To those watching the process closely, there were few surprises when the Local Government Commission (LGC) announced its reorganisation proposal in Napier back in November. A single Hawke’s Bay Council, a unitary authority, was proposed, with community boards in each district. Community boards, criticised as ‘toothless’, will almost certainly be superseded by local boards; this was foreshadowed in the draft proposal.

And given that the announcement was made in Napier, it was perhaps no surprise that Napier was recommended as the administrative centre for this new Hawke’s Bay Council, at least in the meantime.

David Marshall

For those who have long advocated for a single voice for Hawke’s Bay, who have believed that five separate councils for 150,000 people was unwieldy at best, and who believe that as a region we have wallowed near the bottom of the league tables for too long, this was great news. However, for others, it has been greeted as a farce, a recipe for massive unemployment, the death of democracy, central government forcing unwilling locals into some sort of dictatorship, an appalling notion and much more in similar vein.

One suspects that many of those making extravagant comment in print and on the radio have not yet read the LGC draft proposal for Hawke’s Bay. Their criticisms and fears are all dealt with in a calm and well-reasoned way in the proposal.

Nevertheless, it is worth looking in some detail at some of the initial reactions.

Napier and Hastings are separate communities of interest

In fact, the region has two distinct but closely related halves. There is the rural hinterland of Wairoa, rural Hastings, and Central Hawke’s Bay, and there is the urban conurbation of Napier and urban Hastings. The interests of these two centres will become more and more aligned. They will increasingly share similar interests in the labour market, in the provision of shopping, education, health and recreational facilities, and in the location of services and facilities. It is estimated that about one third of the workforce in each city lives in the other, and traffic on the expressway reinforces that view.

Trying to portray Napier and Hastings as somehow separate communities is simply perpetuating the parochialism of decades ago. We are becoming an ever more closely linked community, certainly not separate.

This proposal is being forced on us by central government

This is simply untrue. The request to look at reorganisation of Hawke’s Bay local government arose from a broad assortment of civic leaders in Hawke’s Bay. The LGC is an independent statutory body; it works and reports independently from central government.

Napier will lose its identity

The same of course was said about Havelock North when it amalgamated with Hastings, and Taradale with Napier. Neither lost their identity. In fact, both have flourished as part of a larger authority.

Under the draft proposal, each community will keep its special identity. The new HB Council would have a ward system to ensure it can speak with a region-wide voice and not be dominated by one area. The HB Council will deal with the ‘big picture’ matters – regional plans, advocacy to central government, environmental issues, a whole of Hawke’s Bay leadership role.

A second tier of local boards, which when established under legislation due to be passed next year, will have very wide powers. Local boards will deal with local matters uniquely important to each community, and the considerable list of such matters includes: local roads, bridges, footpaths, car parks, street lighting; management of community events, libraries and community facilities such as halls and cemeteries; neighborhood improvements; traffic control; camping grounds, parks and reserves; landscaping of public spaces.

Unlike community boards, local boards would be a statutory part of the HB Council. They would share decision making on non-regulatory matters, and not rely on delegations from the governing body. They would work much like borough councils used to.

We don’t want to be saddled with Hastings debt

The draft proposal makes it very clear that debt in any part of the region can be ring fenced. The ratepayers who incurred this debt will be paying it. The LGC has recommended ring fencing for ‘at least six years’. In their final proposal, this may be extended. However, in any case, it is difficult to conceive how a Hawke’s Bay Council with a minority of Hastings ward members could ever somehow force other areas to accept debt from Hastings, or any other area.

This proposal is forced amalgamation

It will not be forced. Every interest group in Hawke’s Bay is adamant that this matter should be settled by the will of the voters through a binding referendum. Talk of mustering support for a democratic vote is simply a distraction. A handful of even a few voters can trigger a vote and there will be no need for all the charade of ‘seeking our democratic rights’.

Shared services are the answer

This has become almost a mantra. Despite repeated assertions, there is scant evidence that this has actually happened in any meaningful way between Napier and Hastings and the LGC noted this in their proposal.

This proposal will lead to massive unemployment

In fact, a united voice for Hawke’s Bay is perhaps the best vehicle for increasing employment. At present, Hawke’s Bay sits near the bottom of all the regional indicators (Department of Statistics, and regional GDP growth in the last triennial statistics, 2007-2010)) for unemployment, tourism numbers, and population growth. This is accompanied by a rise in social problems and growing inequality.

The recommendations to make the governance and administrative centre in Napier seems to have been almost completely ignored by the critics. When Napier Hospital closed, there was a gradual but significant shift of intellectual and economic capital to Hastings and Havelock North. There are now only a handful of clinicians and managers working for the HBDHB still living in Napier. Here at last is a way of partly redressing this loss and cementing Napier’s role in the region. But it is an opportunity which if not grasped and exploited by Napier interests will certainly go elsewhere.

So what can you do? Actually several things:

  • Keep an open mind. Do not believe everything that a number of self-serving local body politicians are saying. Read the LGC draft proposal (www.lgc.govt.nz)
  • Make a submission to the LGC supporting the idea of local boards. There is a template for making submissions in the draft proposal document. This is the best way of keeping the ‘local’ in ‘local government’. Affirm the idea that Napier should be the administrative and governance centre for the HB Council, and the region. Ask that the number of elected councillors be increased – the suggestion of nine members is too few. Sixteen would give better representation to Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay in particular, and the other wards should be adjusted accordingly.
  • Make a submission to the Local Government Parliamentary Select Committee, if possible, also supporting the introduction of local boards as part of the Local Government Amendment Bill now before Parliament.
  • When the time comes, exercise your vote on reorganisation. The recent local body elections drew only 43% of voters and this is a shameful figure.

