Bill Bayfield, Interim Chief Executive, HBRC

On Friday 10 February this year a crowd of admirers at the Napier War Memorial Centre farewelled James Palmer, outgoing CEO of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.

What prescience he had!

We all know what happened next. By 13 February Cyclone Gabrielle was lashing Hawke’s Bay and on 14 February a National State of Emergency was declared.

A search was conducted for a new chief executive and Dr Nic Peet was named as Palmer’s successor, but with a start date in mid-July. In the meantime, HBRC named Pieri Munro, then serving as the council’s senior Māori partnerships manager, already – some would say – an overwhelming job, as Interim Chief Executive.

Given the scale, intensity and uncharted nature of the disaster and the Regional Council’s major responsibilities in relief and recovery, it became clear that the role required more directly relevant expertise.

And so by late April HBRC recruited Bill Bayfield to serve as Interim CE, with Pieri Munro stepping back into his previous role, made more demanding by the cyclone’s impact on the region’s Māori community.

Why Bill Bayfield?

Bayfield had served as chief executive of Canterbury Regional Council (Environment Canterbury) and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. So he certainly knew the HBRC job’s ‘normal’ turf and responsibilities. 

But additionally, stepping into the HBRC role about 90 days after our disaster mirrored his situation at Canterbury, where he had become CEO a few months after the Christchurch earthquake. Moreover, he had overseen eight or so flood recoveries plus another Earthquake (Kaikōura), and sat on the post-Hale/Gabrielle Ministerial Inquiry into forestry slash and land use. 

Also helpful, Bayfield knew the Wellingon ropes, having served as Chief Executive of  Taumata Arowai (NZ’s Water Services Regulator) and earlier at the Ministry for the Environment.

HBRC Chair Hinewai Ormsby told BayBuzz: “What we needed after Cyclone Gabrielle was a battle-hardened CEO who had faced significant emergency events before in order to guide Council and staff through these tough times.” 

In her view, the hire worked out extremely well. “His experience learned through leading the Canterbury earthquake response and then post the 2017 Edgecumbe floods, was invaluable to making our region’s road to recovery that much clearer and quicker. Bill has been invaluable for the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and in fact the entire regional recovery journey in the last 10 weeks.”

That’s an assessment shared by everyone I’ve inquired of in top roles over the recovery period. For example, CHB Mayor Alex Walker, “Bill has brought hugely valuable experience to the region over the past few months. His knowledge of process and government mechanisms across things like emergency response and recovery, flood protection, land categorisation and risk management has been vital and valued by us all.”

I interviewed Bill last week as he approached his mid-July departure.

I asked him about first impressions as he walked into an intensive recovery effort underway at HBRC. 

“I’ve had kind of an unfortunate experience with disasters,” as he put it. With all those other flood events, he had “never seen such devastation, such awesome power demonstrated” as here in the Bay.

Walking into HBRC, “They were in better shape than I expected.” He was “incredibly impressed with the asset management team” – by the rapid pace and effectiveness of the stop bank repairs. “To be where they are in five months is quite exceptional.” This will become the “gold plate” for responding to such situations, he said. 

“You must focus on the here and now of an event this big.” This required changing priorities, he said, but at the same time “you can’t put long-term stuff on hold” – a reference to dealing with water security. He noted that it’s “an interesting experience when some people, staff or the public, can’t let go of things.”

He complimented the level of cooperation amongst the councils. “I had heard about the history and the arm-wrestling up here, but when I arrived it wasn’t evident.” “Clearly the event caused a focus on cooperating, recognising that no one had all the answers or resources to deal with it.” That said, in his local government experience, the durability of that is likely to be tested once the pressures of recovery are over and business-as-usual resumes. “It would be wonderful to bottle it and remind yourself of it … The Canterbury earthquake brought councils together, but that doesn’t last forever.”

Bayfield observed that overall NZ’s legislative and regulatory structure is not well-suited to addressing extreme emergency situations, noting the RMA in particular. In these circumstances, “New Zealand has got to get a lot better in bending the rules … providing flexibility to meet the needs of the community,” he says. He noted the urgency around designating Category 3 housing restrictions with speed while ensuring implementation was legally defensible in places like Esk Valley and Tangoio. These are “cutting edge” situations for NZ going forward.

He discussed ‘hot spots’ like Awatoto where there are numerous stakeholders who must be brought together, including KiwiRail/Waka Kotahi, to avoid making “knee jerk” rebuilding decisions.

Bayfield is hopeful the Spatial Planning legislation will proceed because its timing is perfectly aligned with Hawke’s Bay’s need – underscored by disaster recovery – to intelligently plan who and what goes where. “There will be a lot of revisiting … this is an opportunity.”

He noted we should realise that recovery will take in the neighbourhood of eight years, and observes that, like Christchurch after the earthquake, “Hawke’s Bay can be the place of excitement where a lot of people will want to be.”

Our conversation drifted off Hawke’s Bay, with Bayfield taking off his HBRC hat and offering views on NZ’s ongoing shortage of technical talent (“not just a local government issue”, but throughout the country and sectors), 3 Waters (as former Water Services Regulator he strongly supports where the Government has landed … “HB should be first in line”), and prospects for drastic change in key areas like dumping 3 Waters, health reorg, RMA reform if a new Government takes office later in the year (he notes diplomatically that radical things are said during campaigns that often wind up as tweaks once in office).

What next for Bayfield?

Reassuringly, Bill said he’s been keeping in-coming HBRC chief Nic Peet informed of developments via videoconferencing, hopefully enabling Dr Peet to hit the ground running on July 10. Regarding the HBRC itself, “I will be leaving him a set of advice … and leaving some ideas on things that could be fixed when the place isn’t under as much pressure.”

At his wife’s insistence, two knee replacements await Bill in the coming month.

Then, says Hinewai Ormsby, “If he’ll have us we’re dead keen to keep him on for a bit longer, utilising his skills alongside our incoming CEO Dr Nic Peet.”

Another source says that deal’s been struck.

Sounds like a prudent investment.


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