This evening I had the good fortune* to spend a couple of hours meeting with sixty or so University of Auckland final year geography students. All of them are doing research projects pertaining to the resources, environment, or social, cultural and demographic dynamics of Hawke’s Bay. They are visiting the Bay this week for their fieldwork.

The eclectic range of topics these students are investigating is very impressive. Just a few examples …

  • The urban revitalisation of the Ahuriri district
  • Growing organics with Watties
  • Labour needs and job opportunities of Napier and Hastings
  • Fuel prices and people’s movement around Hawke’s Bay
  • Impacts of tourism in Hawke’s Bay
  • Interregional migration of youth in HB and its effect on the region’s age distribution
  • Issues surrounding coastal development at Ocean Beach
  • Accessibility to primary health care for the Maori in HB
  • Retirement migration to Napier

The group was full of informed, intelligent questions. Boy, I’d just like to kidnap these students and sentence them to ten years hard labour in our various HB councils. Perhaps that’s cruel and unusual punishment. Maybe they can at least send us their final papers!

The exchange raised this question for me … Out here in the “provinces,” where does fresh thinking come from? With particular respect to local government and policy-making, where are the incentives to think outside the box, explore fresh alternatives, challenge the status quo, be pro-active?

It seems to me, all the incentives are to think and behave incrementally and defensively. Cumbersome legislation like the Local Government Act and the RMA appear to ritualise and stifle the process of debate, instead of encouraging wide and robust exploration of options and solutions. Staffs and councillors alike are too harried to look far afield, or too far into the future.

The typical decision memo prepared for councillors generally concludes with a standard three options — do nothing, do something so outrageous that councillors tremble and balk, or take the halting step recommended by staff. Miraculously, all three options are always fully justified by the lofty — to the point of meaningless — aspirations of the RMA or some other official dictate.

But rest in peace fellow citizens, our elected officials take NO action that doesn’t advance the “economic, environmental, social and/or cultural well-being of the community!” The staff memos assure us so.

I’d like to see an energised army of smart young minds swarm into Hawke’s Bay and rattle our cages.

The old-timers will say “the kids don’t know what they don’t know” … but in these times of dramatic and accelerating change, the “kids” can justifiably volley that complaint right back and claim we old farts are clueless.

The big global trends confronting us — global warming and other environmental stresses, globalisation, migration and demographic trends, peak oil — have impacts penetrating down into the bowels of every local bureaucracy. Personally, I don’t think incremental thinking and approaches will cope well with these challenges and their pace.

Council staffs are already at work on the next round of long term plan (LTCCP) reviews. I suspect these are likely to be mere projections forward of the past, rather than serious efforts to anticipate disruptive and transforming changes in our future. Perhaps we just can’t expect more of beleaguered local government staffs and part-time councillors.


*Thanks to Liz Remmerswaal for suggesting this gig.

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  1. Hello Tom.

    Your latest Baybuzz comment on the need for innovative thinking and the aversion to it by staff and councillors alike is, I have to say, largely true. Rather presumptuously of me perhaps, but I spring to my own defence.

    One area of particular interest to me and one that I have a lifetime of experience in is the integration of trees into farming systems. I have been pushing ideas here for years with little success outside of the all too small Farm Forestry fraternity. I believe the future of our rural industry, environment and landscape is the enlightened application of trees. The same could largely be said of our urban environment too, for that matter.

    One area of ‘trees on farms’ that I have been particularly concerned about is the practice of farmers with regional council financial assistance and encouragement (and hitherto catchment boards) planting poplar poles over land for the purposes of soil conservation. The mere establishment of these trees, determined in their first season, is the final arbiter of success. No silviculture is seriously encouraged, let alone required. This destines these poles is to become enormous trees within a few decades with little or no value to facilitate their removal. More likely, their removal when they have become an impediment to farm production, will be an enormous impost, and likely beyond many future farmers means. This is a legacy for which we will stand condemned.

    I made a submission (not in person, H B excepted) to this year’s annual plan on this to every North Island regional council (with a PowerPoint presentation disc), as it is in the N I where poplars are being planted on hill country. Most, but not all responded. Of these all but one made sympathetic noises but no action. The exception was the Hawkes Bay Regional Council which voted 8-3 to allocate $5000 to seeking to address the concerns of this submission. Only 8 voted as I did not, naturally, take part in the debate. This was especially gratifying as the staff response did not even start to address the central them of my submission – the need to commercialise poplars through management and marketing, thus facilitation their profitable removal. (I’m not bagging staff here – only repeating what I said when speaking to my submission.)

    I can certainly confirm that those in governance – central and local – have an aversion to change and the challenge that it brings. But then that just may be a reflection on constituency sentiment. We generally are hesitant to embrace change. But you can rattle cages from the inside too.

    Ewan McGregor

  2. The question is not so much where do fresh ideas come from but "Where do fresh ideas go ?"

    The answer is overseas. The present system of user pays education makes kids go O.S rather than start repaying their debt. They also travel because that's what young people do so the best brains leave the country on completion of their education which in this case seems to have produced some great kids. Kidnapping seems a good idea but incentives to reduce their debt by staying here could help.

  3. I'm 30, I've stayed here & I'm full of ideas (although the "actual" ideas people seem to think im full of something else).

    I'm trying to formulate a plan. Ideas to come…

    Hey Tom. I've stopped getting the emails too :-(

    Technical glitch perhaps?

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