My Column 2015 - Moving forward together

Thursday 10 December 2015

Celebrating success in schools

One of the things I enjoy about this time of the year - apart from the warmer weather and the promise of timeout with my family at Christmas - is the annual celebration of success in our secondary schools. I recently had the pleasure of congratulating a Hokianga teenager who won two academic prizes ahead of thousands of other New Zealanders this year.

Tohunga Riwai, who is a student at The Correspondence School - Te Aho O Te Kura Pounamu - was named the school's Most Improved Maori Student in 2015 ahead of 1,000 other students. The 16-year-old also excelled in literacy, beating 2,300 students to take the Millicent Mason Prize. This is an amazing achievement, given that Tohunga lives at Waima Valley where there is limited internet and no mobile phone coverage - something that Northland's Councils are working hard to address. On the other side of the District, Kerikeri High School student Lily Cane recently won a $5,000 Quota New Zealand educational scholarship.

This is an impressive achievement, given that the scholarship is open to girls from 180 secondary schools north of Taupo. What is noteworthy is that applicants were judged on their personal attributes and community involvement, as well as their academic record. Lily had all of these, being Kerikeri High School's Head Girl for 2015, a leader at Maori cultural group Te Roopu Tautoko, a member of the Bay of Islands Coastguard and a volunteer at Kerikeri Retirement Village.

I'm sure she will be successful in her health science studies at Otago University next year and she will fulfil her dream of being accepted into medical school. These are just two success stories from our schools. Most of these don't make it into the newspapers and more often the media chooses to highlight the negative behaviour of some youth rather than the achievements of the majority. But we have lots of reasons to be proud of our schools and the great work they are doing to prepare our young for careers and lives beyond the school gate.

I also want to congratulate the parents and whanau who do their best to raise our children and young people, often in very challenging circumstances. Being a teenager is not easy as most of us remember. It is a time of turmoil and change, but also a pivotal period in every person's life when they are poised between childhood and adulthood. Being a parent of a teenager is even harder. Knowing when to set boundaries and offer wise counsel can be difficult when you also want to allow a teenager to be free to make mistakes and be who they want to be.

On that note, I will end my last posting for 2015. Have a safe and enjoyable Christmas and New Year and take care of each other on the roads, beaches and out on the water.

Ka kite ano.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Thank you, Bald Angels

I often talk in this column about the amazing things people can achieve when they work together towards a common goal. So, when I see this happen and produce spectacular results, I naturally want to know, "what made this project so successful and how can we replicate this success?"

The Bald Angels Charitable Trust's recent fundraiser at The Turner Centre in Kerikeri is one of those projects that demands this sort of examination. Not only did the trust set a new Guinness World Record, by shaving 462 heads in one hour, it also raised $50,000 for Northland children in need. This is on top of the $45,000 it raised at a similar event in 2012.

So, what can we learn from this success? First, we shouldn't underestimate the power of one person with a great idea. Trust founder Therese Wickbom describes herself as a woman with no shortage of mad ideas. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with for the trust's next fundraiser. Of course, the idea also needs to be something that captures the imagination of a lot of people. Most of us understand that many children in Northland suffer hardship. The fact that so many people were willing to support this worthy cause shows that we aren't so immersed in our own lives and problems to not care about the most vulnerable people in our communities.

I also think this project was a success because the trust set the community a clear challenge that lots of people couldn't resist. Who doesn't want to be part of a Guinness World Record attempt, particularly one in the 'Mass Participation' category where bigger countries with more people usually have an unfair advantage? I encourage other community groups to think about innovative ways they can make people want to get involved in their fundraising.

Making it easy for people to get involved is also important. People of all ages stepped and toddled up to have their heads shaved at The Turner Centre. Many of these, including my Deputy Tania McInnes, had already raised lots of money in online donations via the website Givealittle. Using the networking power of the worldwide web is a great way to extend the reach of your fundraising project to a bigger community.

