The local government elections have been and gone. The weeks-long barrage of photoshopped billboards, endless junk mail and media coverage from candidates is gone for another three years. For all its faults, democracy is something to be cherished even if only 43% of eligible people voted.
There is some new blood in most councils, and two new mayors in our region. This is a very positive thing and change brings new ideas and opportunities. The challenge for all those that are new in elected office is to take everything in for the first few months while learning how decision-making works.
There are however two very big issues to be addressed in the next twelve months which allow little time for settling in around the table. The Ruataniwha Dam and amalgamation are set for major decisions inside a year and both are full of controversy, opportunity and political interference. Interestingly, they are both very much connected.
The recent election of four new Hastings representatives on the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council with a mandate of change was more about structure and attitude than lack of water. The Twyford water shortage in the recent drought may not happen again for many years, but the treatment of these growers will not be easily forgotten by them. So what had started off as a change to the environmental conditions of the waterways in the area very quickly turned to major concern about loss of jobs and production.
Equally, I am left amused by the mayor of Central Hawke’s Bay leading a rally at the building of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council at its inaugural meeting to support the Ruataniwha Dam, while at the same time slamming amalgamation. Maybe he doesn’t realise how interconnected our communities are.
The CHB Council has not stopped putting its sewage into the Tukituki, nor has it made any contribution to the feasibility study work on the Ruataniwha Dam. The feasibility work has been funded by the balance sheet of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, for which Central Hawke’s Bay accounts for just 10%. Urban families in Napier and Hastings have met the vast proportion of the costs so far, and most of the adverse effects of the CHB wastewater plant impact on the recreational opportunities of the same urban populations.
Last week I viewed a draft report on sea level rise and tsunami risk, which should be alarming for our whole coastal community. This coupled with the most recent international climate change modelling indicated that by the middle of the 21st century our current hottest month will actually be equivalent to the coldest month in 2050.
So of course it makes sense to try adapt to such unprecedented changes. We will need to store and ration water, grow different crops and manage coastal environments in a very different way than we do now.
Need to address the big picture
My problem with the current thinking in the region is that largely we are focusing on managing local services and keeping costs down, while massive demographic and environmental changes are quickly creeping up on us. I simply cannot see how we can make decisions for the future of my children without a different style of leadership in the region. Our disjointed and differing priorities will not serve us well in the long term.
I may be a lone voice at the mayoral and chair level around reorganisation (despite the new mayors protesting they have somehow been given a mandate for the status quo), but I am more than ever convinced that the region needs to look at things differently.
Former mayors Arnott and Probert did not support amalgamation, but both conceded it was inevitable. New Napier Mayor Bill Dalton was equally quoted two years ago as saying it will happen but just not yet. So don’t expect me to back away from challenging the thinking of my colleagues while respecting their democratically-elected status. If most elected members had a blank sheet of paper and weren’t worried about where they personally fitted into a structure, I am sure a different approach would be evident.
The real issues for Hawke’s Bay are not around rate increases, relative debt levels or where offices are located. It is about a leadership structure that is fit for purpose, locally driven yet regionally connected. While there is the ability to save some money, the real value will come from a holistic long-term plan with smart execution.
For me the issues are simple and transparent. Like any business we have the ability to restructure ourselves to make us more resilient, future-focused and successful. The environmental, social and economic trade-offs can only be managed – and the benefits achieved – if a long-term holistic view is taken. I am watching this unfold very successfully in Auckland, and it is now being mirrored in Hamilton and Tauranga.
Equally the decision around any change in structure will be democratically made by the people in a binding referendum. I have just one vote, but I will challenge and try to influence people’s ideas.
So the next 12 months will be very interesting as we battle over the future direction of Hawke’s Bay.
I will continue to bring up new concepts and ideas in the knowledge that, at just about every level, Hawke’s Bay indicators are near the bottom of the New Zealand average.
I do not accept that a council’s major role is to look after the basics. Mayors, chairs and councillors are elected leaders who need to help shape the future.
And I reject the status quo. Preservation of the status quo may appear safe and personally comfortable for many, but I am sure our grandchildren will not thank us for sitting on our hands, paralysed by inaction and self-interest.