My Column - Moving forward together

23 June 2022

Three waters concerns remain for council

On 1 June, my fellow councillors and I sent an open letter to the local government minister, Nanaia Mahuta, expressing our grave concerns about the Government's proposed three waters reform model. It was not the first time we have voiced our misgivings about the reforms and, once again, we invited the minister to meet with us to discuss those concerns. While the letter was acknowledged by the minister's office, we are yet to receive a response about the issues we raised or our meeting request.

This council has always accepted that reform the way we operate and fund the nation's water, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure is necessary and overdue. However, we cannot accept parts of the proposals as they stand, particularly around representation and financing. As you will all know by now, the government wants to amalgamate three waters assets owned by New Zealand's 67 councils into four giant water entities. One entity will combine assets belonging to Northland councils with Auckland to create what is currently known as 'Entity A'. Our fear is that this mega three waters provider will remove the 'local' from local government. It will undermine the ability of our communities to make meaningful decisions about the infrastructure and services they receive. I know many of you share those concerns.

While recent changes to the reform programme have improved how the new entities will be run, imbalances remain and we believe Northland's voice will be swallowed by our much larger neighbour, Auckland. Entity A's representative group will comprise four members from Auckland Council and four from Tamaki Makaurau iwi. That compares three from Northland councils and three Tai Tokerau iwi representatives. It is difficult to see how Northland's six votes will ever carry the day against Auckland's eight.

In our letter to the minister, we expressed concerns about how these entities will be financed, especially if the government refuses to underwrite their borrowings. That will increase borrowing costs, which will inevitably be passed onto the consumer and ratepayer. Along with other councils, we are also concerned that the government has not committed to invest further in three waters infrastructure. As this week's opening of the Kaitaia Water Project clearly demonstrated, councils like us rely on Crown funding to help us build significant three waters infrastructure, particularly in rural areas with a low rating base.

While we accept changes are required, one option that we believe should be given greater consideration is a regional response. Northland councils have already demonstrated how we can achieve efficiencies and economies of scale when delivering roading services. Our Northland Transportation Alliance is an example of how individual councils can join forces to take advantage of the local knowledge and resources, and how we can deploy this to resolve problems at a community, district and regional level.

We all want to deliver affordable, safe drinking water to our communities and to protect our precious waterways for future generations. I hope the minister will accept our invitation and join us to discuss our concerns and alternative solutions.


16 June 2022

District Plan progresses to next, key stage

On Tuesday, councillors agreed to progress the Proposed Far North District Plan to the next stage in its 10-year review process. That means the plan will be publicly notified within the next six weeks, allowing you to make submissions on this version of the plan.

The District Plan is one of the most important documents the council has. Looking 30 years ahead, it sets out exactly what you can and can't do on land within our district. If your property is zoned coastal, the District Plan will tell you what type of structures you can build, how close to the shoreline and so on. Likewise, the District Plan will provide rules on what activities you can undertake or where in land zoned rural. The District Plan impacts nearly everyone in the Far North.

All councils must review the District Plan every 10 years to ensure it continues to deliver outcomes that our district needs. For example, parts of the current plan (the Operative District Plan) were drafted as far back as the 1990s and it was adopted prior to key national planning guidelines, such as the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement and the new Regional Plan existed. The result is that our operative plan is quite permissive, providing inconsistent decisions out of step with current priorities. That has resulted in fragmented development that puts unnecessary demands on infrastructure and leads to the loss of valuable productive land. Mana whenua values have not been well-integrated into the current plan, meaning Māori development aspirations have not been well supported. We are also required under national policy to improve the way we protect our unique natural landscapes, waterways, and indigenous biodiversity.

Our Proposed Far North District Plan is an opportunity to address those issues and to create a plan that will serve our district for the next decade and beyond. The council and community have already devoted considerable effort into developing the draft. We began that work in 2016 with our 'Let's plan together' campaign that invited the community to use an electronic map to locate issues that most concerned them and also involved a tour of the district to host drop-in sessions. We used the 'Put a pin on it' feedback to develop a draft policy framework that addressed nine significant resource management issues that became part of our 2018 draft framework. Then in 2021, we went back to the public with our Navigating Our Course consultation and asked for your feedback on the Draft District ePlan.

By authorising the Proposed District Plan for notification this week, the review process begins the shift to a more formal stage where iwi and hapū, community and stakeholder groups and all residents can make submissions on the Proposed District Plan and to participate in hearings. We will now be contacting all Far North ratepayers and those who provided feedback on our targeted engagement for the draft the plan. We want to ensure everyone has an opportunity to make a formal submission on the Proposed District Plan. We'll provide links and full information on the plan in coming weeks.


13 June 2022

Letter to minister detailing FNDC 'three waters' concerns

I have written an open letter to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta on behalf of Far North District councillors detailing reservations they have over the government's Three Waters Reform Programme and renewing an invitation to discuss alternative options.

"Dear Minister Mahuta,

Opposition to the proposed three waters reform model

Far North District Council accepts that the current model of three waters provision in Aotearoa is no longer fit for purpose and that reform of this sector is overdue. However, we retain strong reservations about the proposed Three Waters Reform Programme, particularly around representation, financing, and the lack of cross-party support. We will outline those concerns in more detail below. However, we want to emphasise that while it is our role to lead as elected representatives, we are also duty-bound to listen to and heed the concerns of our communities. Far North residents told us very clearly late last year that we should opt out of this programme. This followed two surveys run concurrently over four weeks. One, undertaken by research company Key Research, found that 69 per cent of those contacted by the company wanted the council to opt out of the reform programme. A full 85 per cent of those who responded to an open public survey said the same. Since those surveys, opposition to the programme has not diminished and may even have hardened.