Finally, hold a community event that brings people together and focuses their attention on a compelling goal that can be achieved in a short time-frame. The atmosphere at The Turner Centre was electric and not unlike an All Blacks final as the team of hairdressers raced against the clock. The community spirit was also reminiscent of the telethons that used to bring New Zealanders together in the days before the internet and multi-channel TV fragmented audiences and communities. These are just a few thoughts about the Bald Angels fundraiser which I was privileged to be an adjudicator at. I hope we see more great events like this in the District.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Democracy at work

"Thanks for listening. Democracy at work!" I would like to think that this comment, which was posted on the Far North District Council's Facebook page on Monday, is how most Far North residents will view the Council's decision to designate eight Council-owned sites across the District as freedom camping sites. The Council invited communities in October to provide feedback on a proposal to designate 16 Council-owned sites as places where people with self-contained camper vans could camp overnight. A previous Council had designated four reserves in the District as freedom camping sites in 2011. However, we were forced to close one of these in July and deemed the other three - all in the Kaitaia area - to be unsuitable for overnight camping. We wanted to offer visitors to the District more choices, so decided to propose new sites where overnight camping could take place.

Staff prepared a list of 35 Council sites after drawing up a list of criteria that included site access, ground conditions, water resources and distance to commercial campgrounds and public toilets. Community Boards then reduced this list to 16 sites which became the subject of a community consultation exercise. Not surprisingly, there was strong public interest in the sites, with 179 people making submissions. Some submitters were in favour of the Council creating more approved freedom camping areas, saying this would encourage more people to visit the Far North. Others were strongly opposed to freedom camping anywhere, while many opposed freedom camping in their neighbourhood. Submitters were concerned about having to share reserves with freedom campers, the safety of freedom campers at some sites, the loss of business to nearby commercial campgrounds and health and environmental risks caused by freedom campers leaving human waste and rubbish.

The majority of submitters were opposed to overnight camping at Henderson Bay, Cable Bay, Te Ngaere Bay and Omapere. Councillors listened to the views of these submitters and chose not to designate these reserves as freedom camping sites. On the other hand, most submitters were in favour of overnight camping at nine reserves in Kaitaia, Mangonui, Broadwood, Kaikohe, Ohaeawai, Okaihau and Kawakawa. Council listened to these submitters as well and chose to designate seven of these reserves as freedom camping sites.

Council decided not to include Broadwood Reserve in the list of approved freedom camping sites because it would only provide three parking spaces at best and there was already provision for freedom campers at another site in Broadwood. Submitters were more evenly divided over whether to designate a former landfill at Totara North as a freedom camping site, with those opposed outnumbering those in favour by one submission. Councillors decided to include the site in the list of approved areas, because it met many of the criteria for a suitable site and to ensure there would be at least two freedom camping sites in the Bay of Islands-Whangaroa Ward. I would like to thank members of the community who took part in this consultation exercise.

I hope it is clear that the people you elected to represent you listened to your concerns and that the outcome was fair and democratic.

Thursday 19 November 2015

People working together

As summer draws nearer and more of us head outdoors to have fun, it's a good time to think about the people who help make the Far North a great place to live in. I am referring to the community-minded people who organise events, such as Christmas parades, public firework displays, sports tournaments and the like. I am always amazed by the sheer number of events that take place across the District each weekend. I am also impressed by the planning that goes into making these events a success. For example, earlier this month I attended a Fireworks Extravaganza organised by Friends of Springbank School. I have long admired the curricular and extra-curricular programme of this school which celebrates 20 years next month. This event was up to the usual high standard. The fireworks display was amazing and the talented dancers who performed wowed everyone with their artistry. But what really impressed me was the huge crowd on the night. More than 2,000 people of all ages turned out to join in the fun. I commend school principal Mike Warren and Friends of Springbank for putting on a top notch evening of entertainment and for reminding us that a school is the heart of any community. Unfortunately, Friends of Springbank Chairperson Louise Huett has decided she will stand down at the end of the year. Louise has been a driving force at the school over the last few years, so her departure will leave a big hole. However, knowing the Springbank community, I am sure others will step forward to offer their time and expertise.

