A ‘Local Government Review’ is underway, initiated by the minister who most strikes apprehension if not fear in the hearts of our 49 councillors and four mayors in the region – Nanaia Mahuta, Minister of Local Government.
Minister Mahuta is notorious for proposing reform of how the nation’s critical water services – drinking water, stormwater and wastewater – should be delivered; reforms premised on the reality that our local officials have failed miserably to provide these services and now cannot equitably raise and spend the $185 billion it will cost to pay for this past neglect and modern improvements.
Nowhere is this failure more established than here in Hawke’s Bay – CHB, Hastings, Napier and Wairoa each have their horror stories. But not surprisingly, our local elected officials have coalesced to shift this debate from an examination of learnings from past failures to an assault on local democracy, making this an issue of trust – who is less likely to screw up local water services going forward, those who already have (but whom you know and seem happy to forgive) or the agents of a pan-regional water conspiracy (faceless today and therefore automatically suspect).
That battle continues, with the Minister putting the first tranche of $500 million (the total allocation will be $2 billion) in contestable funding for “better off” projects on the table. This package is intended “to support the local government sector through the transition to the new water services delivery system and position the sector for the future.”
Says the announcement: “This ‘better off’ funding can be used for those projects communities feel they need the most, be it local parks and gardens, swimming pools, libraries and community centres, or investment in public transport and infrastructure to protect against extreme weather events and sea level rises.”
Pretty transparent payola – using your right pocket (taxes) to pay for projects you’d otherwise pay for out of your left pocket (rates).
How many of our mayors will refrain from applying for these carrots as a matter of principle?! And when will the mayors of Hastings and Napier inform the struggling masses of Havelock Hills and Bluff Hill that – one way or the other – they will wind up subsidising water services for their country cousins in CHB and Wairoa?
But even more critical to the future of local governance is Mahuta’s Local Government Review. Here she is doubling down on the possibility that NZ’s local authorities just might not be getting much of anything right.
The review poses these questions:
1. How should the system of local governance be reshaped so it can adapt to future challenges and enable communities to thrive?
2. What are the future functions, roles and essential features of the New Zealand system of local government?
3. How might a system of local governance embody authentic partnership under Te Tiriti o Waitangi?
4. What needs to change so local government and its leaders can best reflect and responds to the communities they serve?
5. What should change in local governance funding and financing to ensure viability and sustainability, fairness and equity, and maximum wellbeing?
Straightforward questions, but they hide a heap of politics and potentially threaten existing power arrangements and accountability pathways.
Where are we now?
Setting aside the ‘3 Waters’ reform, which aims to remove local authority in a core area, it’s instructive to look at who makes which decisions for us citizens of Hawke’s Bay, and how.
Arguably, the most important decisions are inherently regional and are made through a hodgepodge of bespoke arrangements. Some are ad hoc regional inventions; others statutorily mandated.
Civil defence – all the heavy lifting is planned and coordinated by the HB Emergency Civil Defence Management Group (HBEMG), whose activities are rated for and overseen by HBRC.
Tourism – tourism promotion is now funded entirely by HBRC, with the efficacy of those efforts assessed by the Regional Council.
Economic development – by July councils will have created a new regional economic development agency, jointly funded initially to the tune of $1.7 million. The planning is led by a HBRC staffer (whose ‘day job’ is running HBRC’s ‘right tree, right place’ programme) working with an ‘Establishment Group’ of Lawrence Yule, Brendan O’Sullivan and Robyn Rauna.
Details are under wraps as I write (“much like HB Tourism” said one mayor), but the entity will have an independent, skills-based (hopefully) board that represents councils, iwi and business. Will this stop individual councils from hot-stepping it to Wellington to get their own slices of job creation or housing funds? Not a chance.
Social & economic development – here we have Matariki, a regional strategy most of the non-political, non-bureaucratic public has never heard of. This framework has a high level governance group, but no implementation capability.
Spatial development – at least for much of the Hastings/Napier territory, shaped by HPUDS (Heretaunga Plains Urban Development Strategy), overseen in turn by a joint councillor committee.
