My Column - Moving forward together

Thursday 19 April 2018

Working together on dog control

Last week the Society for Local Government Managers singled out the Council's innovative dog microchipping and neutering project for special praise during the Local Government Excellence Awards held in Auckland. Nga Kuri Auau was in line for the Better Policy and Regulation Award, but on the night was narrowly pipped by New Plymouth District Council's Draft Digital District Plan.

While we didn't win, the judges did commend Nga Kuri Auau for being an excellent example of a community-based solution. "The mantra 'caring before compliance' struck a chord with us - modern regulation is about working with people to resolve issues," they said.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta was also impressed, saying Nga Kuri Auau was the project that stood out for her. The goal of Nga Kuri Auau was to encourage responsible dog ownership by making it easy for owners to micro-chip and neuter their pets during one-day events held in Kaikohe and Kaitaia.

Last year's 'Chip 'n' Snip' days attracted hundreds of dog owners with their pets and, so far, more than 200 dogs have been neutered. This has already had positive impact. Animal management staff say that following the 'Chip 'n' Snip' days, they are attending fewer callouts for wandering and aggressive dogs, and are also seeing fewer unwanted puppies in the Council's dog pounds.

Most owners are responsible and work hard to keep their pets healthy, happy and under control. We know that dogs that are registered, neutered and cared for are far less likely to become a problem. Sadly, not all owners are responsible.

Each year, the Far North records an unacceptably high number of dog attacks on people and stock, and we also have a very high rate of unregistered dogs. There are no easy solutions to this. Many of the dog owners who attended the Nga Kuri Auau events confirmed that cost is a major barrier for getting their pets neutered or keeping registrations up to date.

With $15,000 in funding from the Department of Internal Affairs, we saw an opportunity to help them become responsible dog owners. The judges called it 'caring before compliance'. You could also call it a carrot and stick approach, because in 2017, we stepped-up prosecutions of owners who flout dog controls.

We recorded numerous court wins that saw irresponsible owners fined, prevented from owning more dogs and ordered the destruction of vicious dogs. Last year, we also began work on our new dog control bylaw. We have learned a lot through this process, including the need to work more closely with responsible dog owners.

Effective dog control in a large district like ours means working hand-in-hand with owners to ensure rules are supported and effective. This community-based approach is one we hope to apply more to dog control and will be part of positive stories we aim to announce in coming weeks and months.


Thursday 12 April 2018

Long Term Plan a community effort

A month ago I asked you to tell us what direction you think the Council should take by making a submission on the Long Term Plan (LTP) 2018-28. I'm happy to report that many of you took that opportunity with 866 submissions received at the close of our consultation period last week.

There is much more to do before a new LTP is adopted. Firstly, many of you will speak directly to your submissions during public hearings later this month and Councillors will discuss what you've told us in May. The final LTP is due to be adopted on 21 June.

This consultation is your one-in-three year chance to influence the direction and priorities the Council takes, and this year we were determined to get as many people involved in that process as possible. We did this by taking the consultation to you.

Between 5 March and 4 April, Councillors and dozens of staff set up information stalls at 17 markets and public meetings from Panguru to Paihia, and Kawakawa to Kaitaia. I think it's worth mentioning that staff volunteered to attend these events. They did it in their own time and because they wanted to.

Like Councillors, who attended these events, staff gave up their time because they know how important the LTP process is. Much of the LTP concerns our day-to-day work - maintaining our road network, collecting rubbish, treating wastewater and water, processing consents and licenses, managing community property, providing information and distributing community grants.

But there were also 13 specific projects we needed public input on due to the impact these proposals might have on your rates and because of the importance these projects will likely have for the community.

An example was a proposal to transfer ownership of Russell Wharf to Far North Holdings. We received 557 submissions on this issue - the highest number for any proposal. We also received 281 submissions on a proposed Civic Hub for Kaikohe, 278 on a replacement cycle trail between Opua and Taumarere and even more (295) on our longer-term cycle trail plans.

