It is that time of the triennial again where we get to take stock of what promises have been kept and where all that pork has been spent (or not spent – it makes for news either way). However, this year’s elections are a little different – with Covid-19 influencing rightly or wrongly what promises our councillors could or couldn’t keep.

Moreover, Covid-19 effectively grounded our foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, giving her a lot more time to focus on her Local Government portfolio. And advocating once-in-a-generation local government reforms, she most certainly has used her down-time to its fullest. 

With the pot stirred, I spoke to the Bay’s five leaders – our four mayors and the HBRC chair. 

Wairoa 

Our wee pre-election amble begins at the top of our region in Wairoa – the Bay’s smallest district with, they say, the biggest heart. 

“We matter up here,” long-time Mayor Craig Little told me over the phone. Well at least that is what I thought I heard – the reception was spotty at best – which only serves to prove Little’s point when it comes to Central Government. 

And hasn’t Wellington given Craig much to muse on these past couple of years – with a raft of local government reforms and the old political chestnut of broken promises. 

From the Three Waters Reform Programme (‘3 Waters’), to forestry, to the closure of Lake Waikaremoana and the nation’s last unsealed state highway, Little is taking aim at Central Government. 

And he may have a point. Tiny districts like Wairoa already get tiny amounts of attention and funding from Central Government as it is, leaving the local authority to pick up the pieces for their constituents and find champions like Little who aren’t afraid to raise their voice over the top of Wellington’s white noise. 

And Little wasted no time in getting to the point. “I just think the Government is a disgrace, doing what [it] is doing,” he says in reference to ‘3 Waters’. “It’s just crazy talking about assets that actually they don’t even own.” 

When it comes to ‘3 Waters’, Little, who claims his town’s water “is in pretty good shape”, is in favour of the regional programme – Hawke’s Bay Three Waters (you can check it out at: www.hb3waters.nz). He laments that bigger isn’t always better. 

Looking to Mahuta’s other reforms – Little says they could signal the end of councils as we know them. “I always have a bit of a laugh at the Government doing these reforms, because they should be looking at themselves first,” he says. Little says the reforms are probably the wrong way around. That overarching local government reform should have come first as it would have informed proposed changes to the Three Waters and Resource Management. 

Another bugbear of the mayor is the short term fix to New Zealand’s long term emissions problem – forestry. 

Little says the Government should be looking at stopping those who are emitting instead of letting them buy valuable farmland so they can off-set their carbon footprint. “We are looking at losing about 800ha [at time of interview] on two different farms this week,” he says, with it going to people using the forest growth to set up a limited liability company and gain their carbon credits, while not allowing native forest to grow. Moreover, Little says forestry will “kill tourism and small business”. “The majority of workers in forestry come from out of town. So they don’t spend their money in town. The Government needs to wake up … this is really short term thinking.” 

Talking about short-term thinking, Wairoa hasn’t escaped the housing crisis affecting all of Aotearoa. “It’s been a disaster,” says Little. “We still haven’t got one house built here in Wairoa.” 

He says locals who are trying to get on their feet are being forced to leave their community and find housing elsewhere in the Bay because “the government aren’t helping us out a whole lot”. Wairoa is in desperate need of social housing, rentals and homes for first-time buyers. “That is what we need”.

So with what Wairoa is facing at the moment will Little stand for mayor again? “There is a lot of stuff on the plate, so we’ll just see. I have always said that I would run for three terms, but you never say never.”

Napier

Wandering down to Napier, I find myself a tad thirsty and wonder if chlorine will be on the drinks menu at one of the Deco city’s fine dining establishments. Not disappointed, I Zoom in with Mayor Kirsten Wise (Omicron and all that) and ask when I can have a cup of 100% Pure NZ that tastes a little less like cleaning fluid. 

Wise says a lengthy review revealed it will cost ratepayers a cool $284 million (or there abouts) for this to happen. Despite this figure, the mayor is optimistic that such a move is achievable, but that it is still not entirely clear what the council will need to do to be granted an exemption, as chlorine-free criteria have yet to be set.

Given the amount of money required to fix a system riddled with years of neglect, Wise concedes that if the current ‘3 Waters’ proposal put forward by Government goes ahead – “the likelihood of us ever being able to remove the chlorine from our network is probably 0%” as it will cost more to remove the chemical from multi-regional entities as such work wouldn’t be prioritised. “That’s one of the reasons that we are fighting as hard as we can to have the current proposal taken off the table and replaced with an alternative model.” 