Representation

Like other councils, the Far North District Council is concerned that the current model removes the 'local' from local government. These concerns have not been allayed by proposals to reform the Resource Management Act (RMA) and local government more generally, together with the promotion of more centralised decision making in provision of three waters. We fear that these reforms will reduce and undermine the ability of local communities to make meaningful decisions about the public services they receive and the infrastructure they need.

We acknowledge that the recent adoption of recommendations from the Representation, Governance and Accountability Working Party has delivered improvements to the Three Waters Reform Programme, but we do not believe this has addressed imbalances inherent within Northland's Entity A governance model. Put simply, we believe that the voice of Northland will be swallowed by our much larger neighbour, Auckland.

Auckland Council represents more than 1.63 million people compared to the 196,000 living within Northland's three districts. Entity A's representative group will comprise four members from Auckland Council, four from Tamaki Makaurau iwi, one each from the three Northland councils, and three Tai Tokerau iwi representatives. The likelihood is that Auckland's eight representatives will outvote or overrule Northland's six.

Funding & costs

We note the government has refused to financially underwrite the new water service entities that would allow them to borrow money at the sovereign rate in perpetuity. This refusal will increase the cost of borrowing for the four entities over time and that cost can only be passed on to the consumer and ratepayer.

We also note there is no commitment to provide further government investment in three waters. This is disappointing. Many New Zealand councils rely on Crown funding for significant three waters infrastructure, particularly in rural and provincial areas like ours that have a low rating base.

This model is complex and will therefore generate increased compliance costs. We feel this will likely offset gains achieved through greater efficiencies and economies of scale. We want to highlight recommendations identified by the independent report on the financing and funding of infrastructure in New Zealand recently commissioned by the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission and ask that you consider how these could also be applied to three waters delivery in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Cross party support

As this change process progresses, there is concern that true cross-party support has not been achieved nationally. Aotearoa's climate change response demonstrates that achieving buy-in across the political spectrum is possible. We believe this is the only way to ensure that reforms on this scale will be sustainable.

Stormwater

We believe the inclusion of stormwater within the reforms could undermine the positive outcomes promised for the people we serve and for our environment due to the complexity and integrated nature of stormwater infrastructure with our assets. These require collective planning, development and maintenance, something that will be weakened if responsibility for provision of this service lies outside local authorities.

Alternative regional response

While we accept that changes are required to the way we fund and operate our three waters infrastructure, we believe greater consideration should be given to a regional response. We have already demonstrated that Northland councils working with the Crown can achieve efficiencies and economies of scale in roading. The Northland Transportation Alliance is an example of how we can take advantage of local knowledge within each council to solve problems unique to individual communities, within each of our three districts and across Northland.

We want to resolve the challenges we all face in delivering affordable safe drinking water while protecting our precious waterways for future generations. We again invite you to meet with us so that together we find a model that will achieve that goal.

Nga mihi nui

Hon John Carter QSO

Mayor Far North"


9 June 2022

Video first launches local elections

Communicating important information to remote and dispersed Far North communities is sometimes a challenge. While many towns still have newspapers delivered and boast good internet coverage, some of our more remote settlements often struggle to access regular updates. In response, we are having to find new ways to keep our residents updated about the work we do. Video is an increasingly important part of our communications toolkit, especially where we need to share complex information.

Last week, we launched a major campaign promoting the upcoming elections. Our goal is to encourage Far North residents to get enrolled, to stand for election, and to vote in the October local elections. To support that message, a specially branded '2022 Elections Tour' van will begin visiting marae, community and sports events, and cafés. We'll be asking residents to Step Up - Tu rangatira mai, Stand Up - Tu kotahi mai, and Speak Up - Mo te apopo.

Enrolling, standing and voting are important messages to promote every election. This time, however, differs from previous elections for several key reasons. The total number of councillors has increased from nine to 10. It will be the first council election in the Far North to use the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which will significantly change the way we select local representatives. But most importantly, this election will be the first to include the Nga Tai o Tokerau Maori ward. This covers the entire district and will see four councillors representing this ward on council.

These are major changes and we believe a video will be the best way to inform the widest possible audience about them. Of course, we also want our video to showcase the diversity of our district. To help achieve that, we decided to simultaneously release it in New Zealand's three languages - Te Reo Maori, English and New Zealand Sign Language. It is the first-time Far North District Council has produced a video in each language and may even be a first in New Zealand. I urge you to judge the results yourself by viewing each video on our YouTube channel:
www.youtube.com/c/FarNorthDistrictCouncil.

I want to thank all those who feature in the video. They happily donated their time to encourage their fellow Far North residents to enrol, stand and vote in the October elections. They did so because local elections are important and full participation is how we can ensure that our democracies remain vibrant, relevant and representative of our communities. Our video 'stars' came from Hokianga, Ahipara, Kerikeri, Waitangi and Okaihau. Special thanks must also go to our sign language expert, Eddie Hokianga from Kaikohe, and also to Awhina Rose Henare Ashby from Kawakawa, who presented and provided the video voiceover.

We'll be promoting the elections between now and election day on 8 October. The next key date to remember is 15 July when nominations open. You then have until 12 August to put yourself forward for election. Voting documents will be posted out from 16 September. For more information, go to our election 2022 webpage:
www.fndc.govt.nz/Local-Elections-2022.


