Thursday, 27 August 2015

I've weighed it up, and I'm voting Yes

Other than retaining the Ranfurly Shield, the question of local body amalgamation must surely be one of the biggest issues on the minds of Hawke's Bay residents. Whichever way the vote goes, it's going to have a huge impact on the future of our region. I've weighed it up, and I'm voting Yes.

Firstly a few disclaimers:

This post is my personal opinion and I continue to act professionally and without bias in my job as press photographer with Hawke's Bay Today. In that role I have only a little influence in the editorial decisions or direction of the company.

No company resources were used in the preparation of this post, other than those readily available in the public arena.

I have little personal involvement with any of the parties other than a few friends in three of the councils, and I also supply commercial photography work for Hastings District Council. In a community as small as Hawke's Bay it's not surprising that I am also Facebook friends with people from both sides of the debate.

I live in Hastings, but I work throughout Hawke's Bay and am passionate about our province. And here's a thought. Does it really matter where I live? Shouldn't we be thinking regionally? The fact that some folks would rate or criticise my opinion based on where I bought a house is indicative of the problem the region faces.

It's not about Hastings vs Napier

It's about Hawke's Bay.

       It's not about the people or the personalities.
There are people on both sides of the argument for whom I have considerable respect. And there are others, on both sides, who do themselves little favour with behaviour bordering on the childish, with unsubstantiated claims and uninformed, illogical arguments. 

There are opponents I admire and supporters for whom I have mixed feelings. I'm not excited by the amount of money that A Better Hawke's Bay has thrown around, but neither am I swayed by it. My view is not based on the people or the organisations involved in the debate.

       In a nutshell
If we don't learn from the mistakes of the past, we'll be destined to repeat them, and Hawke's Bay has a long history of unfortunate decisions based on short-sighted patch protection. And while the current flurry of regional co-operation and joint committees is to be commended, it doesn't go far enough. We need to take a more regional longer-term approach to decision-making in Hawke's Bay.

The final proposal put up by the Local Government Commission is not perfect, but it's better than the original, and it's better than the status quo. As sure as night follows day, the Commission was never going to be able to please everyone.

My own concerns allayed

I've had the privilege of attending a lot of meetings and have spoken to and listened to many influential people, and I've also read a great deal. Both supporters and opponents of the proposal have made some very good points, but have also thrown up a lot of red herrings, so in this post I'll simply address what were some of my biggest concerns.

       Council takeover
There's a very real fear amongst Napier supporters that they'll be swamped by the Hastings councillors or vice-versa. I doubt it. In the event of a stoush between the cities, with the vote going 6-6, there would still be another six councillors sufficiently distant from the action to be objective, and do what is best for the region. That's one big advantage of including Wairoa and Central Hawke's Bay in the proposal.

       Local representation
I was concerned in the initial proposal about the loss of local representation. However, the final proposal retains a regional oversight but allows for sizable local boards. Best of both worlds. It's worth noting that within the current regime, Hastings District Council operates a rural community board which, despite having no specific seat at the table, is able to have significant influence in the decision making process.

They also have a Maori joint committee, made up of elected councillors and appointed locals who bring a different perspective to the discussions and are able to make recommendations to the council.

I would anticipate that a new council would build on those strengths.

       Unitary council
It made sense to me that there should be one council for general ratepayers' concerns and another council for the protection of the environment. How could one council play the opposing roles of poacher and game-keeper? Apparently they can. Gisborne has a unitary council, and when the council needs to be both applicant and regulating authority, they make use of independent commissioners. Hawke's Bay could do the same.

       Three tier government (two local plus national)
I am still concerned about the cost and potential inefficiency of introducing a second tier of local government. However, this region needs a regional approach, and if we are also to retain local representation, then that's just a cost we'll have to pay. Change is risky but so is the status quo.

Red herrings

       "The Local Government Commission is just pushing the National Government agenda."
It's interesting to note that the former Minister of Local Government, Chris Tremain, was also National MP for Napier, which historically has been opposed to amalgamation. Political suicide or a genuine belief that a regional perspective is better? And for the red team, current Napier MP Stuart Nash leads the fight for the status quo, while over the river Labour candidate Anna Lorck is staunchly pro-amalgamation. Amalgamation is obviously a bigger issue than party politics. 

