Simmering just below the surface in Hawke’s Bay is a debate about how effectively we are governed by our local bodies.

In a day-to-day sense, to the degree there’s discontent, it tends to focus on quite immediate issues … we don’t like the parking set-up on our street, or simple consents seem too expensive and time-consuming, or our favourite reserve is getting run down.

At the next level, discontent relates to broader policies that seem ineffectual or wrong-headed – how to best develop a CBD, where to allow development, the level of support for our preferred projects (from skate parks to cultural amenities).

And probably in this category belong concerns about rates, debt and the overall cost of our councils … and perceived duplication and competition amongst them.

Finally, there’s the bigger picture. Some residents anticipate bigger challenges and opportunities for the region and worry about our capacity to address them – lifting incomes, creating jobs, attracting new residents and businesses, meeting the needs of an aging population, protecting an increasingly stressed environment, providing expensive infrastructure and public amenities.

The ‘fixes’ people mention when they talk about such discontents range as wide as the issues on the table. From fine-tuning or re-thinking this or that policy or decision, to significant axing of council budgets, to demanding far more cooperation and consistency amongst councils, to wholesale restructuring of our local/regional governance structure, to ‘throwing the bums out’ and starting all over.

This article looks at the ‘governance’ issue – should our local bodies be somehow consolidated or reorganized … and the arguments surrounding restructuring.

Why now? Because the prospect has been tabled – amidst much moaning and foot-dragging – by our region’s five councils.

They have commissioned an independent inquiry into the overall performance of Hawke’s Bay – economic, social, environmental. And that inquiry is to address whether our present governance structure aids or impedes that performance.

According to the terms of reference for this inquiry, the public will be invited to the party. Your views will be welcomed. Anticipating that invitation, here are some issues you might want to think about.

Is there a case?

If there is a case for reorganizing our region’s five local bodies, which would necessarily involve temporary transition pains and confusion, arguably the ‘solution’ must offer at least one – and hopefully all – of these benefits:

  • Save us money and time. Produce cost savings, operational efficiencies, and simplification for those routinely doing business with councils.
  • Yield more bang for our buck. Deliver better policy outcomes, more effectively implemented, in the numerous areas where councils touch our daily lives – programs for youth, services to the elderly, sport and recreation support, development policies, event planning, maintenance of reserves and so forth.
  • Lift and future-proof our Bay. Promote more unified, visionary and powerful planning for the region – clear priorities for major infrastructure investments; stronger marketing of the Bay to visitors, potential businesses and investors; meaningful approaches to social challenges; productive environmental consensus; and more effective advocacy to central government.

Not only must reorganization deliver convincingly against these benefits, it must do so while meeting these tests:

  • Be fair to all residents – in terms of rates and representation.
  • Protect local community ‘identities’ and prerogatives – in terms of deciding truly local priorities and outcomes.

So let’s look at these issues one by one.

Save money and time

Frankly, I cannot comprehend arguments that consolidation of councils will not save appreciable money in areas like purchasing, back-room systems (accounting and billing systems, etc), more efficient utilization of assets (cars, buildings), and yes … personnel.

Indeed, whenever councillors resistant to restructuring speak out, they inevitably claim that precisely these kinds of savings and efficiencies can be accomplished simply through ‘better cooperation’.

Less visible than these administrative savings are the even greater savings that would be associated with less redundant work being carried out by staff and by those in the community who must do business with councils.

How many separate plans and policies do we need from councils’ staffs on dog licensing, youth strategies, alcohol regulation, state of the environment, local social and economic profiles … the list goes on and on. All of this consuming many hours of redundant staff time, as well as consultants fees. Then, when even the multiple staffs themselves reluctantly conclude that some coordination and consistency is required, even more time is consumed as ‘working parties’ are organized and meet to negotiate the differences … with these compromises then needing the further attention and endorsement of the respective elected councils.

Unless one regularly engages with councils (BayBuzz annually spends hundreds of hours monitoring them), it is difficult to appreciate how much time and resource is wasted in this fashion. We must put a cost on that time to better appreciate the level of savings that might be achieved through consolidation.

Then add the even greater hours that residents, contractors, sports clubs, and community groups spend trudging from council to council in their attempt to influence, understand or comply with these policies! In fact, one might argue that the time cost to the community of duplicative local government is at least as great as the more obvious dollar waste within councils.

This analysis reflects a charitable view of our local councils … not pitting them as the enemy. We need and want their services. But they are bureaucracies after all, and share the vices of all insulated bureaucracies – they grow inexorably, they fiercely protect turf and prerogatives, they ‘know better’ than you, they are not routinely measured in ways that force economies and bottom-line thinking.

