation – that is, with continuation of the status quo in governance. Instead, he has reverted to campaign form … simply pushing a hot button – not even a pertinent one at this point – to secure his political base.

The people of Hawke’s Bay aren’t voting in the coming weeks on Nash’s theory of minority rule; they’re considering whether amalgamation gives Hawke’s Bay a better platform to advance our region’s well-being … in all its dimensions.

That’s a debate worth having.

If I were to approach the amalgamation issue simply on the basis of how I think my ‘constituency’ views the proposition, I’d be paralyzed. Because I know, from countless conversations, that folks who have supported me as a candidate and publisher are divided. I count among my friends and supporters individuals who are passionately in favour, and others who are passionately opposed. And a fair number who don’t think the outcome matters either way.

Under those circumstances, I suppose I could take the time-honoured ‘out’ – “My personal view doesn’t matter; I’ll support whatever the people decide.”

But I’m not going to flinch now.

I am staunchly in favour of amalgamation. Mine is just one opinion to take or leave. But it’s based on my having covered and participated in local government ‘up close and personal’ for a considerable time now.

Reasons for

For starters, I believe it will give ratepayers more bang for their buck. Independent studies have detailed the available efficiencies and associated net savings. The LGC analysis projects $260 million in savings over 30 years. That’s in line with the original Winder Report, endorsed by all five councils, including Napier’s previous mayor, CEO and council, which identified $10 million per year in net savings. Those efficiencies can either be captured as rates savings or redeployed to meet under-served priorities.

Any honest councillor who watches councils’ budgeting and spending practices closely, as I do, readily sees the overlap and duplication and knows that such efficiencies will be there for the asking.

But even more importantly, amalgamation will vastly simplify and reduce the ‘transaction costs’ that community leaders and others who try to ‘get things done’ for the region must bear. Enough of the countless dollars and hours wasted in beseeching multiple councils for the most modest of support, for consistent policies and regulations, for coordinated initiatives, and simply for any decisions at all.

This is the area where I observe our multi-council structure to be the greatest drag on progress in our region – wasting the positive human energy and limited time resources of our community, from business people to volunteer (and paid) leaders in every sector.

With the added disadvantage of being the perfect structure for avoiding public scrutiny and accountability. Few voters – including the most passionately concerned –  understand accurately the ‘division of labour’ amongst our councils on matters like fracking, water bottling, even mushrooms vs. housing. If we set out purposefully to design a governance structure best able to hide responsibility from the public and frustrate accountability, our present arrangement would be it. No one knows who did or didn’t – who can or cannot – do what!

And finally, I do believe the singular voice that amalgamation will enable is absolutely essential to wisely moving our region forward in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all. The biggest issues in front of us – more and better jobs, protecting our environment, lifting quality of life for all, creating more value in our key rural sector, diversifying our economy – require regional focus, solutions and leadership.

That, in a nutshell, is why I support amalgamation.

Reasons against

What about my friends and constituents who do not? For most, their concerns are not about savings or debt or the fine points of the LGC plan. The three underlying apprehensions about amalgamation that I hear most – and find most frustrating – are these.

Small is beautiful.

Yes, I read that book … 42 years ago. And I remain sympathetic to its themes (I did move from America to NZ, after all). In terms of governance, sure, whatever decisions can be made prudently locally – because the preferences, circumstances and effects involved are truly local – should be.

But small can also be simplistic, siloed, and isolated.

Can anyone seriously argue that ineffective wastewater treatment in CHB should pollute water flowing through Hastings? Or that our region’s growth prospects aren’t compromised by five competing plans on how to do so? Or that we should continuously squabble over the need for and funding of major regional facilities and infrastructure?

These are issues of scale and increasing complexity, requiring a high degree of technical and professional competence, comprehensive planning and well-aimed funding, and yes, political trade-offs for the benefit of the entire region.

There’s another saying with great merit: the sum is greater than the parts. The LGC plan has the balance right. As detailed in the proposal document (pp. 36-38), plenty of discretion, authority and resourcing will be available to local boards, while matters of scale and interdependence will be decided, as they should be, on a regional/unitary level.

Paralysis is ‘safer’ than dispatch.

Is ‘bigger’ local government inherently somehow more insidious, less trustworthy? The Regional Council has but nine members. These days, how would you rate trust and accountability with respect to that council?

Some argue that the public interest is somehow ‘safer’ because the more conflicted our five councils are, the more they protect their own patches, the more they erect barriers to each other’s goals, the less harm they can do. In short, paralysis is a better option.

Sorry, I think that’s nonsense.

First, it’s a recipe for stagnation and ‘lowest common denominator’ outcomes. The sheer pace and competitiveness of the modern world requires our regional decision-making to move with dispatch … and smartly. For example …

The Government announces a new $25 million fund for a few regional institutes focused on boosting regional economies …  a contestable fund, it will be gobbled up in a blink! Jetstar says it will consider flying into four regions, but is looking at six candidates … another competition to be won by the fleetest and most united.

Opportunities for the region can come – and go – quickly. We snooze – or wasting time and resource battling amongst ourselves – we lose.

Or, if the need is for a strategy – let’s say an events strategy to attract visitors, a regional coastal strategy to deal with erosion, or a facilities strategy to meet the needs of our far-flung sports codes – the outcome is diluted by the requirement of five councils’ box-ticks. And the pace for getting there is measured in years – yes, years.