November in the Far North means the beginning of the agricultural show season. Last weekend's Bay of Islands Show at Waimate North was another hugely successful community event and I have no doubt that similar shows at Kaikohe, Broadwood and Kaitaia next year will also draw big crowds. Lots of community events in the District bring communities together, but agricultural shows involve all ages and interest groups and put the community on show in a way that other events don't. It's easy to see why they are a highlight of the Far North social calendar. But these shows don't happen on their own. Lots of people spend many hours organising them. The same goes for Christmas parades which will fill our main streets with colour, noise and fun next month. A lot of planning by volunteers goes into making these events safe and successful, including developing traffic management plans, seeking permission to close roads or secure funding. I am proud of the financial support the three community boards have given to parades over the years. However, the initiative for these ultimately has to come from the community. The fact that so many people willingly give up their time and work together to make these events a success is one of the things I love about the Far North and being a New Zealander. I never forget how fortunate I am to live in a part of the world where we take this freedom and peaceful coexistence between people for granted.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Growing great athletes?

Are the All Blacks the greatest team in sporting history? That is the question that's been making headlines in the United Kingdom since the All Blacks notched up their third Rugby World Cup victory last month. The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent - all want to place the mantle of greatness on our men in black.

Even The Australian media conceded with uncharacteristic grace that this is probably the greatest rugby team ever. This is an extraordinary time to be a Kiwi. New Zealand sport has arguably achieved its highest sporting pinnacle ever and we can all bask in the afterglow of success. There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. The same applies to elite rugby players. Junior rugby - where All Blacks first learn to kick a ball - is essentially a community effort.

Volunteer coaches nurture young talent, amateur referees do their best to enforce the rules and mums and dads ferry players to and from practices and matches. Everyone else turns up to watch the game on Saturday which is played on a sports field maintained by the local council. But that isn't the only contribution that communities and local government make to growing great athletes. Many councils, including the Far North District Council, fund sports groups and organisations that encourage young people to take part in sport.

The Far North District Council has been a supporter of Sport Northland for years and is proud of the sporting achievements it has helped our young people to achieve. Last week, I had the pleasure of congratulating former Northlander Portia Woodman who has helped the Black Ferns become the dominant rugby sevens team in the world and was named World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year at the 2015 World Rugby Awards in London.

Another local trailblazer is Kerikeri High School student Samantha Polovnikoff who was recently named Sportswoman of the Year at the ASB Northland Secondary School Sports Awards. This was well-deserved kudos for this talented young hockey player who has played for the Future Black Sticks against Australia and Japan. The Far North has also produced elite sailors. Former Kerikeri High School student Blair Tuke's silver medal success at the 2012 Olympics is well-known. The school's sailing team has excelled at international level since then and recently won the Interdominion Sailing Regatta in Canberra.

These are just a few of the sporting successes we have produced as a community. The Council and Sport Northland will recognise other talented sports people at the 2015 Far North Sports Awards at Reia Taipa Resort tomorrow night. Please come along and celebrate our talented athletes. Sport in New Zealand is on a high, but we need to remember where it all begins and do what we can to grow the elite athletes of tomorrow.

Thursday 5 November 2015


One thing about being forced to slow down to recover from surgery is that it gives you time to reflect - and not just on the meaning of life.

It has provided breathing space to review where we are at as a Council and to get a perspective on the way forward. I haven't really discovered the need for any monumental changes in direction, but there has been a renewed awareness that we still have a long way to go to put historical practices and shortcomings aside so we can move forward with greater confidence.

Our decision-making must reflect our statutory obligations but it also must be based on robust foundations. There are areas in which we are still on somewhat shaky ground because there are policies and practices which still need reviewing and updating. Our initial frustration was that the operational structure of the Council had been denuded to such an extent that we had become almost dysfunctional. The legacy of this was a frightening backlog of even basic infrastructural maintenance and an operating structure seriously short of resources- in particular human resources.

Thanks in particular to the efforts of Chief Executive Colin Dale the majority of the loose ends have now been tidied up and we can concentrate on catching up. According to an independent workplace analysis recently carried out internally, there has been a lift across the board in the level of confidence in the leadership and greater confidence that further positive changes will be made.

One area in which it has been pleasing to see change is the new and improved relationship which is developing between the Council and the communities it serves. The feedback I'm getting is that, even though they might not agree with all the outcomes, there is a much better understanding in our communities of what we are trying to achieve. That doesn't mean we are developing into a populist Council. The hard decisions will still be taken if it means attracting investment in areas which will assist in the long-term development of the district's economy and prosperity.

