The Big Issues

Words by  Bryan Vickery
Andy Jackson Andy Jackson

Voting in the Local Body Elections starts in just a few weeks.

When we last voted four our councils in October 2019, we were six months away from our first Covid lockdown.

How much has the pandemic changed the face of local politics?

Bryan Vickery looks at the big issues facing our local councils and communities in this year’s elections.

The inaugural Matariki holiday and Mid-Winter TSB pop-up festival in New Plymouth which showcased it was stunningly successful. More than 15,000 attended this event and the CBD was humming. However, this Māori themed holiday was seen by some as another financial burden on struggling businesses during the height of Omicron. 

But in New Plymouth thanks to brilliant collaboration between the NPDC Events Team and TSB they staged a family friendly event which captured the magic of Matariki. It was also a fillip for eateries in the CBD. It was an example of a bi-cultural event that, though imposed, was hugely positive. However, many of the Government’s other recent mandates are more polarising. 

In the last two years the Government has used its majority in Parliament to impose Māori Wards, and the vehemently opposed Three Waters Reforms. Some see this as a Trojan Horse for council amalgamations. There are new policies relating to freshwater standards, based on principles of co-governance and Māori cultural values. There is an overhaul of the RMA plus a Review of Local Government . Not since the era of Rogernomics (1984-89) have so many reforms been foisted on the public. 

Massive changes in public health took effect on July 1. The nation’s 20 District Health Boards were scrapped and replaced by Health NZ (Te Whatu Ora) and the Māori Health Authority (Te Aka Whai Ora). With an annual operating budget of $20 billion, $500m set up costs, and a workforce of 82,000 employees, the new entity is gargantuan. It promises better and more equitable health outcomes, with the community at the heart of public health. And governance is unapologetically aligned with the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Elected health boards are gone. Instead we have Consumer Councils which are appointed. 

The NPDC, the Taranaki Regional Council and public health in Taranaki face monumental challenges. There are increased Treaty Obligations to engage with tangata whenua. This resonates with walking together in partnership, but it means extra costs to facilitate this and delays in progressing projects. But any delays will be worth it because Taranaki’s eight iwi have finished their Settlement claims. They have millions to invest in the region, and they genuinely want to work in partnership, but this will take time. 

Uncertainty due to COVID is the new byword. This is putting inordinate strain on supply chains. Combined with runaway inflation (currently seven percent) this makes planning and completing capital projects on time, and within budget exceedingly difficult. A case in point is the $100m budget blowout of the Taranaki hospital re-build-Project Maunga Stage 2 ($400.9m). The Crown has pledged extra capital funding, but there is a shortfall of $3.8m which the DHB will have to find. 

The NPDC with assets of $3.7b, an annual operating budget of $194m and a capital budget of $94m will find it almost impossible to fund and deliver on its major projects, like the $248m over the next ten years for fixing the plumbing. Cost overruns and delays in project dates seem inevitable. 

Public Health in Taranaki

In 2018 the Government appointed Heather Simpson to review the health system. The health boards were found to be fragmented, poorly performing and guilty of costly duplication . 

The Māori Health Authority (MHA) has been likened to a double-hulled waka. It has commissioning powers to make joint decisions and to implement controversial reforms. But politically it’s been decried, with allegations it’s an example of co-governance without an election. 

Taranaki will be part of Te Manawa Taki, a district with more than a million people. It is part of five former District Health Boards (DHBs) — Bay of Plenty, Lakes, Hauora Tairawhiti, Taranaki and Waikato. Hayden Wano, Taranaki’s first Taranaki DHB chair and the long-serving chief executive of Tui Ora was part of an expert advisory group with the MHA. He’s given it the thumbs up and says the co-governance structure is a real strength. 

The Taranaki Consumer Council is co-chaired by Paula King and Jane Parker-Bishop and will work in partnership with the DHB to improve health care for everyone, particularly for high needs populations including Māori, youth, people in rural areas and those with disabilities. The Council has a two whare structure (co-governance) and is a Te Triti model. The Taranaki Consumer consists of 16 appointed people (eight Māori and eight non Māori). They meet monthly and are in regular contact with Gillian Campbell (the interim Taranaki health boss). The council has some outstanding representatives including Dinnie Moeahu and Jamie Allen. 

When asked if the Council represents everyone, Jane Parker-Bishop says Māori health needs are like a house on fire. “They urgently need the fire service to put water on their burning house. Imagine if during this blaze someone with a borer in their home came out and asked the fire attendants to attend to their problem then. No it won’t be dealt with immediately because it’s not urgent. But it doesn’t mean it is not important, and will be dealt with in time.” 