Of particular concern for residents in the north of the district were proposals for a Kaitaia sewerage scheme (244 submissions), and water supply options for Te Kao (185). Of those, 180 also told us how the Te Kao scheme should be paid for.

Many submitters also wanted to talk about issues not raised in the consultation documents. These included Maori engagement, road maintenance in Panguru, footpaths and cycle lanes, dogs and town maintenance.

We made it as easy as we could for everyone to take part in this consultation. We handed out 2000 brochures, 300 consultation documents and 500 submission forms. Easier still was our online submission process - 55 per cent of submissions were made online.

So whether you spoke to us in person or went online to have your say, I want to thank everyone for making this LTP consultation one of our best.


Thursday 5 April 2018

Teamwork bridges the gap

The closure of a major road - State Highway 1 at Pukenui last week - seems like a funny thing to celebrate in this column. However, Moving Forward Together is about how the Council works with the community to achieve the best outcomes, even in emergencies such as Pukenui the washout.

In this case, there were multiple agencies involved, all focused on ensuring disruption for the people of Aupouri Peninsula was kept to a minimum.

The deluge that tore a 20 metre-wide gouge out of State Highway 1 on the afternoon of Friday 23 March was as unexpected as it was devastating. Well over 100mm of rain fell that day in a weather event the rest of the district was largely unaware of.

There were only a few showers that afternoon in Kaikohe as residents looked forward to the weekend. But there would be no weekend for staff involved from Far North Roading, Fulton Hogan, Northland Regional Council, NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), the New Zealand Police and the Far North District Council.

Repairing the 5m-deep washout was the responsibility of the NZ Transport Agency, which administers all the country's state highways. But reinstating the road was just part of the puzzle. The welfare of hundreds of residents and tourists was of immediate concern.

Bill Hutchinson from the Council's Civil Defence team was on the scene quickly and set up a drop-in centre at the Houhora Big Game & Sports Fishing Club for people stranded by the slip. He arranged for milk and bread to be delivered to the Pukenui Four Square and worked with other Council staff to keep residents and tourists updated about the repairs.

Very early on, alternative routes around the washout were being discussed by locals and officials. These included either driving along 90 Mile Beach or through forestry roads. Neither option seemed suitable.

There were fears drivers, especially tourists, would become stuck on the beach, while a detour through forestry roads was rejected because it was argued that allowing cars and tourist vans to mix with forestry trucks on rough, single-lane tracks would be a disaster.

It looked like everyone north of the washout would be stuck for at least a week. But residents told us the detour decision should be revisited and we agreed.

With other agencies we approached Bob Shirley from Summit Forests. He readily agreed to put the community's interests first and on Monday morning 25 vehicles were escorted by police along the company's forestry tracks. Twenty-two travelled south and three were escorted north.

The convoys occurred again that evening and, over three days, more than 150 vehicles took the 40-minute journey north or south, until the road was reopened on Wednesday afternoon, a day ahead of schedule.

While reinstating the road was driven the NZTA, the Council also had a key role to play. By working with our community and with other agencies, we helped ensure disruption was kept to a minimum. It was great to be part of that process and I thank everyone involved.


Thursday 22 March 2018

Working with Government for growth

As you may know, on Friday the Government committed another $6.7 million from the Provincial Growth Fund for infrastructure projects in the Far North. The announcement was made at Paihia by Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones along with fellow Northlanders, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis and MP Willow-Jean Prime.

The funding will go towards a new terminal at Bay of Islands Airport ($1.75m), a super-yacht pontoon in Opua ($890,000), and upgrades to wharves at Paihia ($2.97m) and Russell ($1.114m).

It comes on top of $16 million already committed in February to Far North projects from the Provincial Growth Fund. This fund will spend $1 billion a year creating jobs, encouraging sustainable growth, and enhancing social inclusion in New Zealand's provinces. It's not a lolly scramble; Far North communities and organisations, like the Council, have committed many hours - even years - on these projects and funding is only offered once the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and an Independent Advisory Panel, have scrutinised each project.