I understand why there are those who believe some of the things we are doing are time consuming and unnecessary. The problem is we wouldn't be doing these things if they were not legislatively required and it's better to be consuming time than unwisely spending money. For example however time-consuming it may be, it's essential that we are continually engaging with our communities to ensure we are onboard with their aspirations and not simply making costly assumptions.

Local government is a bit like Mainland cheese - good things tend to take time - but it is frustrating that change sometimes can be such a slow process. I don't want to see the momentum lost and remain committed to continuing to maintain a focus on delivering the services the community expects and needs. I'm still quietly confident we are on the right track and I'm in no doubt that the community will be quick to point it out if we falter.

Thursday 29 October 2015

The downside of summer

I don't doubt there will be many who have had enough of the never-ending debate on global warming, who is responsible and what we as a nation can do to help.

There any many and varied entrenched ideas, both scientific and imaginative, and I don't wish to add to the debate. However I am very conscious that certain weather patterns seem to be intensifying and occurring with greater frequency- which means impacts on our daily lives.

With summer approaching the warnings are already out on a potential drought scenario in the Far North.

This not only will create a precarious situation for the farming community, hard on the heels of falling dairy returns, but also has some potentially serious connotations for our urban communities. Our public water supplies are almost totally dependent on regular rainfall and I'm very much aware of just how vulnerable these supplies are- particularly in the Hokianga, at Kaitaia and at Kerikeri.

The warnings have already gone out from the Rural Fire Authority on the need to take extreme care this summer and the authority has already placed restrictions on the top half of the district requiring permits for any fires in the open.

This month the Council has added water to the warning list, with restrictions expected to come into force in December. While the restrictions initially are likely to be selective and concentrate on the more vulnerable water supplies, the whole Far North community, urban and rural, needs to get into the habit now of adopting water conservation practices.

We need to get out of the habit of thinking water is going to flow every time we turn on the tap. As a water supplier, we are working towards initiatives which will improve the availability of the resource but there is very little we can do to prevent nature taking its course in times of drought.

Even if there are sustainable levels of ground water there is still the problem of safe storage and treatment. There is only so much water we can take from our rivers and streams before we reach minimum flow levels beyond which both the natural environment and others relying on the same water source will be seriously impacted.

I believe the time is approaching when it will no longer be cost effective to provide water at the front door and many households will be forced to start thinking about collecting and storing their own water needs.


Thursday 22 October 2015

No service - potentially no airport

Successive councils have always considered airports in the district an essential part of the district's infrastructure.

Back in the mid 1990s the Government of the day decided to close all three airports in the Far North and dispose of the land.

As the then local Member of Parliament I worked with the council to have the ownership or responsibility for the three airports transferred to the local council. We considered that air services and facilities such as these were part of our overall transportation network and far too important to lose. We didn't want the Far North to be forced to rely on services delivered from Whangarei.

Our view was that if a district lost infrastructure it was a huge job to re-establish it again some time in the future. I am sure that most if not all would agree that it was the right decision to make then. Given that over the years we have invested significantly in Kerikeri and Kaitaia airports and in maintaining the grass runway at Kaikohe, I think that preserving what we have is still the right thing to do.

Airports and the services they provide aren't just recreational but have social, health, commercial, tourism and industrial aspects to them. They are an essential part of our district and reflect who we are and what we do. The impact is far wider than just the loss of a single service.

When Air New Zealand decided not to continue providing flights out of Kaitaia it was going to leave a significant gap in terms of both our transport needs and in the depletion of a community facility. We were concerned that it would have all sorts of negative impacts such as making it harder to attract teachers, health workers, police, trades, business interest and economic investment. I'm still of that view that losing this service will be costly in the longer term.

I am also very conscious of the development that is starting on the Karikari peninsula which, over the next few years, will create a significant increase in demand for flights in and out of Kaitaia.

For those who are using it, the new service provided by Barrier Air has been more convenient with a better timetable and without the added cost of an overnight stay in Auckland or Wellington. Unfortunately, this still didn't compete with prices out of Kerikeri and we can understand why people have been choosing to drive to Kerikeri to make savings.

Now we've been notified by Barrier Air that unless it can boost the number of people using the service by the end of January it will be axing it. It has been operating at a loss since introducing the service in April and just cannot continue in this way.