The completion of Project Maunga Stage 2 (Nov 2024) along with its NZ first five-star Green Star Certificate is exciting. But there will not be enough money to fund everything. The Taranaki Health Foundation is already needing to raise $25m to equip the new East Wing building. There will be continued pressure on the Toi Foundation and Taranaki Foundation, corporates and the community to ensure Taranaki has the health services we need. 

Taranaki Regional Council (First Past the Post)

The TRC is having to deal with major changes thanks to recent legislation. Ostensibly how it manages and monitors the region’s fresh waters. It’s developing a new Regional Policy Statement (RPS) that will give effect to the National Policy Statement-Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) and Te Mana o te Wai (the vital importance of water). The TRC must have a hierarchy of obligations under Te Mana o te Wai. 

The new priorities are first and foremost, the health and well-being of the water. This has priority over human health needs. The lesser priorities are other users of water, cultural, social and economic well-being. The NPS-FM means stricter controls of water limits, and suggested water zones while working in partnership with other users, especially mana whenua. 

The NPS-FM (which became law in 2020) requires regional councils to incorporate cultural understandings and mātauranga Māori cultural understandings by empowering tangata whenua to be involved in the management and monitoring of Wai Māori (freshwater). The TRC is currently working with Māori to identify Māori freshwater values. In 2022 the TRC and the region’s eight iwi signed a three-year agreement to support freshwater policy development giving effect to the principles of Te Tiri o Waitangi and understanding of Te Mana o te Wai. 

Since November 2021 the TRC has had to change the way it collects freshwater data. Previously it would only collect recreational water quality data during fine weather. Now it’s weekly irrespective of weather, and complies with national policy requirements. The TRC’s Our Place: Taranaki’s State of the Environment 2022 shows that between 2015-2020 (37) popular river swimming spots (monitored in summer) were unsafe 35 percent of the time. However, things would be a lot worse without the award winning almost 17,000kms of riparian planting along the region’s streams. It also illustrates the majority of farmers are doing their bit for the environment. The TRC predicts that the new partnership approach to monitoring fresh waters will improve the health of our 530 named rivers and streams. But the compliance and consultation costs will be significantly more. 

More Sunshine 

The TRC’s State of the Environment Report showed the region’s average sunshine hours in 1972 were 2059, but this had increased to an average of 2300 hours in 2016. Interestingly New Plymouth is now averaging more than 2500 hours. Even allowing for changes in how sunshine is measured the additional sunshine figure is significant.

Niwa climate change projections for Taranaki (2020) predict Taranaki will get warmer weather and more wind. In the last ten years New Plymouth was found to be the windiest city in NZ after Wellington and Invercargill. Another concern is soil temperatures have increased by 1.4 Celsius in the last decade and frost days will decrease by 2 to 10 days by 2040. In short, this is good news for Taranaki’s popular annual Garden Festival, despite more weeds and pests. But it’s bad news for snow lovers and skiers. So while New Plymouth is basking in the kudos of being the sunshine capital of New Zealand, cafe owners will need to better secure outside tables and umbrellas as it’s going to get windier. 

The TRC will be farewelling long-serving chair David MacLeod and deputy chair Michael Joyce. MacLeod has been on the TRC for 22 years and 15 as the chair. The introduction of a one seat Māori Constituency has caused some representation change for the TRC for this year’s election. The South Taranaki Constituency has gone from 3 seats to 2. David MacLeod almost lost his South Taranaki seat in the last election due to controversy over the $50m repair of Yarrow Stadium. The TRC procured $20m of COVID funding for this project, so Yarrow Stadium is not expected to be an election issue. However, escalating costs in the construction sector is likely to impact on the designs and the completion date of the new East Stand. The latest announcement in July warned the cost is now $70m. A further $10m of Covid funding will partially offset that, with no increases to the Yarrow Stadium targeted rate.

The New Plymouth District Council (Single Transferable Vote)

The NPDC has every right to feel aggrieved by the Three Waters Reforms. Its Ten Year Plan, the marketing of the district as the Sustainable Lifestyle Capital of NZ, and how it got rate payer support to spend $248m on fixing the infrastructure in the decade is nothing short of extraordinary. 

There is a lot of misinformation around the Three Waters Reforms. But the biggest concern is the four governance boards for the four water entities will have few local representatives, with representation being determined on a population base. Governance of the water boards is 50 percent Māori and non-Māori. 