2 June 2022

Trees deserve our protection

I want to thank all those who responded to our call to vote in the inaugural Tree of the Year 2022 competition. The aim of Rakau o te Tau – Tree of the Year NZ Aotearoa is to highlight significant trees in our communities and to share what makes them important. We asked people via social media and our website to vote for Kerikeri's 200-year old pear tree. Located on council-owned land by the Stone Store, this tree is thought to be a Williams bon chrétien (good Christian) pear and is the sole survivor of 185 fruit trees and grape vines planted in the area. These were the first recorded exotic trees planted in New Zealand making the pear the oldest surviving exotic tree in New Zealand.

The Kerikeri pear is one of six trees around the country to be nominated in the competition and the only one in Northland. The winning tree will be announced on Arbor Day Sunday 5 June. Of course, it is impossible to say that one tree is more important or deserving than another and I'm sure many of you can name other trees you feel should be named Tree of the Year. You will have a chance to nominate those trees and to tell their stories during next year's Tree of the Year competition. I think this a great way to remind us how important trees are to our environment, our history and our communities. Recognising that is the first step in protecting our significant trees.

The Kerikeri pear tree is already protected under the Schedule of Notable Trees included in the District Plan. It is illegal to damage or remove trees on the schedule. The Resource Management Act also has provisions to protect and maintain indigenous vegetation. Due to the huge number of trees in the district, a high threshold is applied before trees can be recognised as 'notable'. We do this using the Standard Tree Evaluation Method. Criteria include size, position, the presence of other trees, species scarcity, the tree's role in a particular location, life expectancy, and scientific, historic and cultural values.

There are currently 147 notable tree sites protected in the Far North by the schedule. Many are single trees, but other sites are groups of trees. In 2017, we asked Far North residents to nominate exceptional trees that should be protected under the schedule. There was also an opportunity to nominate trees when the draft District Plan was released early in 2021. Your next opportunity to add trees to the schedule will be when the Proposed District Plan is notified later this year.

We'll keep you updated on exactly when that will happen so you can make formal submissions on the proposed plan. While our preference is to protect trees on public land or on the property of the person nominating a tree, trees on private land can also be protected by private covenant. Whichever tree wins Rakau o te Tau on Arbor Day, the result will be an important reminder of how important trees and our natural environment are to our communities.


12 May 2022

Making Te Hiku a great place to live

With news headlines dominated by major events at home and overseas, it's easy to lose sight of the many projects communities and council are working on to make Te Hiku a great place to live. In recent weeks, I have attended two events to officially open new facilities. While the projects are very different in size and funding, each will have a hugely positive impact on community wellbeing for years to come.

Last month, more than 40 people gathered at Pukenui to officially re-open New Zealand's northernmost commercial wharf. For over 50 years this vital piece of maritime infrastructure has served the local fishing fleet, recreational and charter boats, fishers and swimmers. It is also home to fuel bowsers at the wharf carpark, and a marine diesel supply on the wharf itself. We closed the wharf almost a year ago to allow for a $2.4 million upgrade that installed a new concrete pontoon and gangway, timber service dock, and allowed trucks to load and unload on the wharf. We've even installed fishing rod holders on the service deck so anyone who wants to cast in a line can do so. Repairs were also made to a seawall at the carpark end of the wharf. The upgrade was due to be completed by October but was delayed two months by the August COVID-19 lockdown and related supply issues. Despite those challenges, we managed to get the wharf open in time for Christmas. Credit for that achievement goes to local contractors and Far North Holdings staff, who managed the project.

The new wharf will benefit this remote community for many years to come. It not only makes commercial fishing operations easier, safer and more efficient; it has also increased the number of berths available for recreational vessels, making this part of the coast more attractive to local and visiting boaties. The council provided $1.4 million towards the work with the government's Provisional Growth Fund provided $1 million. A separate project funded entirely by the council has already renewed the boat ramp next to the wharf and is adding trailer parks to the new concrete parking area.

This month, and on the opposite coast, I attended another ribbon cutting ceremony. While this project targets a very different group and is on a much smaller scale, I know the long-term benefits will be just as profound. The playground at Korora Park at Ahipara has undergone a major revamp, making it four times larger. It now features a flying fox, mini-trampolines, slides, swings and all the equipment tamariki love to explore. It proved an instant hit with youngsters when I joined councillors and community members to officially open the $352,000 upgrade. The success of this project is due to community leadership, assisted by their local councillor. It was funded through the government's COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

These are just two examples of projects we are working on with Te Hiku communities that are making this a great place to live in. I want to acknowledge all those who help make that happen.


5 May 2022

3 waters reforms dilute council input

A suite of changes to three waters reforms were announced by the government last week to allay concerns of many councils over the future operation and ownership of water, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure. As you most likely know, the government wants to amalgamate the assets currently owned by New Zealand's 67 councils into four giant water entities. In the Far North, our facilities will be combined with those belonging to other Northland councils and with Auckland. This will create what is currently known as 'Entity A'.

While we all agree New Zealand needs to change the way we operate our three waters assets, like many of my fellow mayors, I am opposed to several aspects of the reforms. To address these concerns, the government has appointed a working group comprised of nine mayors, nine Maori representatives and the Chair of the reforms steering committee. This group presented 47 recommendations to the government, 44 of which were adopted last Friday. The key changes will clarify community ownership by allocating shares in the new water entities to councils. These will be population based - one share per 50,000 people. Mana whenua and councils will also have equal representation on the Regional Representative Groups, and connections with smaller communities will be strengthened.

