A refined amalgamation proposal is due to hit the streets of Hawke’s Bay in November, as the Local Government Commission inches closer to making its final recommendation.

As a member of A Better Hawke’s Bay, I’ve strongly supported amalgamation from the outset, for numerous reasons.

But lately, as a regional councillor, I’ve been thinking about amalgamation from the perspective of its potential impact on environmental decision-making in our region. That reflection has strengthened my conviction … amalgamation will be good for the environment.

My reasoning is grounded in the practical realities of Hawke’s Bay – the actual issues that confront us, and the public engagement needed to ensure environmentally sound outcomes.

Enviro issues ignore boundaries

Here’s a list of key environmental challenges – and opportunities – before us.

Oil & Gas/Fracking – should we develop

our carbon assets if they prove ample? If so, under what protections for our environment and health?

HB’s energy future – what about our overall energy picture? Can we conserve energy? Can we generate solar power for homes and businesses, even cars?

Solid waste disposal – landfills are too expensive and environmentally passé. Is waste-to-energy an option for the Bay?

Climate change – what should we do to increase our resilience to global warming, whether that is protection for our coasts and low-lying assets (eg, Napier CBD, airport, sewage treatment facilities), or improving our region’s dry land farming prospects? How might we reduce our carbon footprint?

GMOs – should we have one policy, five policies or no policy on keeping Hawke’s Bay GE-free to protect our environment and export advantage?

Biodiversity – what political patch lines do endangered birds or feral cats recognize? Parks and reserves – how many should we have? Where? With what public investment? According to whose strategy?

Ruataniwha dam – most of any proposed HBRC investment will come from Hastings and Napier ratepayers, subsidizing CHB farmers. Is everybody happy with that?

Ahuriri Estuary – who’s in charge of protecting this area from stormwater pollution, or seismic testing?

What should be obvious is that Hawke’s Bay’s most important environmental challenges ignore artificial political boundaries.

From a planning, decision-making and resourcing standpoint, one theme runs through each of these issues – none can be effectively addressed by any single council in Hawke’s Bay. Each one requires the cooperation of at least two councils, and some require the cooperation of all five.

By cooperation I mean: sharing a sense of priority regarding the issue, understanding the scope of authority or jurisdiction each council might have, engaging stakeholders in the community (and the public at large), settling upon a shared assessment of the nature of the problem and the solutions involved, making the necessary revisions to policies and programmes, agreeing on implementation responsibilities and milestones, and determining who will pay for all of these steps and consequent activities.

Think about it. What level of commitment to multi-council cooperation must be required to come up with effective plans of action on all the issues listed above?!

Does anyone actually believe that’s going to happen in his or her lifetime under our fragmented governance arrangements?

For example, within weeks of the local election last year, councillors from HBRC, NCC and HDC attended an eye-opening briefing on the implications of climate change for our region’s coasts. The briefing underscored the scope and inevitability of the threat. But it took these three councils a full year to organize their first planning meeting to begin to address the issues – one year, just to organize the ‘terms of reference’ meeting!

This is not an isolated example. From watching councils firsthand for more than seven years now, I’m convinced ‘cooperation’ will not suffice. The far more likely outcome is patch protecting, blame shifting, resource and jurisdiction bickering, and indecision … all to the detriment of our environment. Fact is, our councils are more likely to sue each other than to cooperate.

And, environmentalists, time is not on our side.

Democratic accountability

No HB environmental group will have an organizational position on amalgamation.

The local environmental leaders

I’ve asked have mixed personal views on the issue – some for, some against, some undecided. And they’ll weigh all considerations, not just impact on the environment, when they ultimately take their personal stances.

I hear some environmentalists argue that ‘small is beautiful’ – meaning, in this case, that multiple, smaller councils are somehow, putting it positively, more responsive and democratic. Putting it defensively, some enviros argue that it’s ‘safer’ to have five councils – better to have multiple opportunities to block dangerous policies, or to have an ‘environmental’ body (purportedly the Regional Council) to regulate and keep a hawk’s eye on the dastardly developmentminded territorial councils.

In practice, in Hawke’s Bay, this is wistful thinking, out of touch with the realities of day-to-day political decisionmaking. And first of all, let me note the irony that any informed environmentalist might think the Regional Council, at a political level, is a stalwart defender – let alone promoter – of the environment! I speak from a seat at the table.

The ‘small is beautiful’ notion – that multiple, small councils will somehow be more responsive to environmental values – simply doesn’t stack up past election day.

After local body election day, 99% of the 44% of eligible voters who do vote go back into political hibernation. Being generous, that leaves at most about 600- 700 people awake to mind the store – to keep an alert eye on five councils.

But when it comes to the environment, that ‘watchdog’ number is smaller still … and utterly lacking in resources.

As an advocate, I’ve attended hundreds of citizen meetings over the past 7-8 years to ‘plot’ the protection and betterment of Hawke’s Bay’s environment. The hardy leadership of the environmental community numbers a few dozen volunteers (and I stress, volunteers) … most could fit on a large Nimon’s bus. They show up at meeting after meeting, write submission after submission, populate every ‘stakeholders’ group, lead clean-ups and plantings, pass the cup for gold coin donations.

Our environment would be lost without them.

And they are exhausted and overwhelmed by the complexity, lack of jurisdictional clarity, avoidance of transparency, and sheer volume and pace of issues that confront them – coming simultaneously from five councils and a fundamentally hostile Government.

There is simply no way this tiny volunteer band (regardless of how many followers there are out in the community) can effectively monitor, let alone successfully challenge, the environmentimpacting activities and decision-making of the staff-driven, multi-council, local government juggernaut.

Democratic accountability requires more than voting on election day; it requires continual and informed citizen vigilance. Otherwise it’s a romantic fantasy.

We who espouse environmental values for Hawke’s Bay need to get beyond the fantasy.

In our small region, we don’t have the active volunteers or resources to play seriously at ‘checks and balances’. What multiple councils mean is that environmentalists will simply get jerked around – witness any number of examples on the issues I listed at the outset, from coastal protection to GMOs to oil & gas/ fracking. And the stakes will only grow higher in the future.

We need to recognize that we’d be advantaged to have only one council to monitor, to lobby, to hold accountable. Only one council to turn into the champion of a sound environmental

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