All of us at Council are deeply concerned about this development, for all the reasons I outline above. Both Council and Far North Holdings will continue to work with and support Barrier Air to the very best of our ability. But at the end of the day, they're not a charity and if the route is not commercially viable then we understand and we will have to roll with that punch.

Barrier Air will be introducing lower and flexible fares for the next four months. It will also be putting a newer and more spacious aircraft onto the route. I hope that Kaitaia residents will now give greater support to the service and help justify the investment which has been made. If you need more information have a look at the company's website.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Keep the momentum going

With the decision now made to commit to a new wastewater treatment and discharge facility for Kerikeri, located away from residential areas, the emphasis now moves to making it all happen in as timely and cost effective way as possible.

This is the first critical decision in a long and complex process which has already meandered along for years, pushing costs up and generating interminable debates without a resolution in sight.

With the preferred option decided, it's time to get on with it. We have to start making substantial progress if we are going to be in a position to start construction within anytime soon. The Ministry of Health has recognised the difficulties with which we have been confronted and has extended the subsidy deadline. But they are not going to continue to set the money aside indefinitely.

Most importantly, we need the community to continue to work with us because there is still a very long way to go - there are still consent processes to pursue, land to be acquired, the areas of benefit to be fine-tuned, final design options to be pursued and an affordable financial package to be prepared.

The community has been brilliant in the way it responded to the options available for comment and has created a foundation on which we can move forward. To have a stand-alone treatment facility away from houses and businesses may not be the cheapest option, but it is the one which offers the best long-term benefits with the least negative impacts.

However the project is still very much in its formative stages and there are still a number of unknowns. I intend to be absolutely upfront on this and where we don't yet have the answers I will say so. When the information is available, I want to see it put into the public arena as clearly and simply as possible and within a reasonable timeframe.

While we are never likely to get 100% agreement on every aspect of the project, the intent at this point is to work diligently to get as close to the optimum target as possible and we will continue to consult and engage with all affected parties until the project has been completed and is operational.

I would like to see open and honest exchanges of views and opportunities will be provided for this to happen.

This is singularly the largest and most expensive project in which the Council is likely to engage in the foreseeable future and we need to do it right and avoid the consequences which can occur when projects go badly wrong. We have to work together and apply our collective thinking and expertise to reach the right decisions.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Save a life

This is the first Mayoral newspaper column I have delivered from a hospital bed and hopefully it will be the last!

As you may know, I underwent surgery for prostate cancer on Friday. I am making a speedy recovery and expect to be back on the job soon. But before I leave hospital, I have a message for the people of the Far North: Get an annual check for prostate cancer if you are a man and over the age of 40. If you're neither of those things, pass this message on to the men in your life.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in New Zealand men, affecting about 3,000 men each year and killing about 600. If that doesn't strike you as significant, consider this - about one in 13 men will develop prostate cancer before the age of 75. That means there is a good chance that you or a father, husband, grandfather, brother, uncle or friend will develop this cancer.

The sad thing is that deaths from prostate cancer can be prevented if the disease is detected early. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in far too many cases. Men either don't know how dangerous the disease is or they choose to avoid thinking about it. This is a crazy situation that we need to address as families and as a community.

Prostate cancer doesn't exhibit symptoms in the early stages and it is usually too late for an effective cure when symptoms start to show. This is why regular check-ups are important. Please tell the older men in your life to have a regular PSA test if they are between 50 and 70 or are 40 or older and there is a family history of prostate cancer. This simple blood test does not diagnose prostate cancer, but it does indicate that there may be abnormalities in the prostate gland so can lead to early detection of the cancer.

I also encourage people to support the Prostate Cancer Foundation during Blue September, the foundation's national awareness month. The foundation receives no government funding and relies on the generosity of Kiwis to help it support men and their families who are affected by prostate cancer. Please buy a blue ribbon or go to Blue September website to make a donation to the foundation. You could help to save a life.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Book that flight

When Kaitaia risked losing 24-hour surgical services in 1995, 6,000 people marched through the town in protest. They did so because they wanted to know that, if they had an accident or a medical emergency, they would receive the right care in the right place at the right time. Now, another important service is at risk - the town's air link to Auckland.