As a district, we've done very well out of the fund. We've won funding commitments of over $22 million in just two months from the Government. Without the Provincial Growth Fund, that money would have been sourced from multiple funding agencies and, in some cases, from ratepayers.

The fact we've done so well is testament to the hard work community and other organisations in the Far North have put into these projects. They stack-up financially, environmentally and socially, and will make our district a better place to live. Friday's funding announcement included two projects that will have an impact throughout the district because of their strategic importance.

Bay of Islands Airport is one of the fastest growing regional airports in the country and in 2017 was used by 96,000 travellers. It is working at capacity and airport operator, Far North Holdings, is already committed to upgrading the facility. Friday's funding will help that cause considerably.

Paihia Wharf is another vital transport link struggling to keep up with existing passenger ferry services and extra demands from cruise ship arrivals and tourism charters. The business case for tackling these projects is clear and immediate and to delay investment would hamper growth of the whole district.

There's more to the fund than transport infrastructure. A good example of what can be achieved is the Manea Footprints of Kupe Cultural Heritage and Education Centre in Opononi. The Provincial Growth Fund committed $4.6 million to the project in February. This will create up to 14 full-time jobs and provide additional tourism opportunities for our West Coast.

Any organisation can apply to this fund and I strongly encourage them to do so. Projects should aim to lift the productivity of our region and contribute to jobs, community, improved use of Maori assets, sustainability of natural assets, and help adapt to climate change. Find out how by contacting the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.


Thursday 15 March 2018

Landmark moment for Kerikeri

Tuesday was a big day for the Far North District Council and for the people of Kerikeri. While most residents were drying out after Cyclone Hola, representatives from Ngati Rehia and our contractors, Broadspectrum and United Civil, joined Councillor Ann Court and I in a rain-soaked field 3km out of town.

We carried shovels and were joined by a photographer. We were there to say a few solemn words and begin construction of Kerikeri's new Wastewater Treatment plant. It was a symbolic act - the real work begins in coming days and weeks - but it was also a very significant moment.

It has taken 11 years of discussion, design and redesign to get to this point. The Kerikeri Wastewater Project began as a much more ambitious plan that came with a much more significant $42 million price tag. But things changed. The Global Financial Crisis slowed growth in the Bay of Islands and we drew important lessons from elsewhere about the affordability of large infrastructure projects.

In 2015, after running extensive consultations with the community, we decided on a scaled-back plant for Kerikeri, while also upgrading existing capacity at the Paihia sewage plant. The new Kerikeri Wastewater Treatment plant and associated reticulation work will cost half of the original plan at around $20.5 million.

Despite the lower cost, it will still triple the capacity of Kerikeri's existing and failing treatment plant. It will treat 1000 cubic metres of sewage a day - that's more than three times the current plant's capacity and much more than current peak summer loads. Will that be enough to cope with population growth?

The Ministry of Health certainly thought so when it signed-off on a $7.3 million subsidy for the project in February. We gained that approval by demonstrating the project will not only improve sewage treatment, it will also cater for Kerikeri's long-term growth.

When we do reach that 1000 cubic metre capacity, the plant can easily be expanded to treat a total of 1500 cubic metres of sewage. We think it will take eight to 10 years before that is needed. In the short-term, when construction of the plant is completed in 2019, 350 new properties will be able to decommission their septic tanks and join the 1090 existing homes and businesses connected to a modern reticulated sewerage system.

That's important for two reasons. The Ministry for the Environment estimates that 15 to 50 per cent of on-site waste disposal systems fail because of poor maintenance and unsuitable soil types. Failing septic tanks and soakage fields contaminate streams, estuaries and our beautiful harbours. Secondly, septic tanks and soakage fields take up a lot space.

Without a modern wastewater system, Kerikeri will not accommodate the growth we are now witnessing in the town. It took us a long time to get to that field on Tuesday, but I'm confident we have chosen the right solution for our largest town. And that's important for the whole district.


Thursday 8 March 2018

Looking to the future - our Long Term Plan

Last week we adopted our consultation document for the Long Term Plan 2018-28.

