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Hawke’s Bay … stuck in the past or looking to our future?

Recently I’ve been heavily involved in one of the most challenging issues of my career and the single biggest factor in our future success.

Regional reform, amalgamation, or whatever you call it, is an emotive issue.
People are passionate and vocal in their views. However, we must put emotion to the side and consider what makes sense, identify the best path forward, and how can we build a quality future for our children. This debate is too important to be derailed by politics and parochialism.

As a politician, it would be far simpler to not debate the issue. I could take the easy option and accept the status quo. We could carry on as we have for time immemorial. However, doing so would deprive our grandchildren of opportunity, direction and hope. We live in a rapidly changing world and to be successful we need to be smart and adaptable, while thinking and planning for the long term.

I love living in Hawke’s Bay and am proud to call it home. Our region is blessed with so much and could easily be the best place in the world to live.However, looking at our region’s performance, you can only draw one conclusion … we are slipping behind. There are many major social and economic challenges ahead and we are failing to address these.

Our population growth is well below the national average. From 1996 to 2010 the New Zealand population grew by 18.6% compared to Hawke’s Bay at 8.4%. On virtually every social indicator, we are in the bottom quartile, and in many we have sadly slipped to last place.

If we use the analogy that Hawke’s Bay is a sports team, then right now we’re losing badly in pool play, we’re not even in contention for the finals. If we’re serious about being competitive on the global stage then we must change our game plan. Right now, I’d go as far as to say that we don’t even have a game plan. Some might consider this a controversial stance for a politician, but look at the issues facing us and our lack of a long-term united plan is glaringly apparent. We’re doing nothing to address unavoidable issues like climate change, sea level rise, our ageing population, demographic changes and our competitiveness in world markets.

Possibly the single biggest challenge facing us is the unabated decline in our economic performance.

Examples abound, from 300 jobs lost due to the closure of Ovation Meats in Central Hawke’s Bay to reports of 1 in 10 families in Napier relying on food banks to survive. It comes down to our economic performance and employment for our people; it’s something that affects each and every person in Hawke’s Bay.

Many of my contemporaries would argue that these sorts of issues are far too big to be considered by us. Others might say, let’s work together a bit more, share some services and provide a few efficiencies along the way. The problem is, this simply will not help us deal with the fundamental issues at hand.

There are five separate councils in the region. Through my role as President of Local Government NZ, I am privileged to work across the Local Government sector and I’m pleased to say that by national standards each of our councils is well-managed. However, they are each very different, whether by fate of history, economic circumstance or their mandated function.

Councils’ roles are to provide infrastructure, planning, environmental governance and advocacy for their communities. The problem is, they do this largely isolated from each other without understanding the interconnectedness of our communities.

For those that doubt we are one economic region, just look at the traffic flow on the expressway each morning to see the number of Napier people who work in Hastings and vice versa. Our economies are tightly entwined.
Without our component parts we are infinitely weaker.

So regardless of what politicians think or say, people live, work and play wherever they wish in Hawke’s Bay. They’re not bound by imaginary lines. We are already one place. We are already one region. We just need to start acting like it.

With this in mind I firmly believe we must have a good hard look at how we do things. This does not mean squashing past success, making everybody the same, or losing our distinct identities. It simply means objectively looking at options to make us ‘match fit’ for the long-term game.

Two years ago I proposed a structure that I felt would go a long way to addressing the big issues. It regionalised many things to give us efficiencies, aswell as a strategic regional perspective. It allowed for Napier, Hastings, Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay to be strongly represented on issues important to those communities. It allowed for existing debt to remain with former authorities and only regional issues to be funded on a regional basis. It envisioned some cost savings. Most importantly, it would allow us to develop a long-term sustainable social and economic plan.

So, why the emotion? Why the posturing? Why will our region’s leaders not face these issues head on? Why is it seemingly so difficult to get an independent report commissioned to look at this? Are they scared, apathetic,
or worst of all … comfortable?

Regardless of the reasons, these issues are important to me, to my children and their children in the future. This issue is not going away. Nor is my commitment. We can bury our heads in the sand and continue to fall behind, or we can look to our future with a plan, hope and optimism. To me the choice is obvious.

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