Second, it stymies accountability. As both an outside advocate and now a councillor, I’ve watched concerned citizens struggle – too often unsuccessfully – to keep pace with the multitude of working parties, stakeholder groups, council meetings, formal and informal consultation processes and the sheer volume of information driven by the avalanche of issues and proposals relentlessly brought forward by five councils.

To have any hope of holding councils accountable, the public – and let’s be frank, really, the tiny band that actually pay attention and attempt to engage – must do this on their own dime and devoting their own scarce volunteer time. There’s simply not enough ‘accountability budget’ to go around. Consequently, five staff-driven councils get to do pretty much whatever they want … or nothing at all.

And I’ve already mentioned the sheer confusion around councils’ responsibilities.  I find it incredible that people imagine – elevating wishful theory over actual practice – that they can somehow ensure more accountability and better, more responsive outcomes on the big issues with five councils to watch, monitor, berate and beseech rather than one.

People matter more than structure.

Some argue that changing governance structure (‘moving the deck chairs’) is not important; what matters is getting the right people in the chairs.

To that I respond: If you think Hawke’s Bay is muddling along at the bottom of the regional heap because the wrong people have been running the show, who’s to blame? You, the voter, are.

You’ve had ample opportunity to get the people right, haven’t you? As George Bernard Shaw said: “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”

So, if getting the people right hasn’t solved the problem so far, let’s look at the other side of the equation.

I believe our present structure impedes and frustrates those elected representatives who are change-oriented, prepared to move faster, and have a broader vision, while it encourages, even rewards, those who have the most parochial of instincts and scope.

With five councils, all incentives point to patch protection – whether for elected representatives or council staff. There’s meager reward, if any, for collaboration; the smallest inter-council gains are incredibly hard won; and any bold ideas (and any idea that involves sacrificing self-interest, authority or independence) are hostage to the ultimate veto of one reluctant player … nullifying all preceding collective effort.

It’s simply not an environment for getting ‘big picture’ things done, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that those inclined toward getting things done might not be attracted to the party – that is, to elected public service.

None of this is to say that those more focused, as councillors, on truly local concerns are not performing valuable public service. Their opportunity to contribute is well provided for in the local boards proposed in the reorganisation plan.

To me, the people and the structure are equally important ingredients, and the two influence each other.

So it’s not surprising that some people, open to the improvement in governance that amalgamation can bring, jump ahead to the question: If we get a unitary council, who will run it?

Ideally, it would be nice to ‘table’ that question, on the basis that the new structure will outlast its first and subsequent inhabitants, and should be judged on its own merits.

But the reality is, people do leapfrog ahead and personify the issue. Will we get Yule or Dalton? Tremain or Nash? A new face?

Obviously Lawrence Yule is the elected official most regard as the champion of amalgamation. That makes him a demon to some (not me) – whether they’ve battled him on Hastings issues (as I have) or worry he will impose some ‘Hastings’ agenda upon the rest of Hawke’s Bay. Fearful of his possible election as ‘Mayor of Hawke’s Bay’, they find reason in that alone to
shun amalgamation.

That’s unfortunate. I hope voters will take a more mature approach to their amalgamation decision. As Kiwis are fond of saying: ‘Play the ball, not the man!’

And deal with first things first. Let’s build the ship first, then worry about the crew.

The fact is, if amalgamation succeeds, the ship’s master and crew will in no way be a foregone conclusion – not in terms of who runs at any of the various levels, and certainly not in terms of who might win. Who knows who will show up on game day? To me, that’s exciting.

The most important political decision Hawke’s Bay voters will make for decades is whether to amalgamate. Mayors, councillors and local board members will come and go; we’ll have many cracks at that. Let’s focus first on giving them the best vehicle for succeeding on behalf of Hawke’s Bay.

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5 Comments

  1. It really is a pity you decided to nail your colours to the pro-amalgamation mast. Although of course we need to wait for the results from the up coming amalgamation vote it may have sunk your continuing participation in local government politics. There is a lot to be said for the old conventional political wisdom of ‘having a bob each way’ on controversial issues. It is not sitting on the fence, it is simply waiting to see what the people (who you are meant to represent) choose on contentious policy. You are there to represent the wishes of the people, not to impose your personal opinion on them.

  2. Kelvin,

    My constituents also expect me to lead, when I’ve observed the issues at hand ‘up close and personal’ for years now.

    That said, my views are just that … mine (but informed by heaps of listening I might add). Folks are entirely free to disagree … and toss me if they feel that strongly.

    Tom

  3. Re McGhie et al.
    Yes Tom is providing representation of YOUR views but as a councillor he is bound to represent ALL ratepayers and residents. He is not representing my views so perhaps on this particular issue he should zip it. How local government is structured is a decision for all. As a councillor Tom would be wise to wait and see what the people choose and if he then cannot work within the confines of that decision he should resign. Politicians who forget they are there to represent the people and not the other way round usually come to grief, some sooner, some later but always for the better of their constituents.

  4. Kelvyn

    If you carefully examine Tom’s writings you will see the brilliant analysis Tom makes of all issues he writes about, he provides balance and logic; something that is not present in The HB Regional Councillors who just blindly follow the pack as they are scared of being castigated by the rest of the yes men!

    It takes courage and intellect not to follow the people who we know to be intellectually challenged in this organisation.

    We are very fortunate to have someone of his calibre to examine the fine detail and see where this is leading us; Tom is a professional in governance matters and this shows through when the reader is intelligent enough to see what he is saying.

    Failing to take heed of his deep thinking will lead us into a mire that may have consequences of huge social and economic detriment.

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