It’s for reasons like this that Wise agrees with Little when he says that the Government has gotten the raft of reforms in the wrong order. “It’s pretty disappointing that they didn’t actually undertake the higher level overarching local government reform piece of work first” before looking at taking away the water which is around 50% of core business for local authorities. “As Kiwis [having] a local voice is really important to us.” 

While Napier’s water woes are seemingly top priority for most ratepayers – having chlorine-free water or not doesn’t really matter if you don’t have a home from which to access it. (It should be noted that this time last year Napier had the highest number of people on the waitlist per capita for social housing).

With limited housing stock provided by Central Government (be it state housing or Kiwibuild), Napier City Council fills a gap for 377 homes and their upkeep is eating into ratepayer dollars as councils don’t qualify 

for the Central Government’s housing subsidy that other public housing providers do. “We don’t have the funding to be able to maintain the houses and that’s the only reason that we’re even contemplating selling them.” She says the council doesn’t want to sell the units [this will be up to ratepayers], but if forced to, the units will not go out onto the open market. 

While tackling these national issues, Napier City Council is also trying to tackle core business issues including city safety, the Onekawa pool saga, and its civic buildings (or lack thereof).

City safety is a priority for Wise. “We have had issues with beggars and anti-social behaviour.” She says this has been the driver behind Council’s new Safety Working Group, investing in a CCTV network and a city ambassador programme – similar to the one Hastings District Council runs.

The ongoing saga of Onekawa Pool, is just that … ongoing. Wise says, at the time of writing, the concerns around the site being contaminated (it sits on a disused landfill) aren’t anywhere near as bad as they might have been, so now they are working through options about whether to leave it at Onekawa or not. “But in the meantime we need to refurbish it and keep it going for probably 7-8 years because in all reality a new pool is 7-8 years away.” So, Onekawa could still lose its facility.

Going from a limping facility to no facilities, NCC still lacks a central library and civic building, with both being spread out in buildings through Napier. Wise said the library would be returning to its original site in a completely new building, with work starting next year and that the civic building would follow.

“The [civic building] concept that we’re working on is that it’s going to be much more of a community hub. And that actually the likes of say, our council chambers, may well form part of the library; there’ll be spaces there for community organisations to use. For example, we may have the likes of Citizens Advice Bureau [in there].”

There is plenty to weigh if Napier voters feel she deserves another three years in the top job.

Hastings

In the Hastings District, making sure everyone has someplace to call home is Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst’s top priority. 

Through Homes for Our People, Hazlehurst says the council is taking a multipronged approach, which includes transitional housing, social housing, affordable housing and market housing. “Housing is absolutely my passion and my focus,” she says. “I am absolutely committed to getting people out of motels and into housing.” 

Hazlehurst knows she cannot do this on her own, and so the council is working with the iwi, the Crown and private entities to make this happen.

She would also like to work with private developers to build higher density homes on council property. “We have to look at housing in a different way and look at higher density CBD developments and inner-city living.” She is hoping that next year the first city apartments will be built in Hastings.

“And if we can create a beautiful city that is surrounded by parks and green spaces and a beautiful environment to live, why wouldn’t people want to live in the city.” Noting that conveniences such as the supermarkets and entertainment venues such as Toitoi: Hawke’s Bay Arts & Events Centre would all be within walking distance. 

Speaking of Toitoi, for Hazlehurst – works such as this are a priority for her. Changing the city to one that is not only liveable, but is attractive to tourists, is a “big priority” for her. “The next [triennial] is developing a city which is liveable,” she says. And that is not just about making the city a great place to live, but also about ensuring that employment [such the HDC’s Mahi for Youth programme], industry and the environment are taken into account to ensure the wellbeing of all people is provided for. 

And great cities to live are usually great cities to visit. And that’s what Hazlehurst is banking on with the completion of the Municipal Building project which will showcase all Hastings has to offer – arts and conferences – but also the new hotel that will house those who travel to the district for those things. “[The hotel] will open in July this year,” the mayor says.

While all this is going on in the district, the local government reforms still loom. With $1.2 billion dollars in ‘3 Waters’ assets, Hazlehurst is keen for this core work not to leave the hands of council. Especially not when it is in the middle of an $82 million upgrade to deliver safe water to the community.

Moreover, she says the “weirdest” thing about the Government’s proposal is that council’s will still own the three waters assets in essence, but they will have no say over their maintenance. “Our community wants to be able to look after themselves and be responsible for dealing with all the challenges that comes with the waters.” 