Transportation – planned by a broad-based Regional Transport Committee, traditionally chaired by HBRC.
Coastal hazards – Councils are following the advice of a QA they asked to referee the matter. He recommended that “the HBRC takes charge of all aspects of the prevention and mitigation of coastal hazards on the Clifton to Tangoio coast including deciding on preventative, mitigating or remedial works …”
Climate change more broadly – Councils seem happy to defer to HBRC leadership on this one, with the Regional Council’s new ‘Climate Ambassador’ charged with organising cross-council collaboration.
So how do all these ‘regional’ plans, initiatives, joint committees and working groups come about?
In recent years, through the HB Leaders Forum – the four territorial authority mayors and the Regional Council chair, who meet monthly to make the big decisions on regional direction. CHB’s mayor Alex Walker is the current chair. No public agenda or published minutes or reports are provided on what is discussed and decided. Of course they say, no ‘decisions’ are made.
The Leaders are supported by a weekly Monday 4pm Zoom meeting of their chief executives … the source of most knowledge and power.
And these two groups are supported in their collective roles by one person, Toni Goodlass, regional programme director. Lately, her key responsibility has been helping organise the mayors’ collective opposition to the Government’s ‘3 Waters’ reform, but she basically becomes the point person for whatever joint initiatives the mayors and CEs decide need some poking and coordination. That has included, for example, joint council input on new national drinking water standards, progressing the economic development agency, initially coordinating regional Covid response, and more mundane matters like joint procurement and shared IT services.
One chief executive comments: “Toni’s role is the glue that binds the CEs in commissioning and delivering collaborative projects between the councils on matters where we are strong together as a region. She provides an important support function to the HB Leaders Forum and coordinates the advice of CEs to the Leaders.”
Personally, I think she has the coolest job in HB local government. Goodlass sees great value in the informality of these top-level collaborative processes but doesn’t dispute that more transparency might be warranted given the seriousness of the matters discussed.
The CEs deliver a monthly report to the Leaders Forum updating on all key initiatives of regional significance. These are not routinely in the public domain, but discoverable. BayBuzz has reviewed several of the most recent reports. They are extremely illuminating, indicating a very wide range of cooperative activity that most ratepayers would be gratified to see was occurring.
We all know that amalgamation failed (unfortunately IMHO) by a 2:1 margin in the 2015 referendum. Arguably, what we have now instead is amalgamation by stealth. Where the really big issues are dealt with by regional band-aids of one sort or another, conditional on the positive personal relationships that happen to exist amongst the five individuals (and their CEs) presently leading their councils.
That doesn’t seem a stable recipe for good governance. In recent memory, there have been instances where individuals then holding these positions have been sharply at odds, personally and policy-wise.
What our leaders think
Seeking reactions to the Local Government Review and its implications, I discussed these issues with a few mayors and others ‘in the know’.
Naturally the mayors are stout defenders of their councils’ prerogatives, arguing that in all instances the formal ratification of ‘non-decisions’ by the HB Leaders Group must be secured from the respective councils. So, in practice no council can be committed to a policy direction or expenditure that it disagrees with.
Looking at that through the opposite lens, major regional policies still cannot be advanced without unanimity, increasingly a disadvantage in our modern faster and faster-changing world.
The mayors point to two core foundations of council consensus for the region – the Triennial Agreement (required by law and adopted by each council at the outset of each electoral term) and the Matariki Strategy mentioned above, a unique Hawke’s Bay invention.
The Triennial Agreement adopted in 2019 (try to find it on any council website!) outlines these shared priorities in very general terms:
• Water – includes drinking water safety, Three Waters Review, freshwater management;
• Climate Change – includes Coastal Hazards Strategy, development of a coordinated regional response to a changing climate;
• Social Inclusion – a thriving society where everyone can participate and make a significant contribution;
• Housing – regionally focused housing strategy;
• Economic Development and Tourism
• Transport – regional transport planning through the Regional Transport Committee;
• Information sharing and strategy development – regional Elected Representatives’ fora (workshops) on topics of regional priority will be held as required, and at least twice per year.
None of this represents specific policy agreements or spending commitments; rather they are simply agreed areas for collaboration.
