Our Councils are drafting their proposed ten-year council community plans (LTCCPs) that will be issued next March or so for official public consultation. The draft documents will represent consensus thinking as to what Councillors and staff believe to be reasonable programs and spending levels for the next decade, with the most critical attention paid to the next three years.

In preparing the drafts, many outside interest groups have been consulted. Hastings and the Regional Council have made commendable efforts to engage community leaders, using a variety of useful briefing materials. Individual citizens and groups who prepared themselves and sought to make their voices heard early in the process probably got the opportunity.

But the reality is that these plans won’t be on the radars of most ratepayers until the draft documents are issued months from now … with heaps of momentum and political investment already behind them. And, “pre-consultation” notwithstanding, because the draft plans are largely internally generated, they are not likely to surface much in the way of “radical” alternatives or “out of the box” thinking. Instead, they will mostly present a great deal of incremental add-ons to programs and spending already undertaken … “Shall we add one public toilet block a year, or two?”

National: Spend or Cut?

The new National-led Government adds an interesting wrinkle to the process this time around.

On the one hand, in the face of a sick economy, Government will be proposing stimulus measures. High on the priority list will be advancing spending on infrastructure projects to pump funds into the dormant construction industry. We can expect our local mayors to be burning the phone lines to Wellington, pitching their various sports park, sports stadium, museum, transportation, wastewater and airport projects.

As Mayor Yule has said (HBToday, Nov 6): “Infrastructure developments are essential for communities and, if stopped, can have a negative impact on local economies and subsequently the country as a whole … What we need to do is stimulate economic growth by continuing these investments and bringing forward projects, with the assistance of central government funding.” (So far, I haven’t heard the Mayors clamouring for funding assistance to properly insulate and warm the thousands of cold and damp homes throughout the Bay! See Elizabeth Sisson’s article in this Digest.)

On the other hand, enter the new Local Government Minister, Henry Hyde. He believes passionately that local governments should “stick to the basics” and has vowed to push aggressively reduce and even cap local body spending. He appears to totally embrace an anti-government spending manifesto just released by the business association-driven Local Government Forum. In the Hyde worldview, local governments don’t do much more than maintain street lights and footpaths.

I’d love to witness Mayor Yule pitching his Hastings sports park to Minister Hyde!

But whether you want more local government spending, less spending, or different spending, the coming debate over your Councils’ long term plans is where you’ll need to voice your position. You’ll have the entire summer to prepare!

Ten-year Issues

Meantime, here are some alternative questions or approaches I would like to see included in the draft plans put to the public next year.

1. Let’s start with a realistic demographic profile of the region to identify and “size” our needs and objectives over the planning period. Will we be doing enough for senior citizens, for teens, for families with children? Whose needs might increase the most? The fastest growing age segment in the Bay is senior citizens. Life stage is an important lens through which people view local government responsibilities … and they can relate to issues and trade-offs presented from this perspective. At the same time, overall population size will barely grow at all in the Bay over the next decade, so how much “new stuff” will we really need?

2. What, concretely, might “sustainability” actually look like at different levels of local government commitment … both in terms of Councils’ own operations and in programs that involve the public? What’s the price tag and benefits of different levels of commitment? For example, what might a region-wide “sustainable homes” (i.e., well-insulated, healthy heating) initiative look like and cost? How much value do ratepayers place on waste minimization and recycling programs?

3. What truly collaborative projects or initiatives might our Councils undertake over the planning period? Some — in areas like procurement and regulation — might be designed simply to realise cost savings and improve program delivery efficiencies. Others — like infrastucture planning and unified district plans — because they produce more sound growth and environmental protection strategies. Why not give us a whole list of these … are Councils afraid we’ll approve? One needs to attend meetings of all the Councils, and listen to the discuss the same topics, to see what rivalry actually exists!

In this Digest, Guest Buzzmaker Barbara Arnott paints a romantic picture on Napier and Hastings strolling arms locked, eyes fixed fondly upon one another, into the rainbow. Touching! Then let’s see the same 20-point “shared services” implementation program for the next three years (with specific milestones) presented in each city’s LTCCP.

4. Speaking of the environment, how might Councils, in their ten year plans, identify a common set of objectives and programs to raise the bar for protecting the region’s natural assets and environmental health? This alone would be a far cry from the buck-passing and adversarial relations that now seem to be the Councils’ modus operandi.

5. How will Maori aspirations be incorporated more organically into Councils’ planning and program priorities over the next ten years, as Maori increase in both proportion of the Bay’s population and resources to participate in local government decision-making?

6. What alternative economic assumptions should be considered as the underpinning of different Council spending scenarios … especially over the next three — likely to be challenging — years? Forget property values … will family real incomes, which determine ability to pay rates, rise or fall over the next three years? How should this impact the rates and budgets Councils are prepared to impose?

7. How, if at all, will Councils’ spending over the next ten years be linked to some shared vision for the region? Do we envision Hawke’s Bay as a gigantic retirement village for seniors on limited incomes, as a privileged playground for the wealthy, as grounded in more “business-as-usual” farming and horticulture, as an exporter (or importer) of young families and professionals, as building a “green” regional economy, as a sports mecca, as a two-day stop-over for transient tourists and cruise ships … as some compatible combination of these?

Indeed, do we have one vision in Hastings, another in Napier, another at the Regional Council? Isn’t the long term planning process the place to form and align these visions, and then allocate all of the region’s governmental spending against them? In that spirit, might not the Hastings, Napier and Regional Councils consult jointly with the public next March/April to consider these issues?

Once we’ve done that, wouldn’t we have a better blueprint with which to guide all the private voluntary effort (and capital) that can be marshalled in support of genuinely shared regional objectives? Just as the LTCCP process yields a portfolio of priority investments for the public sector, so too could it yield a portfolio of complementary investments – a Social Capital Budget – to be “funded” by the voluntary community, in contributed hours and dollars, in some prioritised manner.

The long-term planning process can be made as meaningless or as meaningful as participating citizens and community groups wish it to be. Following-up on the overtures that our Councils have made to encourage more participation, I hope more people will choose to get involved when the formal process begins next year.

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