More bang for the buck

But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that having five ‘state of the environment’ reports in Hawke’s Bay (probably prepared by the same consulting firm), or several social and economic well-being reports, or multiple youth or reserve strategies, or having the director of Hawke’s Bay Tourism or the director of Sport Hawke’s Bay make the same presentation (thank god for Microsoft Word and Powerpoint) to each of five councils is somehow an efficient use of time and money.

Does this duplication somehow yield better policy-making or outcomes for the people of Hawke’s Bay? Better environmental policy? Better social outcomes? Better youth programs? Better maintained reserves? Kick-ass economic growth? A more effective tourism or recreation strategy? If it does (evidence please), then for sure, we should keep paying for it and stop complaining about rates, delays and inconsistencies.

In fact, this duplication of effort does not yield better outcomes for the people of Hawke’s Bay. It mostly produces squabbling. Often the various jurisdictions cannot even agree on the underlying factual data … and how complex can that information be for a region of 150,000 residents?!

The preparation costs for these strategies and programs leaches scarce resources from the implementing of them. Outcomes suffer.

To finance an economic development initiative for the region (like Business Hawke’s Bay), business leaders must convince at least three councils that we need to make a stronger effort, and then further convince those councils to put up some money. To better craft a sport strategy for the region, the head of Sport Hawke’s Bay must go through the same exercise, then watch helplessly as councils squabble over the terms of reference for the planning committee.

In neither case does the ‘design by committee’ process yield much improvement to the intellectual capital of the initiatives as they were originally conceived.

If the analyses that drive our councils’ policies and program development reflected a region-wide perspective from the outset and were resourced appropriately, they would be more competently done, more firmly grounded in agreed-upon facts, more easily informed and understood by the public, and ultimately more effectively implemented.

If one talks to sector leaders in sport, arts and culture, economic development, social services in Hawke’s Bay, who must live with the programs councils create, it is easy to amass a library of councils’ redundant efforts, ignorance of one another’s activities, conflicting signals and approaches, missed opportunities and gaps in coverage, and patch protection.

The community deserves better and more consistent outcomes.

Lift and future proof the Bay

What has been discussed so far relates mostly to the here and now. Getting better outcomes at better cost in dealing with today’s ‘mundane’ issues.

If councils are not doing so well with these, dealing with tomorrow’s challenges will be even more daunting.

A Better Hawke’s Bay, which has been advocating for the regional performance study, has taken this future focus, looking at current economic, social and environmental indicators for the Bay and saying we need to do better … and that our local government structure should be reviewed in that context.

Economic well being. It is very clear that our councils have an impact on the region’s economic development. Among other activities, councils:

  • Build and maintain the infrastructure needed to support the region’s economic activity – a roading network, a port and airport, stopbanks that protect from flooding, wastewater and stormwater systems, and potentially water storage systems to support irrigation.
  • Earmark and develop land suitable for commercial and industrial purposes;
  • Provide financing to Business Hawke’s Bay;
  • Sponsor and subsidize (and sometimes own) events and attractions aimed at bringing visitors to the Bay, as well as directly conducting and subsidizing tourism promotion;
  • Market their individual communities and Hawke’s Bay as a whole to potential relocating businesses and investors; and,
  • Facilitate (or not) the consenting processes that businesses must go through as they move, expand or relocate in the Bay.

On its face, it is difficult to see how any of these activities are prudently planned and managed by having leadership, strategies, resources, decision authority and implementation plans divided across five councils. Any significant economic development initiative requires cooperation (if not co-funding) by multiple councils … at best creating indecision and delays. But at worst triggering determined patch protection, one-upsmanship, and ‘go it alone’ behavior.

Do we need a regional events strategy, with more ‘signature’ events? Should we build one or more water storage dams in the region? Should we improve access to and amenities at Lake Waikaremoana? Do we need to replace or upgrade our bridges and stopbanks? Should we lengthen the airport runway? Invest more in the port? Do more to center agricultural research in the region? Do more to diversify the region’s economy? Begin to future-proof our economy against climate change?

If we should do any of these, which come first, what are the appropriate strategies, and how will we pay for them? When or to what degree should outside investors (foreigners even!) be involved? Do we have the structures, scale and expertise to manage these projects?

How can five rival councils make these decisions intelligently for the good of Hawke’s Bay?

And when major projects require the approval or financial participation of central government, the fragmentation takes an additional toll if regional priorities are not uniformly shared and championed … and if better organized regions steal the march and the funding.

Environmental well being. Likewise, the actions and inactions of five councils have a profound effect on the region’s environment. For example…

  • The flip side of building all that physical infrastructure is mitigating its environmental impact (or not);
  • Getting rid of our waste – sewage, stormwater, residential trash, industrial – is becoming an increasing and costly burden for our councils;
  • Which developments and land uses to permit or encourage – whether on farmlands or eroding coastlines – triggers environmental concerns and pits council against council;
  • Water management functions extend through each of our councils, just as the impacts of our water use show no regard for the region’s political boundaries and jurisdictions;
  • Likewise, the challenge of nurturing our region’s biodiversity reaches across our current jurisdictions;
  • Councils play a direct role in energy conservation, alternative transportation and adaptation to climate change, as well as educating residents on such matters;
  • Toxic waste management, and even the handling of ‘routine’ pollutants like fine particles from woodburners or assessing the health of waterways cause major disputes among our councils.

