HB Councils Inc - a $2b business

Over the next three years, our five councils will spend collectively about $700 million on operations and borrow and spend over $1.2 billion more on infrastructure. And there’s much more to come after that.

Who’s going to follow the money? Monitor how efficiently and effectively it is spent? Assess the thoroughness and transparency of the decision-making processes involved? Look for opportunities to save ratepayer money?

Our councillors themselves? 

You gotta be kidding.

Across HB’s five councils, those spending and funding decisions will be made in June by our several dozen elected councillors. Some of them will stand and be defeated in October 2025, most likely for daring to raise rates. Some will retire from public office. If things turn to custard financially or because of poor management two or three years from now, none of those people will be around to be held accountable.

Of those remaining, all will have good intentions. But how many have run businesses or public spending programmes of such magnitude, complexity and risk? Any?

Properly skilled and experienced or not, they will push on because they must. Things do need to get done. Bring on the consultants, who are even more fleet-footed and less accountable for poor results. Or commission ‘independent reviews’.

Identifying faulty decisions after the damage is inflicted or money wasted might provide some sense of ‘justice done’ and maybe even, ideally, ‘lessons learnt’. But still the damage is done, time wasted, money gone. And as for the decision-makers involved, who were they anyway and what’s become of them?

Wouldn’t HBRC love to have back today the $20 million it spent chasing a Ruataniwha Dam whose case leaked like a sieve on multiple accounts?

So what might be done to instill some greater degree of informed and timely scrutiny into the big decisions ahead of us?

Perhaps an independent watchdog would help. 

The convention in most open, democratic systems is that media ought to play this role. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” as the saying goes.

Here in Hawke’s Bay we have two possibilities – Hawke’s Bay Today and BayBuzz.

HB Today can try to advance its case that’s it is up to the challenge. But those who have been around know better.

BayBuzz gives it a try, with writers more deeply grounded in the issues, their wider context and histories. But we don’t have the resources  to do more than dig into one or two major issues at a time and occasionally poke a stick in the ribs of one or another council or key institution.

But we could certainly feed off a well-resourced permanent watchdog – an Auditor-General for Hawke’s Bay (HBAG).

Our HBAG would be funded over a five-year term by our councils, of necessity. No one else is around to do this.

But absolutely independent in terms of what to investigate and what to report … and with the power to do so. That means full access to councils’ decision-making – to all meetings, documents, communications. This would include all the subsidiaries increasingly in fashion – council-controlled organisations, investment/commercial companies, Recovery Agency, Economic Development Agency, etc.). 

The same rights of access as any councillor. And with a small staff to assist.

HBAG’s primary role would be to follow the money, so their focus would be on the projects and programme’s of greatest cost and consequence … most importantly, while they were unfolding, not after the fact.

In some instances, the HBAG might simply function as a very well-informed submitter – someone who probed all of the relevant players and analysed all of the material, even the footnotes and appendices. In other cases, the HBAG would be the fly on the wall monitoring the entire process first-hand.

Councillors – who today live totally at the mercy of not-disinterested staff and consultants – might even find that they enjoyed and benefitted from this intrusive but informed voice.

Let me come back to the money stakes here – billions of dollars.

Last December the real NZ Auditor-General, John Ryan published a critical report on the management and accountability of the vaunted Provincial Growth Fund of a previous Government. That billion-plus was largely in the hands of NZ First’s Shane Jones. MP Jones is set to play the same role in this Government (despite being criticised by Opposition National at the time for his wastrel ways) with even greater power under the proposed Fast Track Bill.

The A-G noted: “It concerns me that significant decisions on the spending of public money continue to occur without appropriate processes for ensuring value for money and transparency. I think that Parliament and the public have a right to expect more for spending of this scale.” And further: “Careful consideration is needed to ensure that trade-offs between good process and speed are proportionate to the scale and significance of investment and its risk.”

With billions at stake over the next decade, what local accountability is “proportionate” and how do we secure it? Hawke’s Bay ratepayers need more eyes on the money in ‘real time’ and far more accountability than afforded by the usual public ‘consultation’ process, the occasional ‘independent review’ after the fact, and the blunt instrument of the ballot box (also, an after the fact reckoning by short memory voters).

So, let’s hear it for the Hawke’s Bay Auditor General.

Too radical? How about an independent ‘Infrastructure Commissioner’ who prescribes a standardised reporting format for councils’ chief executives to use on major HB infrastructure projects and then monitors and reports compliance and progress.

Other ideas?


Join the Conversation


  1. A great idea but…. can you really see any politician, local or national, allowing such oversight into their deliberations. It’s an idea that has great merit – so chances of it being put in place are vanishingly small

  2. Is this the time to review amalgamation again with an open mindset and learn from the past?

    1. Totally agree ant, amalgamation is the only way to save the necessary millions , we cannot afford to keep arguing about this any longer.

  3. Even if an Independent commissioner is appointed the spending of taxpayers money will still be excessive due to contractors tendering on a swings and roundabouts
    greedy formula. It is evident from the way trades and services upped their pricing after Cyclone Gabrielle that if needs are greater then charging will be higher. Gouging becomes more evident to us residents when we need urgent work done. It needs to be reviewed by an independent body from the tendering start point to the audits done all the way through to completion.
    We definitely need a watchdog appointed and voted on.

  4. You have hit the nail on the head with this article . Easy come , easy go, its not their money too waste!

  5. The establishment of a independant HBAG role is most definitely required to monitor the use by councils, of ratepayer funds. There has to be some form of ongoing accountability.

  6. I sincerely believe, Most elected public representatives, from ALL Hawkes Bay Council’s would Not have enough……. between their ears to run a Corner Dairy Proficiently!! Of which, Napier City Council has more than proved that one!

  7. Good idea Tom,is there a taxpayer’s assocostion or similar organisation to pick up the idea?

  8. I have never seen so many comments on one subject before, obviously a sore subject. Our councils worked together to prepare an alternative to ‘Three Waters’, with a united plan. I have heard nothing of this united plan recently.

  9. Excellent article/suggestion Tom….Boy do we regret the often zealous opposition over the years against amalgamation……now, the chickens are coming home to roost alright!

    Keep up the pressure.

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