On the face of it, these seem like good changes. But a more detailed assessment shows that many of the recommendations simply tinker with the reforms and won't make the model any more palatable to our communities. Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith was one of the nine mayors on the working group. He has expressed his fears that the voice of Northland councils will be swallowed by our much larger neighbour, Auckland. Auckland Council represents more than 1.63 million people compared to the 196,000 living within Northland's three districts. Under the reforms announced Friday, Entity A will have 14 members on its representative group - four from Auckland Council, four from Tamaki Makaurau iwi, one each from the three Northland councils, and three Tai Tokerau iwi representatives. There is a very real possibility that Auckland's eight representatives will be able to outvote or overrule Northland's six representatives.

Local government action group Communities 4 Local Democracy He hapori mo te Manapori is also concerned about Friday's announcement. The group, which includes the Far North District Council, wants all New Zealanders to access safe drinking water but it also believes all communities should have a say in how these valuable ratepayer assets are dispersed. It contends that the government's announcement does nothing to guarantee community input, and the new sub-regional groups will reduce the voice of smaller councils.

Another concern is how much-needed upgrades to the nation's water infrastructure will be paid for. Officials have estimated we may need to spend more than $120 billion over the next 30 years to bring our water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure up to standard. The current assumption is the four new water entities will have sufficient assets to borrow against. The working group suggested that the government also continue investing in this infrastructure. That was one recommendation the government noted but has not agreed to.


21 April 2022

Far North welcome for Easter visitors

Easter is often a busy time for the Far North as holiday makers make the most of warmer weather before winter temperatures take hold. This year, many Kiwis took time off between Easter Monday and the upcoming ANZAC Day long weekend to create a bumper 11-day autumn break. This saw busy roads on Good Friday and Saturday with traffic heading north, many towing boats and caravans or with surfboards and canoes strapped to the roof. This break has been the first opportunity many people have had in over a year to head to the batch or visit whanau without the constant fear and uncertainty of COVID-19.

While the pandemic is not yet over, the Government's announcement last week that the entire country would move to the less restrictive Orange traffic light setting was a strong signal that the peak of the pandemic has now passed. Infection rates across the country are trending down and fewer restrictions recognise that. Under the Orange setting, there are no limits on the number of people who can be at cafes, bars, restaurants and nightclubs, either indoors or outdoors, and you no longer have to be seated to be served. The announcement was great news for our tourism and hospitality sectors.

Our region has spent longer under the Red traffic light setting than anywhere else in the country and that has hit the Far North's hospitality and tourism sectors particularly hard. A report presented to the council by economic consultants and forecasters, Infometrics, underlines this. The company says tourism expenditure has fallen in the Far North compared to the same time last year. That expenditure rose slightly for the rest of the country. Comparing employment trends over the past two years,

Infometrics confirms that the Far North has lost jobs in accommodation and food, manufacturing, and arts and recreation. However, there is also positive economic news for Northland and the Far North. Overall, job adverts are up in Northland compared to pre-pandemic levels and are ahead of figures recorded for the rest of New Zealand. While some Far North service industries have contracted, employment in other industries has grown over the past two years. That is particularly evident in our construction and health sectors. This is supported by other economic indicators. Infometrics reports a sharp climb over the past year in residential and non-residential consents, and in car registrations and commercial vehicle registrations.

While it's too early yet to get an accurate count on visitor numbers over the Easter and ANZAC Day long weekend, anecdotal evidence suggests our district is still a favourite destination for friends and whanau visiting from Auckland and elsewhere. Our boat ramps were busy, holiday homes were booked, and camp grounds were popular. Without doubt, the blast of severe weather we experienced at the tail end of the Easter break has persuaded some to return home early. I hope others will stay on to enjoy improving weather forecast for the ANZAC Day long weekend. Our cafes, restaurants and bars will be sure to show them a warm welcome.


14 April 2022

Giving communities a sporting chance

Around 100 people descended on Lindvart Park in Kaikohe last Saturday to help celebrate and learn about the game of football. Around 65 tamariki were shown new skills by Kaikohe Football Club members, who taught the youngsters the rules of the game and key skills like shooting goals and goalkeeping. We couldn't have asked for a better autumn day of sunshine, with free food available and lots of giveaways donated by local businesses. While the focus was on having fun and promoting football, there was also a more serious aim - to promote community pride and participation.

Kaikohe has been in the headlines recently after a series of violent gang-related incidents that have shaken the town. I don't believe these incidents reflect the nature of Kaikohe or the people who proudly call it home. The Kaikohe that I know has a great community spirit and a very committed group of leaders working hard to support and provide opportunities for residents. These leaders responded quickly to recent criminal activity with the Kaikohe Business Association securing funding to upgrade CCTV equipment around the town centre and linking different areas of the system. It is also working with police on a long-term plan to resource CCTV monitoring. These are good responses to the immediate problem and provide residents with confidence that action is being taken to curb criminal activity. But much more is being done to make Kaikohe is a great place to live and to ensure it becomes a vibrant and prosperous community once again.

The Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park project initiated by the council and being managed by Far North Holdings Ltd is already having a positive impact on Kaikohe employment. Around 10ha of hydroponic berry tunnels have been constructed and education and training centres are due for completion later this year. Meanwhile, a partnership with the Ministry of Social Development, the Mayors Task Force for Jobs and Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park has resulted in 30 sustainable employment opportunities for locals. More planting, horticulture and supervision roles are now being advertised and several new enterprises are talking about moving into the park.