       "Debt and deferred maintenance will be unfairly allocated." 
Could one district really force the others to share their debt burden after the ring-fencing period has expired? I think not. Or would it be fair for all districts to pay out for the lack of infrastructure maintenance in another? Would the other councillors or their voters allow it? I doubt it. Obviously it takes a measure of trust to anticipate a positive outcome for the larger issues, but even our current council is elected on trust, so what's changed? 

Other issues

       Loss of employment
It's tough when people are made redundant, and I personally know people in three of the five councils, but I don't believe in employment for employment's sake. Yes, we will lose people with institutional knowledge, but where is the sense in employing two to five of everything? The new CEO will have the pick of the crop in selecting staff for the new council.

       Red tape
I can only imagine how frustrating it is for small or large business owners needing to deal with and apply different rules and policies from three or more different councils. Even if the new council throws up a rule they're not happy with, at least it would be the same across the region, thus creating a level playing field.

       Dollars and sense
Surprisingly, the least of my concerns are the costs of the final proposal for which all sorts of figures have been thrown around, re costs and potential savings. I'll happily tell any councillor that I don't like paying rate increases higher than inflation and councils need to pull back on some of their non-core activities. You might say, "Well, they just won't listen," True, but you could just as easily apply the same premise to the current crop i.e. it's an invalid argument.

       Wairoa and CHB
I had wondered about whether or not Wairoa and Central Hawke's Bay should be part of the mix, as geographically they are some distance from the main centres. 

Will they be swallowed up and lose their identity? I doubt it. Following the 1989 amalgamations, Taradale and Havelock North continue to thrive, with local business and interest groups still promoting their own interests and working for their own communities. Ratepayers in the former Hawke's Bay County Council initially revolted, but we've hardly heard a negative from them since they were properly included in the decision-making process. Smart move by the Hastings District Council. 

The reality is that modern roads have shrunk Hawke's Bay. It is nothing for me to drive between the cities several times a day, and working for a regional newspaper, I can be sent to Wairoa or Waipukurau at the drop of a hat. Waipukurau is a mere 35 minutes from Hastings, and I've known people who were happy to travel from Hastings to Takapau for their daily work. Waipawa has suffered more from the loss of rural businesses than the loss of their council. 

At 1.5 hours away, maybe Wairoa should have been excluded from the proposal, but like many rural towns, Wairoa is shrinking, and there is a lot to be said for economies of scale. Talking to folks there, despite being just an hour’s drive from Gisborne, they relate a lot closer politically and commercially to Napier. 

Wairoa may well continue to decline in population, but that's possible with or without amalgamation. People will always move to where they sense a better opportunity. I recall when I grew up in Woodville it was a railway town of 1500 people and five pubs, a primary school of 300-plus children, with both a borough council and a county council. Times have changed and so has the town. 

I don't believe the Wairoa component is enough to sink the whole proposal.

       Undefined structures
I would have been happier if the Commission had been more specific in its proposal. There are significant gaps in the detail, particularly around the Hawke's Bay Regional Planning Committee, the appointed Maori Board and the Natural Resources Board.

       Maori representation
The proposed council will have a much greater input from local Maori, appointed, not elected, to the Maori Board.  Additionally, the Regional Planning Committee will have 10 Maori appointees and 10 councillors. Some would say that it's unfair, while others would say it's a step towards righting the wrongs of the past. Either way, we have to accept that it's government policy and, if it wasn't introduced with the proposed Hawke's Bay Council, the chances are that the existing councils would soon be required to involve more Maori in the decision-making process.

       Commercial interests vs conservation
There will also be appointments on the Natural Resources Board. Some will be businessmen, but so what? It's just silly to suggest that most business owners are anti-environment. Indeed, many conservation projects are funded by business, for example, Cape Sanctuary at Cape Kidnappers. And even if the Board were to include environment-raping profit-driven racketeers, the proposal allows for such influence to be mitigated and balanced out by councillors and environmental organisations.

       Regional cooperation
Supporters of the status quo refer to the growing level of cooperation evident between the councils and they're right, it's great, but I doubt it would have come about so quickly if it wasn't for the 'threat' of amalgamation over the last few years.

In summary:

I have no doubt that, if the proposal is voted in and implemented, imperfect people will work within an imperfect proposal and some of the outcomes will be less than ideal. But the prospect of having local governance which is regionally focussed must surely produce better outcomes for the whole of Hawke's Bay than the (at times) dysfunctional relationship we see between the current five councils.

I've weighed it up, and I'm voting Yes.

For more information:
Amalgamation is not the answer (PDF)

Feel free to suggest more links in the comments  

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