Barrier Air knew when it started flights between Kaitaia and Auckland four months ago that it was taking over a route that Air New Zealand had declared marginal. Unfortunately, passenger demand for the service hasn't been as strong as the airline expected, despite it introducing a more business-friendly flight schedule and local identities encouraging people to "use or lose" the service in newspaper adverts. There is only so long a small, privately-owned airline can subsidise an unprofitable route.

Barrier Air is getting close to the point where it has to decide whether to continue operating daily flights between Kaitaia and Auckland. The Far North District Council and Far North Holdings are exploring options to improve the viability of the route. But, at the end of the day, this is a business that is about bums on seats. It is up to the community to use the service and to promote it to friends, family and business associates outside the District.

The community also needs to think about what Kaitaia loses if Barrier Air withdraws the air link to Auckland. First, it puts Kaitaia businesses in reach of New Zealand's largest market, allowing them to take advantage of commercial opportunities beyond our District. This is vital if we are to grow our economy and create the jobs our young people need. It also makes Kaitaia more accessible to private investors, tourists and Government workers who are all important players in our economy. Most people already understand this.

That is why the Council's Facebook update announcing the new Barrier Air service earlier this year went viral and reached more than 10,000 people. But we need to see that figure reflected in bookings. Please think about what you can do over the next four months to save the service. For example, if you need to travel from Kaitaia to Auckland on business, consider the hours and productive time you could claw back by flying there instead of taking your car.

You might also want to shout yourself a pre-Xmas day out in Auckland or invite that relative you haven't seen for a while to visit you. I also encourage you to consider flying out of Kaitaia if you live at Doubtless Bay and usually fly from Bay of Islands Airport. It's closer and may even be cheaper. Book that flight today.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Spring is here

It is good to finally feel spring in the air after a winter that saw July temperatures in Kaitaia and Kerikeri plummet to their lowest levels since 1948 and 1981 respectively. I am also pleased that we escaped the damaging storms that lashed Northland in 2014 and caused millions of dollars of damage to our roads.

That winter was Northland's wettest since 1946, so it is not surprising we are still fixing parts of our roading network. The fact that the New Zealand Transport Agency has only just repaired the landslide that closed State Highway One at Maromaku last July shows the scale of the weather we were dealing with. It is great to finally see this lifeline to the rest of the country fully restored.

I want to thank NZTA for making this $3.2 million project a top priority. This is not the only sign of progress in the District which is recovering from an economic downturn as well as a weather bomb. The Council's company Far North Holdings has finally started work on the second stage of the Bay of Islands Marina at Opua.

One economist estimates that adding an extra149 berths to the 250-berth marina will add $23 million to the region when the marina is fully operational. Local businesses expect the development to increase turnover by 44 percent and result in 60 new jobs. The prospect of improved facilities has already attracted one boatbuilding company to set up in Opua.

Passenger facilities at Bay of Islands Airport are also due for a major upgrade thanks to a partnership agreement between Far North Holdings and Air New Zealand. Anyone who has visited the airport recently may have noticed that the apron and taxiway area have been doubled in size to accommodate the 50-seat aircraft Air New Zealand now operates on all flights to and from the airport.

The next exciting project under this agreement is to expand the arrival and departure terminal to cater for passenger growth. Over at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, work on a $12.5 million museum is underway and expected to be finished before Waitangi Day next year. The new museum will improve what is already a great visitor experience at the treaty grounds which should attract bigger crowds of cruise ship passengers this summer.

Up to 30,000 extra cruise ship visitors are expected to call at the Bay of Islands this year, boosting visitor numbers to 105,000 and potentially adding nearly $29 million to our economy. These are just a few signs of growth in our economy. It is starting to feel like spring is here.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Pooling our resources

Regular readers of this column will know that I am a great believer in what we can achieve when we work together towards common goals. This is especially the case when it comes to maintaining our sports and recreational facilities. In most cases, these facilities are on Council land, but many are run by community groups with financial support from the Council. This governance and management model helps to reduce the costs of these facilities for ratepayers and ensures they are managed in the interests of the people who use them.