The agreement also includes these commitments (among others):
• Develop joint approaches to the development of annual and long-term plans and, where appropriate, to engagement with central government, iwi governance bodies and tribal entities, national agencies and community organisations.
• Provide early for notification of, and participation in decisions that may affect other local authorities in the region.
• Make draft strategies, policies, and plans available to other local authorities in the region for discussion and development, where they may have regional implications or implications beyond the boundaries of the decision-making council.
The Matariki Strategy aims to meld social and economic objectives – and actions to meet them – into on over-arching strategy. Its vision: Every whānau and every household is actively engaged in and benefitting from growing a thriving Hawke’s Bay economy. All councils, relevant government agencies and EIT are represented in Matariki’s governance, with Mayor Walker and Leon Symes (chair, Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa) as co-chairs and Robin Hape (CE, Ngāti Pāhauwera Development Trust) and Nigel Bickell (CE, HDC) co-chairing the Executive Steering Group.
Frankly, a review of Matariki’s website suggests an initiative long on aspiration and short on delivery. Its Action Plan, described as a ‘living document’, doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2019. If any of the 50 or so projected actions have been completed, certainly no one has shouted them from the rooftops.
While our local councils grope toward regionalism, the current Government – the Local Government Review aside – is already demanding regional approaches through legislative initiatives like RMA reform and the soon-to-be-tabled Strategic Planning Act, which
would require long-term regional spatial strategies.
I asked Lawrence Yule, former patron saint of amalgamation, for his assessment. He observes, “There’s a lot more regionalism going along for a lot of significant things… and it is relationship-driven. It’s not perfect but it’s addressing a lot of things that need addressing.”
He notes that legislation over time is requiring this in several areas and that is not likely to change if/when there’s a change in Government. “Central government do want a regional approach and they want to know what they are dealing with and they literally don’t have the ability to deal with every individual local authority on something that might span the region.”
“Neither National nor Labour have the appetite to do massive amalgamations, but what they both have an appetite for is to do things that make sense more regionally.” Both parties, he believes, are similar in how they regard local governments capability. The preference for regionalism is here to stay.
“Big local projects require a funding partner – central government – and the money is going to come with strings.”
He suggests the Regional Council might take on a wider range of responsibilities in spatial planning and transport and be resourced to do that.
Yule is a supporter of block funding from central government that allows local government to sort out how it will address regional challenges. “There’s a quid pro quo there. You need more central government resources, but for that you need to deliver against specific outcomes. Then let the regions make decisions and get on with doing it, as they might be more effective than people from Wellington trying to do it.” The public service is the biggest impediment to that happening, he notes – “unique” approaches is not their preferred style.
That said, Yule believes if a region in the future came up with a long-term integrated plan with a number of strategic projects benefitting the entire region requiring, say, $1 billion of central government funding, that proposition could be political feasible. “Local personalities will still matter,” he says, “but money focuses the mind.”
Always room for improvement
Most of my interviews for this article related to how the councils manage issues of regional significance and how the five councils engage central government in concert (or not).
In this regard, I spoke to Mayors Walker, Wise and Hazlehurst. Walker and Hazlehurst supported amalgamation back in 2015, but (like Yule) no longer would … confirming the political adage ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’.
Mayor Walker is the current chair of the Leaders Forum. She describes regional decision-making as a work in
progress: “We’re trying really hard to work together to ensure our communities get the best outcome out of the local government system that we can, and we’re having to do this in a way that hasn’t been done before and so we’re building it as we go along.”
She concedes that more formality and transparency would be appropriate: “We need strengthened clarity around how we should and do work together at a regional level in terms of accountability, because currently we do it almost voluntarily.”
Earlier I referred to the chief executives’ Monthly Report to the Leaders Forum. Hopefully the Leaders Forum might see the value of releasing these to the public routinely – unsanitised – as a matter of both civic education and political accountability.
Mayor Wise gives high marks to current arrangements for dealing with regional matters. “There’s always room for improvement, but we’ve made some huge gains in the last 2-3 years on a number of regional initiatives”, citing the new economic development agency and the ‘3 Waters’ space as examples, with a regional spatial development plan to follow. “Since the amalgamation debate, we’ve come a long way, and the number of issues on which we collaborate has to be acknowledged.”