As Saturday's football event demonstrated, sport is a great way to encourage a sense of community and to promote healthy lifestyles. Kaikohe has a strong sporting culture and the council is supporting that through a multi-million-dollar upgrade to our existing Lindvart Park sports facility. The $12.5 million project is being led by Kaikohe Sportsville and will turn existing quality sports fields, courts, and the pavilion into a premier sporting facility. The project is expected to create around 35 construction jobs and will make Lindvart Park a focal point the whole Kaikohe-Hokianga community.

Investing in infrastructure and facilities that provide sustainable employment and support our people is a key part of tackling social problems and crime. Projects like Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park and the Lindvart Park upgrade are a big part of those efforts in Kaikohe. Just as important, is supporting organisations like Kaikohe Football Club and its very successful weekend celebration of football


7 April 2022

Time to help local businesses

Our hospitality and tourism businesses are desperate for a return to normality before we head into the visitor slowdown over winter. I know they were disappointed to learn on Monday that the Government had decided against relaxing COVID-19 restrictions. The Prime Minister said New Zealand is not yet ready to move from a Red traffic light setting to Orange with many parts of the country still experiencing a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Despite that decision, there was also good news about the COVID-19 response. The national daily average of cases has declined by 36 per cent and hospitalisations have fallen in Auckland. As predicted, infection rates in regions like ours are not yet declining at the same rate. Omicron arrived here later, so our hospitalisations will plateau later. The experts predict that the plateau will occur from the middle of this month. For now, the whole nation remains at the Red traffic light setting. While there is no limit to the number of people who can gather outdoors, a limit of 200 people remains on indoor gatherings and this is restricting our hospitality sector.

All of us want to see an end to these restrictions, but it pays to remain cautious. The Council has been operating under its own enhanced Red+ protocols for the past 10 weeks. These were implemented when the first Omicron community case was detected in the country. Since then, active COVID-19 cases in Northland have risen dramatically and most of us now know someone who has either been infected with COVID-19 or has been a close contact of someone who has. Most Council staff have been working from home under our Red+ protocols and this has limited work place transmission. Where staff cannot work from home, strict rules on physical distancing are applied and face masks are required in shared office areas. Nearly all meetings are held virtually, including council, community board and committee meetings. These stricter protocols have worked.

While there have been 12 occasions where a potentially infected person has visited our offices, there have been just two cases of likely virus transmission. It is estimated that the enhanced Red+ protocols have helped to avert 52 council workplace infections. Even so, around 38 per cent of our staff have been impacted by the virus, either because they have received positive COVID-19 test results or were close contacts. This has reduced our ability to provide services. Staff shortages have forced most of our libraries, service centres, and i-SITEs to adopt reduced operating hours and, in some cases, facilities have closed temporarily.

The government says pandemic restrictions will be reduced as hospitalisation rates decrease. Its next review of traffic light settings will be on 14 April and we all hope to see a move to Orange settings. That would remove capacity limits at venues and gatherings and assist our tourism and hospitality sector. In the meantime, I urge you to support your local businesses wherever you can. They make this a great place to live and they need our help right now.


24 March 2022

A new chapter for Council

This week we opened a new and significant chapter in Council operations by welcoming a new Chief Executive to the organisation. Blair King's first day with us was on Monday. Traditionally, his welcome would include a full powhiri with his family, Council staff and guests from partner organisations gathered at Memorial Hall in Kaikohe. That was not possible this time due to the high number of Omicron cases we are seeing in our district. Instead, we opted for a significantly pared back welcome with a maximum of 20 guests gathered at our Kaikohe meeting chambers. We applied strict COVID-19 protocols, including 2m distancing, mask wearing and takeaway refreshments after the event. Councillors, staff and representatives of partner organisations were invited to attend online.

Blair comes to us from Tararua District, but he was raised in Kaipara and became an engineer at Kaipara District Council. He was later General Manager of Lakes Engineering, a Queenstown and Lakes District Council CCO, and then spent 12 years as CEO of Tararua District Council. Blair is a Chartered Professional Engineer, Justice of the Peace, and Engineer with the Urban Search and Rescue Taskforce.

Blair has some big shoes to fill. Outgoing Chief Executive, Shaun Clarke, has transformed Council operations, creating an organisation that others look to. That is not an idle boast. We have been recognised nationally for our innovations, such as our hybrid working model developed in response to COVID-19 lockdowns. This allows staff to work mostly from home and was recently named the country's Best Workplace Flexibility Program by the HRD Awards NZ. Our strategy to get 100 per cent of our district connected to the digital world, Nothing But Net, won an award at the 2021 Taituara Society of Local Government Managers Awards, and in February our Paihia Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade won the Excellence in Project Innovation Award from the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia.

We were one of the first Council's to join the CouncilMARK local government excellence programme in 2017. This assesses local authority performance across key areas. We increased our rating after our second assessment in 2021. This was largely due to 34 transformation projects that Shaun launched to improve our capability, systems and service delivery, as well as capacity to deliver infrastructure projects. That has paid off. Last financial year, we completed 94 per cent of the district's capital works programme, a big increase on the roads and footpaths we have been able to deliver historically. We have joined the digital age with around 90 per cent of our services now available online, allowing you to make applications, report faults and pay for services from anywhere with an internet connection.

Those are just a few accomplishments achieved in the past five years with Shaun at the helm. He has been an inspirational leader at a time of unprecedented challenges, and I want to thank him for helping to make our district a great place to live. Shaun will spend the next week familiarising Blair King with key issues, workstreams and processes. His last day with Far North District Council is on 31 March.