Unlike other mayors I have spoken to, Hazlehurst is quite positive about the other local government reform. “I think it is an opportunity for us to be able to pick up a whole lot of other work because we are on the ground … and we know what the issues are.” She says for this reason council will be in the optimal position to work with central government to deliver programmes on the ground. She did emphasise while the partnership with central government was key for this to work, retaining the “local voice is just absolutely important”.

Central Hawke’s Bay

Travelling down to Central Hawke’s Bay, the one thing I noticed was the growth – from more homes in the centres, to a raft of houses in Ōtane and a proposed development in Ongaonga for 300 homes that is stirring up some controversy. Mayor Alex Walker is excited about what is happening in her district. “Part of what is important for me in the next few years is that our community is growing,” she says. “There has been a renaissance over the past five years of people coming home to rural New Zealand.” 

Seeing all the new faces about town makes her glad the CHBDC decided to take a proactive approach to growth in the district through spatial planning to ensure the district is headed in the right direction.

However, she notes it doesn’t help that – beyond the consenting process – when it comes to dealing with the housing issue Council is “hamstrung”. “The housing situation is getting worse through a whole lot of mechanisms well outside of our local control,” she says. “And that is incredibly frustrating.” She says at present, due to the myriad water issues the district faces, Council is unable to step in and help beyond the consenting process. “All of our balance sheet has [been] committed to water infrastructure for the next 30 years.”

Walker too opposes the Government’s ‘3 Waters’ proposal, instead opting for the regional model that the five local authorities hope to get through. “Water challenges are really personal for people in Hawkes’ Bay,” she says, referencing the Havelock North water crisis and the attacks on the CHB wastewater discharges. “We take this stuff really seriously and it is quite personal to our communities.”

While she had no disagreement that change had to happen – especially as the smaller entities would struggle to do it on their own – change needed to happen for Hawke’s Bay. “Not for someone else, or a bigger party, but we have got to do it for the people of Hawke’s Bay. So that is where we can work together as our region, where I think we are in a far stronger place for delivering what our communities need.”

In regards to the other reforms the mayor says changes to the RMA are long overdue to the once elegant piece of legislation that has now become a beast because “over time it hasn’t been used well” leaving councils over-burdened by planning rules.

However the future plays out, Walker will be running again this year to see it through.

Regional Council

Finally, looking at the region as a whole – outgoing Hawke’s Bay Regional Council Chair Rick Barker had a few parting salvos when it came to how our local environment was being managed.

Asked about water security for the Bay, Barker says it went beyond that. “It’s about water quality,” he says. He asserts that when it comes to water usage, we have it backwards – with business often getting the first look in, when it should be the environment first, then people, then business.

“Water in New Zealand is a little bit like a gold rush on the Klondike – first person out stakes a claim and has it,” says Barker, noting that it is ‘first in first served’ when it came to getting a consent for water which they can then use as they please. “There is no management of the water other than who’s in the queue; there is no management of the purpose to which it is put.” He says there needs to be some major changes in the way our water is managed and allocated and that Central Government is going to have to think seriously about it. 

He says the ‘first come first served’ consenting process the council must operate under only goes to highlight the upside-down nature of how we treat our water. An example of this is the 15 million cubes of water currently being considered for eight CHB businesses under Tranche 2 water allocation of Plan Change 6 – something that thanks to the 2014 BOI, the HBRC has little control over.

On the other hand, thanks to some of the $30.6 million allocated from the Provincial Growth Fund, the Regional Council is planning a pilot project on a proposed site in the district to recharge the Ruataniwha Aquifer. “If we can do that, it will become a massive underwater storage area,” he says. “And not a wall of concrete needs to be built,” he added, alluding to an earlier water storage project that is all but dead in the water. “If we can refill the aquifer during high flows, then the water will be there for when we need it during low flows”. 

Moving out of the shadow of aforementioned Ruataniwha Dam, says Barker, has allowed the HBRC to focus on the core business of an environmental authority – business such as riparian planting, maintaining river stop banks and pest control.

Returning to core environmental work, Barker says, shows how much the council has changed since he was first elected. He cited the example of riparian planting, which went from just a few hundred metres a year to kilometres a year. “The rate of restoration has gone up dramatically and will continue to do so,” he says.

It may be Barker’s swan song, but they say you have done your job if you leave a place better than you found it. From my time covering local government, I would say he can make that claim. 

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