The Long Term Plan (LTP) is incredibly important for all ratepayers and residents of the Far North. It outlines the plans and key proposals the Council has for the next 10 years - many of which will affect your rates. This is your one-in-three year chance to influence the direction and priorities of Council, so I encourage you all to have a say.

But first, you need to look through the consultation document. This has been in development for the past year, with the work load including 20 workshops to help the representatives you elected to Council to review and discuss the key issues. We looked at the strategic direction of Council, community outcomes, our current work programme, challenges we will face over the next decade, and the new work priorities we need to meet those challenges.

We have achieved a lot since our last LTP was adopted in 2015. Construction of a new sewerage scheme for Kerikeri is now well underway after years of planning. We have started work on Te Hiku Sports Hub, a world-class sports facility for Kaitaia. We have completed the long-awaited Twin Coast Cycle Trail, and repaired and strengthened roads damaged by one of the biggest storms to hit the district in decades.

At the same time, we've been addressing historic infrastructure gaps across the district, such as dusty roads and how we manage our information and assets. Keeping assets in good condition, while also keeping services affordable, is always a challenge.

The consultation document explains our plan to achieve this. How we intend to upgrade Kaitaia's wastewater system and provide Te Kao with safe drinking water. How we will cater for growth (where it is occurring), meet community needs and expectations, and be open to opportunities that deliver economic and social prosperity.

This requires a focus on maintaining, and getting the most out of, existing services and infrastructure, while keeping debt and rates as low as possible. We will use Government subsidies and other funding to develop new infrastructure that delivers the economic and social prosperity our communities deserve.

That includes a bold proposal to create a network of cycle trails so that more communities can enjoy the benefits Pou Herenga Tai - Twin Coast Cycle Trail is already delivering. Funding this will require significant investment, so we need to know if you support the idea. Similarly, we want to hear your views on whether we should fund a new community and civic hub to revitalise Kaikohe, and how much money is made available for community infrastructure and projects to create our great places.

This LTP affects all ratepayers and most communities across the district and I want to know what you think of it. Please look through the consultation document. You can find it online at www.fndc.govt.nz/ltp2018 or at any Council service centre.


Thursday 22 February 2018

How your council supports tourism

One of the surprise news stories of 2017 was the revelation that tourism had overtaken dairy farming as New Zealand's top export earner. Northland has long had a strong visitor industry and latest figures underscore its growing importance to our economy.

Tourism spending in the region totalled $1,106 million for the year ending December 2017, a 7% increase on 2016. The services and infrastructure the Far North District Council provides are a big part of this success story.

Our commercial company Far North Holdings LTD (FNHL) will soon begin a major upgrade of passenger facilities at Bay of Islands Airport, transforming the existing terminal building into a stylish gateway that offers automated check-in and bigger departure and arrival lounges. Passenger numbers at the airport have increased by a third since Air New Zealand started flying larger aircraft on the Auckland-Kerikeri route, so expanding the terminal is an economic priority for the district.

FNHL's expansion of Opua Marina has also supported tourism growth. Visiting boats from overseas and Auckland have snapped up most of the 149 new berths completed last August. An economic expert estimates the marina expansion will boost business at Opua marine services hub and the wider region by $23 million a year within five years of its completion.

FNHL is also a vital enabler of our booming cruise ship industry, which added $447 million to Northland's economy in 2016/17. The company maintains Waitangi and Russell Wharves where cruise ships disembark passengers and it has statutory responsibility for ship security while cruise ships are in port.

Developing new tourism infrastructure could be a focus of the new Government's Regional Development Fund, so I hope to be able to talk about other infrastructure that will generate revenue in future columns. The Council's support of tourism isn't limited to providing infrastructure.

We provide financial support to a range of events that bring thousands of people to the district each year, including the annual Snapper Bonanza Surf Casting Competition, which will be held at Te Oneroa-a-Tohe (Ninety Mile Beach) next month.