17 March 2022

Making headway on three waters

As readers of this column will know, last year I joined with many other mayors around the country to express my grave concerns about the Government's Three Waters Reforms. This will amalgamate all council-owned drinking, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure across New Zealand into four water services entities. The Government says this will deliver better and lower-cost water services to New Zealanders. For the Far North, the change will mean being part of one entity providing water services across Auckland and Northland.

One of my key concerns, and one shared by other mayors, is that the plan has lacked community input. We also had grave doubts about the governance, representation, and accountability of the new entities. Last October, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta acknowledged our concerns and set up a working group of council and iwi representatives to address them. Last week that group reported back and made 47 recommendations to the Minister. Key among these is to give councils a shareholding interest in the four waters entities based on population - one share per 50,000 people. It also recommended that the Government add protections against privatisation, provide stronger mechanisms for local and iwi voices within the entities and strengthen the focus on the health and wellbeing of our water.

These recommendations are a step in the right direction. However, they are recommendations only and are yet to be adopted by the Minister. Even if they are, a major part of the discussion is still missing - funding proposals. All councils recognise that New Zealand's three waters infrastructure has been underfunded for decades. Unless we do something to address this, more of our town water supplies will become degraded, and more stormwater and wastewater systems will fail.

These circumstances are not the fault of local authorities and I was pleased to see that the Minister acknowledged this over the weekend. She said during an interview that she had underestimated how much the public understood problems facing our three waters infrastructure. She also recognised the trade-offs that all councils must make in relation to "what gets spent above the ground, and what gets spent on assets below the ground". These acknowledgements are another step in the right direction. However, even if we put the best policies and governance structures in place, this reform programme will fail without adequate funding. I want to know how we will pay for this massive overhaul of infrastructure. Will taxpayers or ratepayers foot the bill? Or both? Will we borrow to fund upgrades and who will be responsible for paying those loans back?

We will keep talking to representatives in Wellington about the reforms to ensure that local voices are heard and to get the best deal possible for you and your community. Your input will also play a vital role. Depending on what the Minister recommends, there will be a public consultation as part of the Select Committee process. If you are concerned about what happens to these assets, how they are controlled and who pays for them, I urge you to have your say as this legislation progresses.


10 March 2022

Reimagining local government

As Te Hiku readers know, last month Kaitaia was named New Zealand's most beautiful small town. Kaitaia clinched the honour largely because of a wonderful community-led initiative - Te Hiku Open Places Revitalisation Project. The Council is supporting the project, but credit for creating public artworks and upgrading parks and public spaces goes to hard-working community members in Kaitaia, Awanui and Ahipara. This is a great example of how local government could and should operate: community-led with support and funding from local and central government. A similar example is Te Hiku Sports Hub. Te Hiku residents made a sports hub and aquatic centre a priority and after years of planning, fundraising, and gathering support, construction of the new facility is now well underway. Again, the Council provided support and funding, as did central government, but the community is driving this project.

In April 2021, the Government launched the Future for Local Government (FfLG) Review. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way that public services are delivered to New Zealanders. It dovetails with proposals to change the way three waters services are delivered, and changes to the Resource Management Act. The FfLG review asks us to 'reimagine the role and function of local government' to better deliver wellbeing for communities. Over the last nine months, councillors and council staff have been working on what this may look like for the Far North. For us, the starting point is to put the 'local' back into Local Government.

One of the main goals of local government is to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of communities. Currently, wellbeing is delivered by a raft of agencies, both central and local, carrying out tasks professionally, but often in an uncoordinated way. We'd like to see more services put into the hands of local partnerships consisting of councils and government agencies, but with the communities they represent alongside.

A core priority is around Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We have a rich and diverse history and celebrate the fact that over half of our residents in the Far North identify as Maori. Local government must take into account the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, specifically obligations to provide opportunities for Maori to participate in decision making and other council processes which are meaningful to both parties. Participation, partnership and protection are inherently place-based, and it is important that Iwi are involved in local governance structures that give life to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

This review provides us an opportunity to improve the way services are delivered to citizens, make them more efficient and reduce costs. One way that councils can achieve that is through collaboration. Northland councils have demonstrated how to do this with New Zealand's first shared services alliance arrangement for roading - the Northland Transportation Alliance.

We will continue refining our proposals before presenting them in April to the Future for Local Government Panel. In September, the Department of Internal Affairs will provide a draft report and recommendations for public consultation and a final report is due to be delivered to the government in April 2023.


3 March 2022

The twilight of COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed the way we behave and the way we speak. We now physically distance, wear face masks and contact trace. We talk about transmission rates and R values, community spread, herd immunity and quarantining. We are now entering the third year of the pandemic. When it began, I don't think anyone could have predicted how much of an impact the virus would have on individuals and our communities. Nowhere has escaped its effects, with some communities overseas have been devastated by the illness.

Last week, our government moved New Zealand to Phase 3 of its Omicron response. Based on overseas experience, it was predicted that this highly transmissible form of COVID-19 will spread quickly within the community. That is now occurring. Daily case numbers in New Zealand are at their highest levels since the pandemic began and we are seeing cases across the country. In Northland, case numbers are in the hundreds and growing. It is inevitable that the number of Council staff impacted by Omicron will grow day by day, either through infection or by being a close contact. The services we provide have already been impacted. Services and hours at Procter Library in Kerikeri were temporarily reduced last month due to staff shortages and we have seen similar reductions at other facilities this week.

Our aim is to continue delivering services to residents and ratepayers in a way that is safe for staff and customers. To help us achieve that, we have developed Omicron Contingency Plans that will ensure key functions continue even with high absence rates. These plans will be activated by managers as required. One advantage we do have is the flexible working model the Council adopted following the first lockdown. This means most staff who are not in frontline roles can work from home and many do so on a regular basis.