Speaking at a Democracy Day Gathering outside the NPDC on June 7, Taranaki Federated Farmers President Mark Hooper described the Three Waters as being analogous to a three headed monster in the book of Revelation. With the first two heads being the Water Services Act 2020 and the NPS-FM, while the third head was Three Waters. Hooper said the Government was guilty of regulatory overreach and impinging on property rights. And the Three Waters was essentially transferring our water assets into another entity, with people making decisions about them that didn’t own them. 

NP Groundswell organiser Kevin Moratti commended the NPDC’s on its letter to the Local Government Minister objecting to the Three Waters Reforms. “But it was time they stopped playing in the sandpit. They need to stand on the beach and fight.” He urged the council to join the Communities for Democracy and legally challenge the Government. 

In an extraordinary meeting (July 19) the NPDC voted in favour of making a submission (based on a draft submission written by Mayor Neil Holdom) to a Parliamentary Select Committee opposing the Water Entities Bill, on the grounds the NPDC was already addressing the concerns raised by the Government and was committed to investing $248m in improving its Three Waters infrastructure. At the same meeting Cr Murray Chong was unsuccessful in persuading the NPDC (to spend $15,000) to join the Communities for Local Democracy who are taking legal action to thwart the mandated Three Waters Reforms. 

Incumbent Mayor Neil Holdom has confirmed he will stand for a third term. The confirmed mayoral aspirants along with Holdom, so far, are councillors Dinnie Moeahu, Sam Bennett and Murray Chong as well as restaurant owner Peter Hardgrave. 

Due to major representational changes the NPDC election will have more voting options. There will be one seat for the Te Pumanawa Māori Ward, and five NPDC seats will be at large (everyone enrolled in the district can vote for these). There will be one councillor elected for the Kohanga Moa General Ward and the North General Ward (in previous elections there were two councillors for the non-New Plymouth wards), and six councillors for the Kaitake-Ngāmotu Ward. Another change is the creation of the Puketapu-Bell Block Community Board. 

Despite shrill protestations about the Three Waters Reforms and extra things being devolved on Local Government, the greatest challenge facing the NPDC is financial uncertainty surrounding the just adopted annual plan. It is based on hopeful economic assumptions, and concerningly inflation within the construction sector is running between 15 and 20 percent. If the $100m budget blowout for the Taranaki hospital rebuild is illustrative, then it’s a reasonable assumption that major capital projects will face massive cost overruns, with delays being inevitable. 

The NPDC thrashed this issue out during a Zoom meeting of Strategy and Operations Committee meeting on March 15. Several councillors, such as Gordon Brown, Dinnie Moeahu and Murray Chong expressed concerns about council proceeding with capital projects when inflation was rampant. With the exception of Cr Chong they voted for the adoption of the annual plan after their concerns were assuaged by the Mayor. 

The NPDC has locked in a headline rates rise of 7 percent plus a determination to stick with its commitment to capital projects, which is bold and visionary. But the Council is between a rock and hard place. The two projects most at risk in the next few years of cost overruns and delays, (despite assurances to the contrary in the annual plan) are the Tūparikino Active Community Hub and the Coastal Walkway extension to Waitara at the Marine Park. Currently the final designs for the walkway extension are with four hapū of Te Atiawa. With respect to the Active Community Hub, during the next 12 months the detailed plans are being confirmed, while next year preparations for the Turf Complex will get underway. The Hub Project has also been given a boost with the announcement of former NPBHS headmaster Lyal French-Wright to chair the $90m sport centre. 

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, the NPDC’s annual plan is candidly honest. It acknowledges the financial uncertainty, COVID induced supply chain disruptions, runaway inflation, likely interest rate increases and a raft of Government plans that will put extra costs on the council: Three Waters Reforms, the Future Government Review, Resource Management Reforms and Climate Change obligations. 

The NPDC annual plan says: “Our job is to create a stable platform on which our community can rely and thrive. The annual plan is our new road map as we develop our Sustainable Lifestyle Capital where our children will want to live, work, learn and play.” It concedes hitting all of its goals in the current environment will simply not be possible. But the plans and aspirations remain. Ironically doom and gloom was predicted last year, especially during the Delta lockdowns, and yet the council ended up with a surplus. But will they be lucky two years in a row? Or does fortune favour the brave? 

Held by postal ballot, the elections run from the 16th September to the 8th October.

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