Tough recovery decisions ahead

[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

With losses projected in the billions for Hawke’s Bay, not including damage to natural landscapes and ecosytems, planning for our future economic, environmental and social resilience poses local decision-making challenges of unprecedented scale and complexity.

Yes, as historical photographs document, we have had massive flooding before in many of the same areas and with similar impacts – buried homes, swept-away bridges and destroyed production. 

But today Hawke’s Bay has much greater sunk investment – dare I say – in the areas devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle. The stakes are far greater. And the magnifying reality of climate change adds even more weight to planning decisions.

With responsibility for recovery planning and implementation spread across so many disconnected decisionmakers – agencies, councils, businesses, individual landowners – one can only hope for uncharacteristic collaboration and vision as our navigators chart a path forward.

Although an ‘official’ structure exists, the choices that need to be made – and the number of them – even if all parties play by the rules, will require discussions and problem-solving to occur through processes and around tables yet to be set, some with no HB precedent.

Official structure

At the top of the official pile with respect to near-term recovery is the newly-created Hawke’s Bay Regional Recovery Agency.

The Regional Recovery Agency is responsible for pulling together a comprehensive immediate recovery plan for the region, drawing upon both district-based plans developed by our councils (‘Locality Plans’) and region-wide plans developed by the RRA staff (in formation, perhaps two dozen) to address six cross-cutting areas: Environmental Resilience, Economic Growth, Whanau/ Community Wellbeing, Primary Sector, Resilient Infrastructure and Recovery Transition. The RRA work will also integrate the responsibilities of government agencies (e.g., MSD, Transport etc) into the overall regional plan.

The key aim is to marry local determination of need – largely led by our five councils – with regional sorting of overall priorities.

The Government – assumed to be the major funder of recovery (on a 60/40 basis with local funding, we hear) – will be expecting the region to set forth its needs as a region, with one voice, and will expect that outcome to be ensured – and progress against milestones overseen – by the RRA’s Oversight Board.

That Board is chaired by Blair O’Keeffe, a seasoned HB-raised executive, currently serving as chair of Napier Port and HB Rescue Helicopter Trust, and a director of Unison amongst other governance roles.

The RRA and its Oversight Board is where the sifting of competing local priorities and need to address broader challenges requiring truly regional solutions that cross territorial lines will occur. As noted above, the Government will want to hear one voice, one programme, one budget. Individual councils and sectors (primary producers, tourism etc) are not supposed to ‘end run’ this structure … we’ll see!

Implementation of the regional plan will be left in the hands of councils and agencies, alongside private sector partners and service deliverers.

Initial ‘Locality Plans’ were completed in April and will be regularly revised. Councils have – in one form or another – set up internal structures and roles to play their part. For example, HBRC converted its Environment Committee into a Cyclone Recovery Committee, chaired by Councillor Sophie Siers; NCC is adding a ‘Recovery Manager’ and a ‘Emergency Management Officer’; HDC aims to have its own ‘Recovery Plan’ for the district drafted by 30 June.

Another player sitting in this official mix is the new Regional Economic Development Agency (REDA), chaired by our most recent Napier Port chair, Alasdair MacLeod. Elsewhere in this magazine MacLeod explains the role of his agency, but basically REDA’s mission is to look still further into the future in plotting HB’s economic resilience.Will all these groups play nicely with one another? Stay tuned.

Tough recovery decisions ahead

Not so straightforward

It gets more complicated still.

Many other important players will have a significant role in the region’s recovery and future resilience, some of them outside the immediate ‘control’ or direction of our local elected officials. Examples include Unison, Transpower, Ministry of Transport, Ministry for the Environment, communications providers … to say nothing of banks and insurance companies and their interplay with the region’s growers and other key businesses.

Here’s where the decision pathways are even more uncharted and opaque.

Think about some of the most important decisions that must be made.

For example, Awatoto – an NCC-owned wastewater treatment plant (which seriously impeded clean-up and spews into the marine environment), a submerged Unison sub-station, a number of sizable businesses (largest, Ravensdown), a destroyed rail line, with HBRC regulating the consent conditions under which some of these operate. What do each of these parties want from each other? What environmental conditions apply?

Who convenes the parties? Where and how does the future ‘plan’ for Awatoto actually get made?

That’s a busy day’s work. And multiply it by dozens more.

The Redclyffe power station, owned by Transpower, the major electricity feed supplying Unison for HB, ‘protected’ by HBRC stop banks. Who decides the resilience plan for that infrastructure – higher equipment, stop banks on steroids, re-location? Who speaks for us locals? Who decides the appropriate risk tolerance for nearby EIT, Taradale? For the rest of Napier/Hastings District electricity users? Who reviews Unison’s asset management plan or risk audit … to say nothing of Transpower’s? Where does accountability ultimately lie for ‘the plan’?