Many Far North businesses, especially in our hospitality and tourism sectors, continue to struggle due to the pandemic. This week, those operators got some good news. Last night, vaccinated travellers from Australia can enter New Zealand without isolating after arrival and vaccinated New Zealanders and critical workers travelling from beyond Australia can do the same from tomorrow. Our hospitality and tourism businesses have long called for a relaxation of border controls and I have passed that message onto officials in Wellington. I know there will be huge relief that we are finally reopening our borders and that Australian tourists can again visit. This will not return us to pre-pandemic visitor numbers, so extra financial support announced last week will be welcomed by Far North businesses still struggling due to pandemic restrictions.

We are entering the twilight of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is no time to be complacent. Experts agree that Omicron still represents a very real health risk and I urge everyone to keep yourself and your family safe by getting two vaccinations plus a third booster shot as soon as you can.


24 February 2022

Creating the most beautiful small town

Something all of us in Te Hiku have long known was confirmed to the whole country last week: Kaitaia is New Zealand's most beautiful small town. That 'best kept secret' was revealed during the annual Beautiful Awards. These are awarded by Keep New Zealand Beautiful, a not-for-profit charitable organisation that's been educating Kiwis on how to Keep New Zealand Beautiful since 1967. The awards were announced last Thursday evening at Parliament House in Wellington, and I was lucky enough to attend the event alongside Councillor Felicity Foy, Kaitaia Business Association Chair Andrea Panther, and the Council's Manager - Major & Recovery Projects, David Clamp.

Kaitaia was up against Foxton for Most Beautiful Small Town, which is defined as having between 1,000 and 9,999 residents. Awards nominations are made under a range of categories, such as Most Beautiful Large Town, Most Beautiful Small City, Community Awards and Local Hero Awards. Winning entries are recognised for initiatives such as litter prevention, waste minimisation, community beautification and recycling projects, as well as sustainable tourism initiatives.

What clinched the award for Kaitaia was the amazing work of our Te Hiku Open Places Revitalisation Project team. This community-led initiative won $7 million in COVID-19 economic recovery funding and from the Provincial Growth Fund. With Council support, community members have been working for more than a year in Kaitaia, Awanui and Ahipara creating public artworks and placemaking projects. These include fantastic public artworks that have gone up along streets and laneways celebrating our whenua and heritage. We now have Dalmatian Lane, Awanui Gates and, most recently, Ao Place beach alleyway. There are also new and hugely popular pump tracks at Ahipara and Kaitaia, gas barbecues and picnic tables at Allen Bell Park and Jaycee Park, new playground equipment, sports facilities and so much more.

None of this would have been possible without the vision and leadership shown by our community. Councillor Felicity Foy, who is part of Te Hiku Masterplan working group, and was instrumental in winning the $7 million project funding. Kaitaia Business Association Chair, Andrea Panther, has been an invaluable project manager, ably assisted by iwi representative, John Paitai, Te Hiku Community Board Chairperson, Adele Gardner, Suzie Clark, Kevin Hoskin, and landscape architect, Delwyn Shepherd.

This project perfectly demonstrates the way I think local government should operate - community led with 'local' front and centre. Ensuring that our communities feel listened to and included is how we achieve community buy-in and create a sense of ownership. That's how we create great places that people care about and want to live in. That's how we get people involved in local government. Unfortunately, we are seeing greater levels of centralisation being promoted through proposed local government, three waters and the Resource Management Act reforms. I fear that these changes will remove local voices from the decision-making table and that the provinces will be forgotten. The people of Te Hiku have reminded us exactly how things should be done and together they have created a most beautiful small town.


17 February 2022

Blanket speed reduction no solution

Last week I wrote about some of the key challenges the Council is facing this year. Today, I want to highlight another issue. Plans by the national transport agency, Waka Kotahi, to reduce speed limits on the region's state highways from 100km/h to 80km/h. The agency says this speed reduction will decrease the number of deaths and serious injuries seen annually on our roads. I agree that the road toll in Northland is something we should all be concerned about. Northland has the second highest rate of road deaths and serious injuries in the country, totalling 14.4 fatalities per 100,000 people. The national average is 6.3. Unlike many other regions, most of our road deaths and serious injuries occur on state highways, not local roads.

You may recall that last year the agency ran a region wide consultation on road safety that included a review of speed limits. This review was of state highways only, not district roads which are managed by the Council. In October 2021, Waka Kotahi announced that it had received 1162 submissions on the 11 state highways included in the speed review and it also released a summary of review responses. That feedback confirmed residents are concerned about road speeds around schools, marae, urupa, and along specific stretches of highway that are too windy and narrow for the current 100km/h limit. However, submitters also said they support 100km/h speed limits elsewhere and expressed concerns that lowering speeds would increase driver frustration and dangerous behaviour. Others suggested that improving road maintenance, enforcing speed limits, building more passing lanes, and improving driver training and licensing would also lower crash numbers.

Despite that feedback, Waka Kotahi has opted for a one-size-fits-all approach. It is proposing that Northland state highways have a blanket 80km/h speed limit, whether it's SH1 from Pukenui to Kaitaia or the Waipu straights. Like me, Deputy Mayor Ann Court, who is a member of the Northland Regional Transport Committee, and Kaipara Mayor, Dr Jason Smith, have questioned this logic. We agree that Northland's roads are community lifelines, whether you live in Kaipara, Whangarei or the Far North. We have minimal public transport and, while we welcome more footpaths and cycleways, these can never provide viable alternatives for Northlanders travelling long distances.

