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.