And of course the setting of basic environmental standards sits as a core function of the Regional Council, causing some to argue that it should remain independent of other councils. However, the Regional Council has fast become a super-development agency in its own right, championing irrigation and more intensive land use, financing economic development activities, and benefitting from a profitable and expanding port. In practice, it stands just as conflicted as any territorial authority.

Again, it is difficult to see how any of these activities are optimally planned and managed by a fragmented and often combative five council structure.

Social well being. This is perhaps the most difficult area for which to pinpoint the responsibilities and influence of our local councils.

First, we’re talking about a very wide range of issues – from the deprivation effects of poverty and joblessness, to crime and domestic violence, to services (including housing) for the elderly, to providing facilities and space for sport and recreation, to nurturing our arts and providing cultural amenities.

Second, with respect to the social deprivation part of the portfolio, arguably the root causes of hardship are beyond the reach of our local bodies. And some would argue that economic health is the universal tonic.

Third, indeed there is a full complement of other institutions in the region – the DHB, the education infrastructure, the Police, a caring NGO and religious sector, and outposts of relevant central government ministries with their programs to address these issues.

So how do local bodies fit in?

It might be useful to carve ‘social well being’ into two parts:

  1. Enhancing the community amenities that enrich the lives of all residents willing to partake of them – e.g., sport facilities and cultural amenities; and,
  2. Helping to support the safety net that should protect the most deprived – and the victims – in our community.

The first area, from councils’ standpoints, largely requires prioritization of funding decisions. Firstly, how do these ‘social’ needs stack up against others, like upgraded bridges or tourism promotion? And second, amongst competing ‘social’ needs, which facilities, NGOs, activities or amenities deserves highest priority for receiving increasingly scarce ratepayer dollars?

Once again, perhaps these are decisions that in the future can best be made on a regional scale, husbanding the scarce resources that are available and directing them to areas of greatest need, and to entities with the greatest capacity and leverage, following unified strategies.

Supporting the safety net

The second area – supporting the safety net – is more challenging for local bodies. On the one hand, the most significant policies, programs and monies to address social deprivation flow from Wellington – income support, health care and education, housing, crime protection, shelters from domestic abuse and violence.

But on the other hand, the consequences of this deprivation confront us and are felt right here in our local community, affecting all of us, and politically putting councils and local elected councillors – not MPs, I daresay – in the hot seat.

It’s our local leaders and councils who are called upon to support the hikoi, confront the gangs, contribute to the food banks, and convene and support the community groups. Some councillors respond with a simple … “It’s not our job.”

But I suggest that’s a head-in-the-sand attitude. Residents expect local government to ‘do something’ about such problems no less than they expect local bodies to fix potholes, protect rivers and maintain reserves.

Speaking of the increasing numbers of needy people presenting at the Cathedral, Dean Helen Jacobi said to BayBuzz: “People on the ground must be able to respond to the needs that present every day.”

And Ria Kersjes at Havelock North Age Concern predicts a different kind of pressure. Talking about her elderly constituency, she says: “The older people who will be coming along are different … they won’t be as silent … the coming generation will speak out and demand more.”

So perhaps the local government role is chiefly one of political leadership and advocacy. Political leadership in the sense of using the bully pulpit, speaking for the community, convening the many other players involved in social services, insisting on and helping with program coordination, publicizing available programs and services.

And advocacy in terms of independently assessing the efficacy of central government programs and the adequacy of their reach. And advocating loudly to Government when these programs are either not working or plainly inadequate to meet obvious needs. Are food bank shelves empty? Are houses overcrowded to the point of being unsafe or unhealthy? Are domestic violence shelters able to protect all who need escape and respite?

For myself, I’d rather see councils employ staff to get into the streets and answer those questions, as opposed to sitting in offices writing youth strategies. Dean Jacobi says our local councils have yet to decide what their role is with respect to these issues, but that what is being done is “not working and not enough”.

If this is a legitimate role for councils – and especially elected leaders – to play with respect to our region’s social ills, then is it a role more effectively played on a regional scale? I would argue yes, because no less than fostering jobs or protecting waterways, both the problems and the solutions ignore our region’s internal political boundaries.

Fairness

If local government reorganization might save money and time, deliver better outcomes, and lift our economic, environmental and social well being can it be implemented in a manner that is fair to all and preserves strongly felt local identities?

