Hawke’s Bay doesn’t exist. Really it doesn’t. What does our region really have to unify it? Not much more than a rugby team, a health board and the squiggles of a deranged cartographer.

Even our councils are fragmented – no less than five exist and they don’t always seem to get along. People like to create abstract constructs in order to compartmentalise or explain something complex. Hawke’s Bay is one such construct.

And yet you’ll hear endless politicians, mayors and well meaning do-gooders pontificate as to their glorious vision for our future of Hawke’s Bay, as if it is a rational way of thinking. It isn’t. It’s mad. It’s madder than mad. It’s like trying to develop a strategic plan for all the insects in your garden.

These visionary ideas usually manifest themselves in a regional development body with ambitions that are somewhere between grandiose and delusional. They are invariably launched with fanfare, photos and bombastic political claptrap. In the fullness of time, it becomes obvious that these bodies have been under-thought, under-funded and, quite often, undermined.

The latest failed regional development body would appear to be the splendidly named ‘Grow Wellington’. The DomPost (‘Business Heavyweights Slam Grow Wellington’, 14/11/11) reports that ‘Grow Wellington’ is misguided and that Wellington Council is undermining them with their own initiatives. That sounds pretty typical.

These regional failures-in-waiting rightfully descend into ignominy, only to be re-launched in some new iteration. Announcements are made that they have learnt much from the failures of the past and the new body is set to lead a region into a golden age of prosperity. It’s politically desirable for these regional development bodies to be re-launched once each political term, but politicians, being the tardy and disorganised types, only manage to reinvent them about every 5 years. Success or failure is irrelevant. The truth is, it’s good politics to have this sort of stuff and ‘wonderfully aspirational’.

The reason regional visions fail is that they make a fundamental error in strategic planning. They define a goal, but have no meaningful pathway by which to achieve it. Governments and committees can’t fix the problems of the world, or run the economy. They can merely help or hinder by diddling with legal issues and infrastructural necessities. “But it’s aspirational” they cry; which means it sounds wonderful, but no one can actually deliver on the ideas.

Councils might declare some bold target for economic growth or regional prosperity. Don’t be seduced. These guys make good water come out of the tap, manage dog control and building permits. What mechanisms do councils really have to achieve any sort of vision for Hawke’s Bay?

Regional progress has not, and never will be, driven by a top down strategy. In a ‘top down’ world, Orwellian governments are powerful and make everything happen. In a ‘bottom up’ world, the power is with the people, to live their lives and follow their passions as they see fit. Which world do you want to live in? The progress made in Hawke’s Bay will be the sum of the parts – the collective achievement of many individuals and groups.

“Enough of the whinging, unless you have a better idea!” I hear you cry.

A better way

Actually there is a better way. Firstly, ditch the abstract construct and consider reality. Reality is politically unattractive, usually fails to stir regional parochialism, and is never truly appreciated until after the event. Only when the historical facts are laid bare can we see clearly how progress was really made.

The history of Hawke’s Bay is littered with great people; sometimes, in their day, they were seen as flawed, erratic rogues. Some even ended in failure and poverty. But they laid a foundation that has endured. At its essence, progress is made by creative types – they create in business and politics as much as in art. I bet you could name 20 great writers or 20 great artists. But 20 great committees? Creativity is mostly an individual pursuit.

The notable individuals in our past were focussed, irrepressible, courageous – but they were most often fairly ordinary. My father tells me of working at Watties on a Saturday night and seeing Jim (Sir James to you and me) Wattie, walking the floor, addressing all the staff by name, showing an interest in their lives, and tweaking the machinery of production. You can believe in such men. Not even the might of Heinz was brave enough to nudge out the Wattie name, such is its legacy.

William Nelson was such a man too. He found tribulations in the shape of low wool prices, pestilence, gross indebtedness, flood, and low flax prices, before returning to his native England. History records him as a failed entrepreneur.

Then, with his forties bearing down on him, he returned to New Zealand and started what would become the Tomoana Freezing Works. Then he had to produce the stock to keep it busy. He broke in thousands of acres of land, built schools and bridges, drained swamps, created vast employment opportunities, trained young men to be farmers and inspired a generation of rural New Zealanders.

There are many others: Sir Graeme Lowe, who changed the meat industry in a rollocking and unorthodox career. Robert Holt of Carter Holt fame, who largely built the local timber industry. Sir Russell Pettigrew, whose company, Freightways, ended up as a transportation giant.

OK, so these are the heavyweights of our local history. Below them there are hundreds of toilers, whose contributions are incalculable. These people won’t ever get a knighthood or even have their names recorded in the history books. They made a difference though. They created employment, nurtured careers and fed families. Typically these high achievers in our society have poured money back into schools, churches, sport facilities and other private and public sector projects.

And what do all these people almost always have in common? They all did it without some committee outlining the vision; without government handout; without regional development body guidance. Indeed, governments and the industry establishment were often impediments to their progress.

And therein lies the first rule of regional development: governments and do-gooder committees – get the hell out of the way!

This region needs good local government and good community organisations, but most of all it needs you. It needs ordinary people who find their passion and achieve extraordinary things. The giants in society are often unexceptional, average at school and socially deficient.

History tells us that our vision for the future won’t be delivered by some local government initiative; not by some committee of local businesspeople; not even by some powerful multinational. The future will be driven by individual visions. They’ll need good people around them, but their individual will and passion will be the centre and source of any progress.

I don’t have a vision for Hawkes Bay. I’d be a fool to think I had the wisdom. Our future will be the sum of our individual efforts. My responsibility is to my vision. I have one. What’s yours?

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