But other types of cooperation have also produced success stories. Last year, I was privileged to be one of the first people to hit a hockey ball around a floodlit Lindvart Park in Kaikohe thanks to Top Energy, the Council and local contractors agreeing to share the costs of installing floodlights at the park's AstroTurf hockey pitch. A more recent success story the Council has helped to bring about is the signing of an agreement which should secure a future for Bay of Islands Recreation Centre in Kawakawa.

This facility was built by the community on Ministry of Education land in the 1990s and initially run by a community trust. However, Bay of Islands College was forced to take over the running of the centre in 2004 when the trust was wound up. Unfortunately, the College has struggled to meet maintenance costs of the centre which includes an indoor, heated swimming pool, squash court and weights room. Because of this, the centre's future has been uncertain for a number of years.

I am pleased to report that we are now close to finding a sustainable ownership model for this popular facility which was used by 38,000 people last year. Under an agreement signed by Sport Northland, the College and the Council, Sport Northland will buy the centre from the College for $1 and lease the site from the Ministry of Education for $1 a year. The Council will then enter into an agreement with Sport Northland to operate the centre as a community facility in return for an annual grant (Sport Northland has indicated that CBEC will continue to operate the pool for the foreseeable future).

It is really exciting to see local government, the Government and the non-governmental sector working together in this way. But the real heroes are the people of Kawakawa who campaigned to keep the facility open and helped us to get to where we are today. Countless people freely gave thousands of hours of their time to repair and redecorate the pool which was reopened as Te Papawai Community Pool in June. I particularly want to acknowledge Richard Duly who was the driving force behind this project which also involved schools and inmates from Ngawha Prison.

I encourage people to make use of the pool which looks fantastic now and is an inspiring example of what we can achieve when we work together.

Thursday 27 August 2015

An incredible journey

"If I had known it would be this good, I would have done it years ago." That is what I told my colleagues in the House of Representatives when I stepped down as a Member of Parliament in 2011. I meant it. Representing Northlanders as an MP for nearly 24 years was a hugely enjoyable and incredible journey, but not one that I planned as a youth growing up in Northland in the 1960s. In those days, MPs were less accessible to ordinary people, particularly in rural areas, and most teenagers didn't really understand what they did in Wellington. How things have changed.

Today, anyone can email their MP or follow them on Facebook or Twitter. Parliament also has a great website where you can find out what questions your MP is asking Ministers on your behalf, while Parliament TV broadcasts live broadcasts from the House on Freeview and Sky. If that doesn't help young people decide if they are cut out for party politics, the Ministry of Youth Development now gives them the chance to be MPs.

The Youth Parliament was first held in 1994 to mark the 20th anniversary of the lowering of the voting age to 18 years and it has been held every three years in Parliament since 1997. Applications are now open for 2016 Youth Parliament. I strongly encourage Northlanders who are aged 16-18 and interested in a Parliamentary career to apply for one of the 121 Youth MP seats. Youth MPs hold their positions from 25 January 2016 to 25 July 2016 and do many things that real MPs do. They debate legislation, sit on select committees, act as Ministers and take part in Question Time. They also learn to communicate effectively, think on their feet and get to grips with complex issues.

Each MP will choose one young person to represent them which means there are opportunities for four Northlanders. A further 20 New Zealanders aged 16-24, who will be chosen by the Parliamentary Press Gallery, will also get the chance to work in the Youth Press Gallery that reports on the Youth Parliament. I encourage anyone reading this to think of young people they know who have leadership potential and might gain from this opportunity to influence Government decision-making and learn about the legislative process.

Applications close on 9 October for the Youth Press Gallery and 16 October for the Youth Parliament. Go to the Ministry of Youth Development's website for information and application forms. I am also happy to talk to any young people who want tips from a grizzled veteran. The average tenure of a Member of Parliament was 6.6 years when I left the House of Representatives in 2011, so I consider my 24 years as an MP more than qualify me to offer advice on this career path which offers an incredible journey to those who choose it.

Thursday 20 August 2015

Investing in our youth

Most people know that the Far North exports logs and farm produce, such as milk and beef. But we tend to forget that the district is also a big exporter of young people. Every year, hundreds of our teens and 20-somethings head south or overseas in search of job and education opportunities that aren't available in our district. While some return home with enhanced skills and qualifications, many don't come back. That's a loss to our economy as well as our communities.

