After an agonizing birthing ordeal, in September our councils presented the much-awaited Winder Report to Hawke’s Bay. The Report examines our region’s lagging socioeconomic performance, the role local government plays in those issues (and how well), and recommends ways to move forward.

The Winder Report indeed documented what most observers already knew … Hawke’s Bay is drifting sideways in economic and social terms, and in many ways the situation for the worst-off of our citizens is deteriorating. Still, the Report is replete with current statistics on the Bay’s status, and for that alone provides an important reference point for future planning.

But does the Report push decision-makers in any new or unexpected directions?

Not really. Its ‘initiatives’ have pretty much all been suggested before. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Peter Winder is a government bureaucrat, not an expert in economic development or social policy. He’s served as chief executive of Local Government NZ and as chief executive of the Auckland Regional Council, and is now into management consulting.

That said, several important themes are sounded by Winder, who does have the relevant experience to advise on how local government fits into the performance equation – what influence can local government have on regional economic and social development, and how?

But first, how does the Report size up our region? Here’s the summary.

Performance and solutions

After interviewing about 60 community leaders and reviewing heaps of existing studies and data, the Report summarises the situation.

“The review team has reached the following conclusions:

  • The region has a significant natural resource base including large areas of land suited to intensive agriculture or horticulture, and considerable flexibility in the production systems that can be used.
  • Over the last decade the region has performed below average in the New Zealand context and given its resource base it could do significantly better.
  • The Hawke’s Bay economy is driven by primary production, but is home to those sectors of New Zealand’s agri-business complex that have been amongst the poorest performers over the last decade.
  • The region’s economy is thin and vulnerable to external factors, including drought, global commodity prices, exchange rates and interest rates.
  • The region’s primary production is currently limited because of limits to the availability and security of supply of irrigation water.
  • The region faces future challenges with a rapidly aging labour-force, high levels of unemployment, lower than average levels of educational achievement and a sizable group of the current labour force not effectively engaged in the formal economy.
  • The region has social challenges and particular areas of deprivation and poverty that reflect historic and continuing high levels of unemployment and limited opportunities to find meaningful employment.
  • The region has considerable public sector resources that can and should be put to better use to foster the development of the region.
  • There are a range of concerns over the local government sector in the region, however, the most serious issues relate to the capability and capacity of Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay District Councils to deal with the range and complexity of the issues that their communities face, and to contribute to the sorts of initiatives that are required in order to improve the performance of the region.”

What should we do?

“The Hawke’s Bay will be more prosperous if it is able to:

  • Diversify and significantly deepen its economy.
  • Insulate itself to some degree from the cyclical nature of primary production.
  • Find ways to both produce more and add and capture greater value from what it produces.
  • Create and maintain a larger proportion of jobs with higher skills and higher remuneration.
  • Provide increased employment opportunities and greater depth in the labour market, and in particular increased opportunities for young people.
  • Provide clear pathways for success that provide an incentive for people to stay and build their future in the region.
  • Remove unnecessary barriers or impediments to making the changes that are necessary.
  • Address the poverty and disadvantage within the region.
  • Build communities that have pride, a real sense of inclusion, connection and achievement.
  • Help people to have a real stake in the future and contribute meaningfully to their community.
  • Sustain the leadership that is necessary to harness the resources of the region and galvanise the actions of people, businesses and communities to work together for a better future.”

I was momentarily excited when I read the first recommendation – diversify. Especially when this was coupled with recognition that the region needs more jobs that involve higher skills with higher incomes. But then disappointed when the Report’s economic development advice seemed ‘same old, same old’ – simply continue to build upon a low-wage primary production sector. Build a dam and hope some higher-wage jobs will somehow be generated.

But, as noted above, when Winder talked about the role of government, things got more interesting.

Leadership

Winder effectively kicked the reorganisation issue into touch, noting our local debate, but leaving an examination of structural changes to ‘phase two’ of his consulting assignment, as requested by the five councils.

And while he discussed the savings that might come from reorganisation (his top estimate was $25 million per year), his main point was about the enabling role of local government:

“Improving the performance of local government is also considered critical – not so much because of the potential for savings or efficiencies as because leadership and the resources of the local authorities are required as an enabler of the other critical initiatives.”

And on leadership: “Overall, the project team has concluded that across all of the issues and opportunities that the region faces the most important critical success factor is leadership and vision. The region has many skilled and capable people. It has access to capital and has a local authority sector that has immediate access to significant financial resources. What it does not have is a clear sense of vision, or the leadership to harness the resources of the region to make a difference.”

Winder says leadership in the Bay is “currently fragmented” and observes that the debate over amalgamation impedes collaboration. One senses a consultant walking a tightrope between reporting the dysfunction he’s observed and being mindful of his paymaster (in this case, the Regional Council, whose leadership opposes reorganisation).

Divided and puny

Another key ‘governance’ point made by the Report involves the relationship between local and central government. Winder notes that nearly $1 billion comes into Hawke’s Bay to deal with social issues – health, education, public safety – and more still for income support and jobs programs.

These are the programs with the most direct bearing on the social and economic wellbeing of Hawke’s Bay residents. Says the Report:

“Whether it is the future of the region’s State Highways, or of the railway, or the future of schools and funding for tertiary education, or the future of healthcare and the ability of the region’s people to access it, or relevant research and development that could benefit the region, or the framework of welfare and assistance to those in need, these key decisions rest with central government.”

“Given the importance to the region of government decisions one of the critical success factors for its future will be its ability to work with government and to secure decisions that work in the best interests of Hawke’s Bay. A continuing challenge for both the government and the region will be to get alignment between government agencies and local authorities to ensure that the total government effort delivers credible and coherent results.”

Local elected officials have virtually no say in how central government programs and funds are deployed. The result is gaps in accountability and coordination, mis-matching of resources to needs … and ultimately poor effectiveness at getting the job done. Says the Report: “The ability to deliver a seamless approach across housing, job seeking, financial assistance and training were noted as essential components of a successful response to the social issues facing parts of the region.”

Proponents of reorganisation like myself believe that having a single focus of leadership in the Bay is the necessary precursor to winning more local authority over the priorities and direction of central government initiatives in our region that affect our socioeconomic wellbeing. Those championing ‘democracy’ should want more of that authority and accountability located here in the Bay.

The alternative is to remain divided and puny, able to plan our parking spaces (“Yea democracy”), but not our economic future (“Woe is us”).

Says the Report: “One of the challenges that small provincial councils have faced for a long time is how to engage effectively with government and get government attention on the particular issues facing their district. Successive governments have also struggled with this issue and have tended to want to work with regions (groups of councils) rather than with individual territorial authorities … it is a challenge for individual territorial authorities, and even for regional groupings of councils to be heard by government…”

Winder is now preparing a ‘Phase 2’ report on structural reorganisation options, including full amalgamation of the region’s five councils. That report is due at the end of November … and will certainly spark some spirited conversations over the holiday season!

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