Past initiatives designed to support tourism include helping to preserve vital air services between Auckland and Kaitaia Airport, which FNHL operates on behalf of the Council. More recently, we have helped Kaikohe to become a Motorhome Friendly town under the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association's Motorhome Friendly Town scheme. Association members spend $211 million a year while touring the country, so towns have a lot to gain by offering the facilities and friendly welcome that motorhomers are seeking.

I want to finish by acknowledging the vital role that volunteers play in making the Far North a great place to visit. The district would be a more impoverished and less interesting place if we didn't have an army of volunteers out there providing a range of valuable services, including developing mountain bike parks, running museums, removing rubbish from beaches and transforming public places into vibrant spaces.

I also want to thank those of you who work in the hospitality sector or simply go out of your way to make visitors feel welcome. We all benefit if Northland's tourism industry is strong and we all have a role to play in ensuring its success.


Thursday 15 February 2018

Enabling social and economic growth

Most people will be aware of the current building boom and the opportunities it is creating for Northland. The Far North District Council wants to enable this growth, so I would like to explain how our building and resource consents service is dealing with the higher number of applications.

First, I want to point out that the Council is not alone in struggling to issue consents for building projects and developments within statutory timeframes. Auckland Council made national news last November because staff turnover and the increasing complexity of applications were causing delays in approving projects.

The construction sector is also under pressure. There is a shortage of tradespeople across the country, including in Auckland where one company has resorted to bringing in 200 workers from China to complete a new hotel.

I am pleased to report some progress since I first commented about these issues late last year. We have now filled most vacancies in our planning team and we have improved our processes for handling resource consent applications, although it will be some time before we are assessing all applications within 20 working days.

While we are processing most building consent applications within 20 days, we are struggling to handle the growing number of consents for large developments.

We are currently processing, or awaiting, 30 building consent applications for commercial developments. These have a total value of nearly $51 million and are in a range of sectors, including retail, education and health. It is very pleasing to see this level of social and economic investment in the district, but we need to ensure we are enabling this growth.

We are urgently investigating measures to increase our capacity to deal with these applications, as well as those the government's investment in the Far North will generate. Options we are considering include referring applications to other councils to process, seconding staff from these councils and reviewing our case handling processes.

We are also looking at improving our communication with applicants and developers, so they have a better understanding of our information requirements and opportunities to meet with staff before they lodge applications. We have to return a number of applications, because they are not complete or up to the required standard.

We appreciate the frustration this causes for some developers, but we have to comply with the Building Act, accreditation regulations and Government directives. One of the best things we can do is get together before a project starts, so I encourage developers to avoid unnecessary delays by asking staff to vet applications at pre-application meetings.

I will update you on progress with this investigation in the near future. In the meantime, I want to assure developers that we hear your concerns and are doing everything we can to address these as quickly as possible.

We have already adapted successfully to the building boom by redeploying organisational resources or outsourcing work to external planners. It is our aim to continue working closely with builders, developers and architects to achieve good outcomes. I am confident that, together, we will rise to this new challenge, so that the Council enables the growth and opportunities these developments represent.


Thursday 8 February 2018

Milestone for our biggest project

I am pleased to report that our biggest infrastructure project, the Kerikeri Wastewater Project, reached another critical milestone last week. Health Minister David Clark has confirmed a $7.3 million subsidy for the project, which means we can now begin construction of a new treatment plant that will have double the capacity of the existing plant which is old and failing.

ation of the subsidy represents the end of an 11-year journey that started in 2006 when the Council made a preliminary application for a subsidy under the Ministry of Health’s Sanitary Wastewater Subsidy Scheme. The Council’s subsidy application received preliminary and provisional approval the same year, but the Council was unable to apply for final approval until recently. Initially, the delay was because the Council was waiting for a resource consent for a Bay of Islands wastewater treatment plant that would treat sewage from Kerikeri and Paihia. The Council obtained this consent in 2012. However, it was concerned about slower than expected growth and the affordability of a supersized scheme, so it decided not to go ahead with the new plant.

