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Tribalism Afflicts Hawke’s Bay

Paul Paynter20 July 2015

Paul Paynter

Tribalism. It seems to cause a great deal of trouble in the world. People find these ways of delineating themselves into ‘us and them’ on the basis of gender, race, culture – economics even. Religion gets a bad rap too, but maybe God and eternity are important enough to get worked up about.

Hawke’s Bay’s inter-city tribalism is at the more baffling end of things. Our mayors seem to work together cooperatively one day and take pot shots at each other the next. Sure this niggly tête-à-tête is entertaining, but it’s not that productive.

There is a bewildering feature in the middle of the grisly old, single-laned Brookfields Bridge. It’s an enclosed, triangular area where two or three people can stand and watch the river drift by. The really odd thing is that there appears no way to access it – short of throwing yourself out of the car midway across the bridge.

The first thing you realise when you stand there is that people look at you funny.

I perch myself on the edge and look to the north bank of Napier City, then to the south bank of Hastings District.  I wonder about tribalism and why these respective regions need separate local body administration. On what basis do the needs of their residents differ? Why is there a Hastings tribe and a Napier tribe? Could it be the ol’ art deco buildings versus vineyards tension? Or is it the longstanding Whakatu/Onekawa industrial rivalry?

The first error people seem to make is to consider their local council as the personification of their region and the font from which all prosperity flows. I know bombastic politicians like to appear at popular functions and to talk about regional economic development strategies and other such drivel.

The reality is that councils are responsible for building regulations, dog control, drainage, the water supply, some roading and other key infrastructure and regulatory issues – ‘dry balls stuff’ as one councillor described it to me. Now, these are important responsibilities and I’m thankful for the competent people that apply themselves to such things – but councils are the tablecloth, not the main course. And the administrative needs of the respective residents of Napier and Hastings would appear to have a great deal of commonality.

I’ve entertained many out-of-town friends and business associates and almost always it’s a similar routine – a drive up Te Mata Peak, lunch at a winery and a tour of Napier’s finest art deco streets. They all talk about their trip to Hawke’s Bay, never Napier or Hastings.

My company owns and operates orchards immediately on each side of the Brookfields Bridge and over the last decade the city and district plans have been quite different when it comes to land use.  Hastings, trying to preserve its versatile soils, has had a minimum subdivision of 12 hectares, while in the more urbanite Napier area, it has been just 4 hectares. Hastings has allowed the aggregation of two rural titles for the subdivision of a small lifestyle block.  Napier doesn’t have this approach. Hastings has allowed ‘places of assembly’ or recreation as permitted activities, while Napier has not. You can see the impacts of this in the number of ‘churches’ that have been set up in the Hastings plains zone. Napier would likely not allow such a thing.

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

It’s actually a very important issue.
Two of the biggest industries in the region are apples and wine. Together I’d wager they generate around a billion dollars in top-line annual economic activity.

The reason Hawke’s Bay is such a great place to grow fruit crops is that it has the rare combination of versatile soils, abundant water and an especially benign climate; most particularly an annual rainfall of less than 800mm.

The land in Hawke’s Bay is extremely precious and widely under-appreciated. Most other regions of New Zealand are too wet, too frosty, or have poor soils. Perhaps only Nelson can rival Hawke’s Bay for crop diversity, but their rainfall levels create a great deal of disease pressure for both grapes and apples.

It would seem impossible to sensibly manage our land resource while the Hastings and Napier councils are separately administered. From a land use perspective Hastings city is an egregious error, the consequences of which have become increasingly apparent. The original settlement of Havelock North was sensibly located, on many poorly draining clay soils, as many a local gardener will attest to. Then came the railway which was more conveniently located in the centre of the plains. Hastings was born and flourished.

Our glorious plains soils were formed by tens of thousands of years of flooding, by the three mighty rivers – the Tutaekuri in north, the Ngaruroro in the centre and the Tukituki in the south.  Of these, the richest and most versatile soils were formed by the Ngaruroro.

Until 1897 the Ngaruroro followed the path of the Karamu Stream, looping around the city and flowing between Hastings and Havelock North.  Along this course the exquisite Twyford and Hastings soils were formed. Now I might be in the minority here but digging a hole in or cultivating some Class 6, Twyford Silt Loam is an overwhelmingly emotional experience. I want to take my clothes off and roll in it.

I’ve seen soils all over the world but nothing like those we have here. So what did we do with these soils?  We built all over them! On the very best soils Hastings has recently developed the abominable Lyndhurst subdivision and has zoned the right hand side of Omahu Road as ‘deferred industrial’.

The Hastings District Council does these things because it has to ‘compete’ with Napier for investment and economic activity. It shouldn’t happen. Napier has swathes of poor quality soils, suitable for industrial development. They are better located in terms of access to major roads and the port. It’s only with a collective approach that we’ll start to make more sensible planning decisions.

Opponents of amalgamation will argue that the solution to the issues I raise, is the same as for operational matters – shared services. If we can work together operationally, then we can also find common ground in terms of district and city plans.

Well I’ve talked to a handful of councillors and senior managers about shared services to see how it’s going. Initially they tow the positive party line: ‘We’re trying to work through the issues”. But press them a little more and they’ll admit: ‘It’s a disaster. We’re not really making much progress’. They report the same tribal tensions between managers as we see between our mayors. The truth is that no politician or bureaucrat will vote themselves out of a job…

Actually there was one.

The merger of Taradale and Napier was suggested as early as 1948, but the concept was widely opposed by successive Taradale mayors and residents alike. Amongst the opponents in the 1960’s was then-mayor, Arthur Miller, a leader that history accords great respect. Some locals, led by the Chamber of Commerce then began to argue that amalgamation would deliver better civic and cultural amenities and, most of all, better funding for roads.

Then a remarkable thing happened. Mayor Miller stood up at a public meeting and said, and I paraphrase, ‘I was wrong. I’ve been thinking too small. We should amalgamate.’ It’s not clear now whether the mayor led the public sentiment or followed it, but in the subsequent poll amalgamation was approved by 71% of Taradale residents. In 1968 Arthur Miller campaigned and voted himself out of a job.

After amalgamation, Taradale had its democratic voice fatally eroded, it floundered economically and lost its unique identity.

Wait; no, it didn’t!

Taradale today could argue it’s the best little suburb in Hawke’s Bay. Or does the title go to a post-amalgamation Havelock North.

I know there are pros and cons but my vote is clear – let’s amalgamate.

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Paul Paynter20 July 2015

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