And like her colleagues, Wise cites the Triennial Agreement as a binding statement of regional priorities … “more than words on a page”.
Are today’s informal processes too dependent on current conviviality at the top? She emphasises it’s not just the individual mayors and CEs who support regional collaboration, but that commitment must be part of the culture throughout “all of council including the senior management team”.
As for transparency around Leaders Forum and CEs collaboration, she disputes there’s any visibility or accountability issue, since all ‘decisions’ come back to individual councils to make.
Mayor Hazlehurst is focused on growth within the framework of the region-wide Matariki Strategy.
She believes every activity related to growth – RMA, spatial planning, economic development, housing, transportation – should be handled regionally. She laments that “Matariki hasn’t a delivery arm … We need management for Matariki” and proposes that a Regional Growth Unit should be created, modeled on the Growth Unit now in place at HDC and led by former HDC chief executive, Ross McLeod. “We need a proper regional staffing team,” she says.
For Hazlehurst “real aspirational change” in Hawke’s Bay governance would involve crafting a truly comprehensive regional plan – like Matariki – taking it to Government and asking for a block funding grant to implement the relevant programmes region-wide, whether those be housing, youth jobs, transportation or mental health care. “Knowing our communities, we can help you address all these issues and challenges.”
That’s a profound ‘big picture’ view and sounds quite rational, given the continuing failure of current ‘silo’ approaches from central government (whatever Government in power), but also would require an enormous leap of faith by the current Government and a minister who, for starters, doesn’t believe local bodies can even handle the ‘basics’ of drinking water, stormwater and wastewater management.
Asked if there were a political agenda behind the Local Government Review, the mayors perceive a certain level of distrust – or at least “misunderstanding” in the Government’s perception of local governments’ ability to deliver. As one mayor put it, the Review should also be considering how government agencies can be held more accountable for what they do (or fail to do) in our communities.
Each council has had the opportunity to present individually to a Commissioners Panel that is travelling the country seeking input. It’s fair to say our mayors see themselves at the coalface dealing with issues like jobs for youth and housing – issues not normally seen as core functions of local authorities. But the reality is that as elected representatives charged with improving the wellbeing of their communities, the mayors and their councils are effectively pressed into service. “We are passionate about our communities,” says Hazlehurst.
But in these areas, the ‘default’ approach locally is still to go it alone. Each of the mayors is proud of the funding deals they have won independently with government agencies to deal with local job, education and housing initiatives – $170 million to HDC from this Government, for example. As one mayor put it: “I sign an oath to deliver for the people of [X], I don’t sign an oath to place nice for the region.” Another said: “Joint approaches and individual ones are not mutually exclusive.”
So back to square one. When central government puts contestable money on the table, the competitive race to get today’s slice of the pie is irresistible … aspirations for regional plans and intelligent local/regional governance are put on hold!
And that is the conundrum the Local Government Review must address. As the mayors see it, governance reform is a two-way street, re-defining the central/local partnership.
• What responsibilities can safely and effectively be devolved to local bodies, particularly in ‘non-core’ areas like housing?
• How will central government break down its own ministry silos that stymie holistic, locally-informed approaches to community ills, while avoiding local accountability?
• What mechanisms should be in place to ensure regional approaches are in fact taken on matters where scale, efficiency and equity must be optimized?
• What funding mechanism should be created to ensure equitable financing of those local government activities that must be delivered to all citizens equally?
The original schedule for the review forecast an ‘initial thinking’ document to be released in September. However, this date has been pushed to 14 October, just after local body elections. God forbid local government effectiveness become an election issue! Hazlehurst cites “reform fatigue”, while Walker says: “This is one of the most important pieces of work that will happen for local communities and local government, but it’s happening in the middle of every other reform initiainitiative … How can we do it justice?”
“We do lovely small things, but struggle with the big grunty ones …There’s a better model than stealth and better than amalgamation … There’s got to be a better way,” says Hazlehurst.
George Bernard Shaw gets the final word: “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”