In 2015, the Council, under my leadership, decided to build a new treatment plant at a rural location after engaging an international engineering firm to undertake a multi-criteria analysis of the options available to us. We have made good progress since then, buying land for the plant and beginning construction of a new sewerage network that will allow more properties to enjoy the benefits of reticulated sewerage. Getting final Ministry approval of the subsidy was dependent on resolving a number of issues, including the capacity of some sewer mains and pumps.

I am pleased we have now resolved these and I want to thank the Minister and the Ministry of Health for their support and understanding over the years.

I also want to thank the Kerikeri community for sharing its views about the project.

The Government introduced the Sanitary Wastewater Subsidy Scheme in 2003 to help communities meet the costs of upgrading sewerage systems, so this outcome is a great example of central and local government working together to improve public health.

We will fund the balance of project costs from a targeted rate on properties in the new wastewater scheme’s area of benefit. We aim to deliver the new plant and sewerage network so that costs to ratepayers are roughly what we estimated they would be when we first proposed the current project in 2015.

I am also pleased to report that we are close to finding a cost-effective fix for our Kaitaia wastewater system which is old and spills into waterways during storms. We offered three solutions when we consulted for our Long Term Plan in 2015, but have since discovered more cost-effective options and will be seeking public feedback on these when we consult on our Long Term Plan 2018-28 next month.

As with Kerikeri’s sewerage system, we are addressing historic issues, so I am pleased we are finally making real progress and delivering wins for our communities.


Thursday 1 February 2018

Opportunities in optimistic outlook

Anyone who has left a message on my cell phone will know I am an optimist. My voicemail message reflects my earnest belief that we are making progress as a district. I try to retain this optimism however tough the challenges are.

Naturally, it is always easier to be optimistic at the start of the year when you are feeling energised after a summer of glorious sunshine. But this year, I am feeling particularly optimistic about the outlook for the Far North. As most of you know, the General Election last year delivered an unexpected windfall for the district.

For the first time, Northland has three Maori MPs in Cabinet and one of those is the Deputy Prime Minister. This alone would be a coup for a region that has always struggled to make its voice heard in Wellington, but it is the portfolios these ministers hold and their understanding of our opportunities and challenges that is especially exciting.

Let's start with the Hon Kelvin Davis who is Crown/Maori Relations Minister, Corrections Minister, Tourism Minister and Associate Education Minister. These portfolios cover a range of issues that are vital to addressing social and economic needs and unlocking opportunities in the Far North, so I am stoked that a Northlander has responsibility for these.

Likewise, I am excited that the Hon Shane Jones is Forestry Minister, Infrastructure Minister, Regional Economic Development Minister, Associate Finance Minister and Associate Transport Minister. These portfolios are also aligned with some of our biggest issues.

It is early days, but the upbeat messages we are getting from Wellington about investing in Northland are very encouraging. We have already met with Minister Davis who recently announced $14.9 million new funding for tourism infrastructure and cycle trails.

The Far North District Council built the Twin Coast Cycle Trail with Government subsidies and it plans to apply for more subsidies to fund new tourism infrastructure.

We have also met with Minister Jones who sees Northland joining the 'golden triangle' of Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty to form a 'golden diamond'. Jones says Northland is one of four regions that will benefit greatly from a $1 billion Regional Economic Development Fund.

A rail upgrade has already been mooted and there will be a review of upper North Island ports, which may lead to a relocation of manufacturing and investment. The Government is also providing $14 million to support the planting of pine trees next year under its one billion trees programme, which will create jobs and income streams from unproductive land.

It is important that other decision-makers in the capital are aware of issues in the north and have confidence in how we are addressing these, so we have also recently met with Hon James Shaw who is Climate Change Minister, Statistics Minister and Associate Finance Minister.

We will hold further meetings with Ministers and the four other Northland MPs over the coming year to ensure our concerns are heard and understood. We will also continue to work with the other Northland councils, so we articulate the region's challenges and opportunities with one voice. We have achieved a lot on behalf of Northlanders in recent years, but I am optimistic we can build on these achievements in 2018. As I say on my voicemail message, every day gets better and better.

 

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