It is interesting to see ourselves as others see us. Just two days after the LGC announcement of its draft proposal, the Dominion Post editorialised with the head-line, ‘Hawke’s Bay needs a single council’.

Some of the comments from that editorial are worth repeating.

“Talk of local government amalgamation arouses strong passions. Elected councillors fear for their livelihoods … Only Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule is looking past parochial interests to the bigger picture … He sees what people from outside the region see. Despite their parochialism, Napier and Hastings are two sides of one coin … It is ridiculous for both to pursue separate agendas … The world is shrinking; competition for people, skills and capital is growing. Hawke’s Bay needs a single council focused on regional interests, not four councils jockeying for advantage … the size of the new council is a legitimate subject for debate. What is not is the question of amalgamation itself … Hawke’s Bay needs to think and function regionally. The ties that bind the region’s residents are far greater than the differences that separate them.”

Would that some of this thinking might permeate the fog of parochialism, which is swirling around Napier in particular. It seems sometimes as if our civic leaders are trying to build a wall around Napier City to keep out the barbarian hordes. How much time, effort and ratepayers’ money is being spent on reports which no other council is aware of, faux consultation in the face of council pre-determination, simply tilting at windmills and talking up conspiracy theories about the end of local democracy?

Now is the chance for strong leaders to step-up, declare their interest in representing Napier on the HB Council regional stage, or better still to lead it, to seize the opportunity offered by the LGC to cement Napier as the administrative centre of the region. Napier’s civic leaders would be far more credible if they were looking to the future and not trying to shackle Napier to the parochial past.

Many of us have come to live in Hawke’s Bay from other parts of New Zealand, and other countries. Few of us have had the pleasure of seeing our children return to Hawke’s Bay, though many would love to – the opportunities are simply not here. Many of us have worked hard both in and for our communities, and the region.

It is almost embarrassing to hear and read some of the paranoia, petulance, parochialism and plain ill-informed comment from some civic ‘leaders’ in recent weeks. At last, a door has opened to a better future; let us make sure we do not slam it shut.

David Marshall is a retired Napier dentist. He and Gabrielle have an adult family of five daughters. With more than 25 years experience in local government and statutory health boards, he was awarded the ONZM in 2003 for services to local government and the community.

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3 Comments

  1. David Marshall is to be commended for the refreshing lucidity of the arguments expressed in his article.

    There was no need, however, to qualify his last sentence by saying the paranoia, petulance and parochialism of some civic leaders is ‘almost” embarrassing. Regrettably, it is completely embarrassing for Hawke’s Bay to have the city of Napier still being led by individuals with such narrow, insular and backward perspectives on the proposed re-organisation of our local government.

    I returned to Hawke’s Bay in 2010 after 12 years in Auckland and Wellington and travelling widely during that time. I currently reside in Havelock North but have also lived and worked and owned homes and businesses in both Napier and Hastings.

    It feels as if some of the more trenchant critics of amalgamation have seldom moved outside their own city limits and simply don’t understand how small and insignificant their environment really is and how a regional approach is vital to enhance the prospects of everyone in Hawke’s Bay, including the citizens of Napier.

    When amalgamation does take place it is essential that the region is led and governed by people with much more vision and a wider and more rational understanding of the challenges facing our region than is currently displayed by many of the civic leaders of Napier.

  2. The thing that continues to astound me is that those who are pro amalgamation seem to think that it is some magical panacea for all the ills that they believe afflict the Bay. They seem to think that the councillors will be of a ‘better quality’, suddenly we will be showered with money, opportunity and… vision (has there ever been such an overused and misunderstood concept?). No David, amalgamation will not see ‘visionaries’ rise to the top and the exceptionally capable suddenly give up their high-paying jobs in a fit of public spirit. Never confuse democracy with meritocracy, and please don’t insult the sensibilities by trying to convince us that amalgamation will solve all ills; because it won’t: it can’t because government legislation has stripped away the ability of local government to influence much at all (check the recent changes to local government legislation, because times have changed significantly from when you were involved).

    In the day and age of globalisation people aren’t looking for less interaction but more personalisation and differentiation. Please don’t fall into the trap of believing ‘bigger is better’ because it simply isn’t in this case.

    This article by David Marshall is flawed in so many ways.

    And Peter, I have also lived in Auckland and Wellington and travelled widely as a businessman but love the fact that Napier is home; that the mayor of Napier is standing up for what is right and that the councillors who the people of Napier elected are passionate about the city and all who live here; and that they are extremely available. I don’ find that in Auckland any more.

  3. Upfront amalgamation is simply wrong. Yes we need to reform aspects of local government but with a decentralised model, not the far left Key centralised model. Key is a wrecking ball and he wants to capture the Regions, hold them to ransom, steal their assets(Ports), take away our democracy and make ratepayers pay for the privilege. There is no vision here and all New Zealanders should be very concerned indeed. Join the dots as there is much more to come and it is not about us at all!

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