For all of us.
Last night, residents of Whakatu once again confronted officials from Napier Port to voice their opposition to the ‘proposed’ inland port to be located in their community.
I had attended a similar meeting back in September, and within minutes had a strong sense of déjà vu … nothing had apparently changed.
Apart from the immediate issue in dispute, the exchange offered some important lessons in local civics and the efficacy (or not) of community advocacy.
I use term ‘proposed’ inland port advisedly.
Napier Port’s posture is that – dealing in good faith within the bounds of zoning decisions made in some distant past by the Hastings District Council – they’ve conducted careful investigation of strategic imperatives and options and landed upon some orchard land in Whakatu as the optimal location (offering roads, railroad connection, exporter proximity) for a site that would allow the increased cargo processing capacity our growing region requires.
The Napier Port folks are neither evil nor stupid. They are playing by the rulebook Council has set and have completed an appropriate level of due diligence to make a sound (in the spreadsheets, if hitherto insensitive to human impacts) planning decision.
When asked last night if engaging “on a blank sheet of paper”, as offered by the Port chief executive, meant that the Port was open to reconsidering and perhaps abandoning its plan, the answer, put as bravely and diplomatically as possible, was No.
This stance does beg the question as to whether it was smart for HDC ‘back then’ to declare the land in question industrial (i.e., available), given the need to protect precious productive soils. But as far as the Port is concerned that hand has been dealt. There’s nothing ‘proposed’ about this site development short of a total collapse in global trade or HB’s primary sector.
So, the Port folks now want simply to ‘engage’ with the community around ways to mitigate any negative effects their 24/7 inland port might have on the community – heavy truck traffic, noise, environmental risks, social disruption. The Port doesn’t deny these effects; they insist they can be mitigated and sincerely want to work with the community to that end.
Enter the community.
For the community, the starting point is that this land (currently a productive orchard) shouldn’t have been made available in the first place, an act done in the quiet of the night through processes few average people typically pay any attention to at the time.
But frankly, unless the community receives legal advice that official Council (HDC or HBRC) approvals of one sort or another (e.g., consents) are still required for the project to proceed – or specific conditions must still be met to allow Government funding assistance for the project – then the inland port is indeed a ‘done deal’.
And no one, especially the Port or the Councils, should pretend otherwise.
In that case, the community must, regrettably, set aside its historical grievance and focus on pressing for the most robust set of mitigation – and community enhancement – measures they can identify.
And Napier Port, holding the cards, is honor bound to respond … in spades. HDC as well.
Indeed, I would submit that Napier Port should make funds available to the Whakatu community for them to acquire expert advice – including legal – on their concerns and options.
To expect a community group – and especially one without any obvious deep pockets – to counter the expert and effectively boundless resources of the Port and its Council enablers with an occasional hui of lay volunteers is ridiculous on its face.
Would this amount to the Port feeding the mouth that wants to bite it? Absolutely.
But ‘community engagement’ is farcical and patronising if for all practical purposes it amounts to the All Blacks against a pick-up team of locals on crutches.
And that is so often the story here in Hawke’s Bay. You have the Councils (with staff really in control, driving chronically ‘under-informed’ councillors) and well-informed outside ‘parties of interest’ who know the ‘system’ (chiefly, businesses, developers, organized interest groups) basically calling the shots … with projects and initiatives becoming ‘fait accompli’ or at least getting a nearly insurmountable head of steam before the rest of the community knows what hit them.
And then we ‘consult’ and hui … on a plainly uneven playing field.
Something has to change this equation. It’s a bigger civics challenge to our community than this present Whakatu situation alone, but, hey, Napier Port and Councils, why not make Whakatu and the inland port a place to start?