Most often, the fairness issue is raised with respect to rates and councils’ varying debt loads. If consolidation were to occur, would the former ratepayers of, say, Napier, be asked to pay for projects that seemed to benefit only residents of faraway Waipukurau – or horrors – Hastings? Or vice versa. Or would one council’s ‘excessive’ debt from years past be thrust upon the ratepayers of a more parsimonious council?

The short answer is that proven ‘ways and means’ exist to ring-fence specific expenses of a historic or localized nature.

With respect to debt, this is exactly what the Local Government Commission has done in the scheme it has proposed for combining the Nelson City and Tasman District Councils. [This reorganization will be voted up or down by the public in April.] So, should Napier residents be asked to pay the debt on Hastings Council’s new office building refurbishment? No. And given established precedents throughout New Zealand since 1999, they would not after any reorganization. It’s a non-issue.

And with consolidation, should Hastings residents be asked to pay to operate Art Deco buses running between Ahuriri and Marine Parade? A targeted rate (our councils have plenty of these) could address that.

But at a point, such questions underscore the folly of considering major council expenditures as local ones. If there is a case for, let’s say, a sports park or a museum & art gallery or bus service for the region, shouldn’t all ratepayers be expected to pay? Yes, is the short answer. And in fact, you already do, through a convoluted, often less-than-transparent, pea-under-the-shell process where, let’s say, Hastings Council promises $1 million to the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery and the Napier Council promises $1 million to the sports park.

And of course, each one of us pays again when the Regional Council decides, as it has, to fund such projects.

That’s the way the system now works. Going forward, would we not all benefit from a governance structure that forced all such projects – certainly all ‘big-ticket’ expenditures – to be weighed against one another, evaluated against regional needs and priorities, and funded accordingly – and transparently – by all the region’s ratepayers?

And that same structure could determine which small-scale projects delivered chiefly localised benefits, and therefore might most fairly be paid via targeted rates.

It’s not brain surgery, but it does require a psychology that appreciates that ‘we’re all in this together’ when it comes to the major investments local government must make in Hawke’s Bay to deliver the infrastructure and major amenities we demand.

For example, for the good of every resident in our region, we should expect high quality treatment of our wastewater, an assortment of first-class sport and cultural facilities, a transportation system not entirely built around the automobile, relief from a food bank if we need it. And our access to these benefits, and responsibility to pay for them, should not be dependent on where in the Bay we live … Napier Hill or Waipawa.

Surely, any inquiry into the region’s future performance must take into account how major public sector financial investment decisions can best be made, and funded, going forward.

Protecting localism

Without question, Hawke’s Bay has numerous localities proud of their community identities and legitimately interested in deciding public matters that affect their immediate living environment – maintenance of reserves and playgrounds, community halls, village centre and other design issues, parking, and more.

Any reorganization plan must take into account the desires of residents to have a voice in such matters. Councils already recognize the value in this by fostering and recognizing community plans. In the Hastings District, for example, community plans have been developed, by affected residents, for Flaxmere, Whakatu, Camberley, and Clive, and will be getting underway for Havelock North and the district’s coastal communities.

But beyond local planning, in any reorganization of governance the commitment to localism could be formally imbedded in the structure by creating community boards (perhaps appointed upon nomination by local residents) with appropriate local prerogatives and advisory responsibilities.

The desirability and political imperative of nurturing community identities and the spirit behind them underscores the primary objective of any inquiry into Hawke’s Bay’s governance structure. And that is the need to sort out local government functions and responsibilities and determine – looking into the future – which decisions must truly be addressed, implemented and funded on a regional basis; which matters should be decided centrally but perhaps be funded by users or through targeted rates; and which matters can be handled at the community level.

What next?

The Napier City Council has recently (quite reluctantly) reaffirmed its support for the regional performance review, joining the region’s four other councils.

So an independent study will occur. Whether it leads to any sort of reorganization proposal will be uncertain for some time.

That said, the issue of regional governance is on the table.

In fact, the situation might not be left entirely in local hands. Local Government Minister Nick Smith and Prime Minister Key have both been reported as commenting on rules that permit obstructionists to effectively block majority-supported reorganization initiatives.

In his major speech upon assuming the Local Government portfolio, Minister Smith said:

“I believe the new council in Auckland poses a real challenge for the rest of New Zealand. Its single voice, coordinated planning and efficiency gains are going to give it a competitive edge. Other communities need to start thinking about how their area can do better and what future structure of councils will best assist their regions’ prosperity and growth. From the Government’s perspective, we want the rest of the country as well as Auckland to be successful and want to facilitate a sensible dialogue on reform.”

I take that as a fairly strong signal from Government … local bodies need to shape up and re-consider their futures.

Whatever your view is today on possible governance reorganization in Hawke’s Bay, welcome – indeed demand – the debate, engage in it, learn from it. We need to give our region the best possible capacity to improve its performance, not hamstring it by acting on old prejudices.

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