My Column - Moving forward together

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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