Or take a drive through Eskdale. Vast acreage totally destroyed – production land, other businesses, homes, rail line, school. A wasteland. Again, multiple players and decisionmakers. Do those local landowners act in unison, walk away together, or is it each man/woman/business for themselves? Again, who convenes, offers vision and ‘adjudicates’ for that catchment?

Or take silt removal. The HBRC estimates 5-6 million cubic metres out of 12 million deposited by flooding will need to be removed. Who’s first in line, based on what expectation of future resilience and productivity? What’s the cost split, reflecting what public/private good? What land is considered a lost cause?

And – stepping further from public accountability – what if any of these decisions are effectively made by overseas banks, insurers or disappointed investors?

Financial players will make property-by-property decisions on what future risk, if any, they wish to carry going forward. Banks have no obligation to keep our local businesses alive, even though they make money off millions of dollars of council funds. Insurers have incentive to identify blame (e.g., were stop banks mismanaged or poorly planned, who put electrical infrastructure in dumb places?), so as to potentially recoup some of their losses. Is there litigation in our future?

Around the world financial institutions and major corporations are under shareholder pressure (and government mandates) to formally identify and reduce their exposure to climate change, whether that involves their overall carbon emissions profile or simply their exposure to severe weather risk. That pressure will steadily increase.

Performance review

Whether or not it goes to the extreme of litigation, there will certainly be ‘performance’ reviews examining the most obvious of concerns.

HBRC has announced a $700,000 ‘independent’ review of the performance of its stop banks, with recommendations on future direction expected. Also announced by HBRC is a review of our region’s civil defence response, but HBRC Councillor Neil Kirton has blasted the slow pace of getting underway, as well as questioning the independence of the reviewers.

With equal vigour, Council Kirton should insist that Unison owner, HB Power Consumers’ Trust, chaired Diana Kirton, commission an independent review of Unison’s preparedness for the Gabrielle-scale disaster. As we reported in March/April BayBuzz, the current Unison 2022-32 Asset Management Plan describes how: “… Unison is undertaking a Capability Project to better understand the vulnerability of its network to extreme events.” The outcome of that project should be publicly disclosed.

The Government will be looking at the country’s overall preparedness for future weather calamities as part of the charter for the Cyclone Recovery Taskforce headed by Sir Brian Roche.

As announced by Minister Grant Robertson: “The Taskforce will oversee specialist groups of experts who will advise the Government on what is required for the recovery and how to improve resilience to climate change and severe weather in the future … Climate resilience will be a core objective of the recovery.”

Weather dependency

Where ‘climate resilience’ goes, and how far, will become potentially controversial. The Roche Taskforce will look at “managed retreat as well as other adaptation and resilience issues”. The Government will likely decide where homes can be built, not local councils. 

Managed retreat has been examined thus far in Hawke’s Bay as a coastal phenomenon – in response to sea rise and coastal inundation. When the issue became who might pay for such ‘mitigation’, the wheels on this process locked. Why would ratepayers on the hills and in the ‘interior’ of HB pay for the woes of those who relish living by the sea? 

Well, now we see we’re all affected by climate change and its certainty of more frequent, more severe weather events. 

Locally, although HBRC has the nominal lead on preparing for climate change, a sizable role might fall to REDA, the afore-mentioned Regional Economic Development Agency. 

In two years or so the Regional Recovery Agency will disband and councils will be beavering away at immediate recovery projects, some that will occupy a few years. REDA is supposed to take a longer view, and one would think that view needs to consider the optimal future mix of economic activity in the region, factoring in the likely impacts of climate change. 

Arguably, this would raise issues around our regional economy’s vulnerability to weather. In the past, treated more as a matter of drought and water shortage, and now perhaps equally perceived as more occasions for extreme rainfall, transportation-blocking slips, and flooding. 

Accountability

When it comes to councils, we have accountability mechanisms in place – elections, required public consultations, open meetings and information disclosure requirements – as imperfect as these sometimes are.

But as for the likes of our Regional Recovery Agency and its Board, and REDA, this is uncharted territory from a transparency standpoint. How much of their planning will be visible and how it will be informed by public input and held accountable is yet to be indicated.

At least, both of those agencies are appointed by our local elected officials (and iwi).

But lines of accountability are quite blurred, if they exist, when it comes to how entities like Transpower, Unison, Waka Kotahi or Spark operate and make decisions crucial to our livelihoods. And even more blurred when banks and isurers can determine which businesses survive… or don’t.

The issues of public engagement, accountability and transparency will be critical as tough trade-offs – involving both public and private sector players – are required in the months ahead. More so than ‘normal’ times, the public is anxious about the future and will need confidence in decisions made and their rationale.

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