It is difficult not to conclude that singling Northland out (and we have been – no other region is facing a blanket speed reduction) is simply a way to avoid addressing decades-long underfunding of Northland's roading network. That underfunding has already put us at an economic disadvantage compared to other parts of the country. A blanket speed reduction will only increase that disadvantage.

The speed reductions are not a done deal. Waka Kotahi is planning to launch a formal public consultation on its final recommendations. It has not yet confirmed when that consultation will begin but I urge all Northlanders to make your views known once it gets underway. We need innovative and meaningful solutions for our road toll, not a punitive one-size-fits-all approach.


10 February 2022

Key challenges of 2022

2022 is barely out of the starting blocks, but it's clear this will be a significant year for our district. The phased reopening of our international borders announced last week will be welcomed by many. After two years of travel restrictions, we will be able to reunite with friends, whanau and colleagues from overseas. In our district, the tourism and hospitality sectors will see this as a lifeline for businesses that have been starved of customers and skilled staff.

The next 12 months will deliver numerous challenges for the Council and I want to flag some of those here. We are not yet free of the COVID-19 pandemic with the highly infectious Omicron variant now impacting how we do business. This week, customers over 12 years old visiting our libraries and the Museum @ Te Ahu will be asked to provide a vaccine pass. Vaccine passes are already required for entry to Far North pools. These requirements are designed to keep customers and staff safe and to avoid having to close facilities altogether if high numbers of staff get sick or need to go into isolation as close contacts with infected people.

One of the biggest changes local government faces is the Three Waters Reform Programme. Dozens of mayors from around the country, including myself, have written to the Government voicing our concerns about these plans and we have asked for the programme to be paused. The group, which includes other Northland mayors, is working on alternative three waters models we plan to present to the Government. In the meantime, this Council continues work to improve Far North water supplies and make them more drought resilient. We aim to commission a new supply for Kaitaia by mid-year and are progressing a new, deep aquifer bore at Tokareireia (Monument Hill) for Kaikohe.

Roading, of course, is always a top priority. This financial year, the Northland Transportation Alliance plans to deliver over $19 million worth of projects to our district. That includes $4 million on sealed road resurfacing; installation of high-priority safety barriers; culvert, kerb and drainage renewals; and $1.3 million on unsubsidised seal extensions for Brass Road, Ahipara, and Parapara Road, Taipa.

We have been working on a new District Plan since 2016 and in November, we will notify the Proposed District Plan. This gives you the opportunity to make formal submissions on how aim to encourage growth while protecting our environment.

I'm proud of what this Council has achieved since the last election in 2019. You can say whether you agree during our next election on 8 October. These elections will be special for two reasons. This year you can select Maori Ward representatives and the way we vote is also changing. Instead of First Past the Post, we will be using Single Transferable Voting (STV).

Finally, the Council will welcome a new Chief Executive when Blair King joins us in March. I want to acknowledge the many achievements of outgoing CEO, Shaun Clarke, and thank him for his inspirational leadership over the past five years.


3 February 2022

No break for Far North firefighters

Kia ora koutou Northland Age readers. I hope you all had an enjoyable and relaxing holiday break and managed to reconnect with whānau and friends. Normally, my first column of the year would preview the year ahead and outline key priorities for the Council. Instead, I want to talk about all those who have worked throughout the holiday break to extinguish the biggest fire in Northland for more than a decade.

The Waiharara fire started just before Christmas and, at its height, threatened around 50 homes at Kaimaumau. Thankfully, none were damaged, but more importantly, there were no serious injuries despite the very difficult conditions faced by firefighters and helicopter pilots. We had as many as 80 firefighters and eight helicopters battling this blaze. By mid-January, it covered 2828ha and had a perimeter of 38km. Thankfully, it has not expanded any further since mid-January. This has allowed firefighters to consolidate fire suppression work, focus on dousing hot spots and extend 30-metre containment lines with support from helicopters.

There were still 36 firefighters on the fireground over the long weekend. They were supported by heavy machinery and one helicopter operating three hours a day. This focused and unrelenting effort over more than a month has now paid off. The operation will be scaled back next week, although crews will remain to monitor the site and keep the community informed of any risks.

While we are all thankful no homes were lost, the communities of Waiharara, Kaimaumau, Houhora and Rangiputa have been impacted by the fire. To help, I established the Waiharara Fire Mayoral Relief Fund in January. It will distribute money donated by groups and individuals and $20,000 from the Government to those directly affected. This is being undertaken with a community governance group that includes residents, hapū, iwi, Civil Defence and Fire and Emergency New Zealand. While we have set a $1000 cap on how much individuals can claim, this can be increased if appropriate. So far, we have received 15 applications, but I expect more to come in as firefighting operations wind down and residents take stock of the fire's impact. You can donate online or at any ASB Bank branch by quoting account number 12 3244 0022509 04. You can email my office if you wish to apply for funding.

On January 12, all of Northland moved to a restricted fire season, and a complete ban was placed on open-air fires north of Awanui to Cape Rēinga and the Karikari Peninsula. Despite these restrictions, we have already seen two significant vegetation fires. One at Awanui two weeks ago came dangerously close to several homes and, last weekend, ground crews supported by six helicopters fought a blaze on conservation land at Karikari Peninsula. We are incredibly lucky none of these fires have destroyed homes or taken lives. Summer is no time for fires in the Far North and no permits will be issued for fires where there is a complete ban. Please immediately report any fires in these areas to the fire service.

 

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