One of the biggest challenges we therefore face as a district is to create work and training opportunities, so that staying in the Far North is a viable option for young jobseekers. I have long been an admirer of Northland College's track record when it comes to preparing students for careers in agriculture. The Kaikohe school's Agricultural and Technical College, which opened in 1947, trained hundreds of teenagers from New Zealand and overseas for farming careers during its heyday in the 1960s to the 1980s.

A revival of the school's 500-hectare farm and forestry block in recent years has allowed growing numbers of students to gain farming skills and qualifications under a strategic partnership with Lincoln University and its subsidiary Telford. This has meant that students now have the option of pursuing careers in the Far North's biggest industries, instead of leaving the district for work. Offering agricultural training at the college also provides work and training opportunities to Maori students who don't wish to move away from their whanau or who look forward to careers with iwi or hapu-managed farms when Treaty of Waitangi claims are settled.

Unfortunately, while there has been growth at the college's farm, the school itself has fallen into disrepair over the years to the extent that some classrooms are unusable. This is not acceptable and I am really pleased that students and staff will soon get the state-of-the-art learning environment they deserve.

The Government plans to spend $14 million rebuilding the college and will begin construction work on this three-year project early next year. I look forward to visiting the new hall, library and gymnasium, as well as the flexible learning spaces that will replace the existing classrooms. This massive investment in the college is not just a sign of the Government's confidence in Kaikohe's future, it is also the latest and hopefully not the last big win for the town.

Kaikohe is the largest town on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail which the Council aims to complete this year thanks to a $3 million grant from the Government and a $900,000 grant from Northland Inc. It is also a strong contender for faster internet services if Northland gets its share of $360 million the Government is investing in new broadband infrastructure and improved mobile coverage across New Zealand. These three projects are about investing in our youth as much as they are big steps forward for Kaikohe as a community.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Giant strides foward

Most Northland Age readers will be aware that the Far North District Council is proposing a substantial capital works programme over the next 10 years. Some people have suggested that we have overstated the parlous state of our roads, water and sewerage schemes and that we don't need to invest money renewing these vital assets. I disagree.

The current councillors inherited infrastructure that had suffered from years of underinvestment and neglect. They also took over an organisation that lacked the human resources to plan or effectively manage this infrastructure. It hasn't been a quick or simple exercise to re-establish work programmes, rebuild capacity and achieve a more balanced approach to financial management. However, I think we have got it right in the Long Term Plan 2015-25 and others agree.

Audit New Zealand commented that the historic deferral of asset renewal expenditure could have seriously impacted on the Council's ability to deliver services to the community. Worse, it could have resulted in sudden and unexpected asset failures. It also noted that the Council had consistently underspent on core infrastructure when compared with budgeted renewals. It highlighted, among other things, an urgent need for "high-priority action" to improve the information Council holds on its underground assets. It noted that, on average, Council's actual renewal expenditure for the eight years up to 2013/14 was $14.5 million per year, compared to average budgeted expenditure of $17.8 million a year.

By comparison, planned renewal expenditure for the 10 years from 2015/16 to 2024/25 is, on average, $21.4 million a year. I'll let you read into that what you like, but to me it explains why we have had to seriously lift our game. We had no choice but to commit significant funds to renewing essential infrastructure. We also needed to rebuild the organisation to a fully functional status so we could deliver this renewals programme. While I was confident we were doing the right things, it is pleasing to have the leading provider of audit and assurance services to New Zealand's public sector confirm the need for the direction we are taking.

I am also very pleased that Audit New Zealand has said it will carefully monitor our initiatives in future. The public should be reassured to know that the mismanagement of the past will remain in the past. In conclusion, I would like to say that the giant strides the Council has taken over the last 18 months are largely due to the knowledge, understanding and persistence of our Chief Executive (Acting) Colin Dale. I'm not sure how we would have coped unravelling the mess without his counsel and guidance. Thank you Colin!

Thursday 6 August 2015

Recognising our good people

There have been two significant events in the last couple of weeks to recognise people and groups that contribute so much to ensure the wellbeing of Far North communities.

I was privileged to officiate at the first of these events, the Citizen Awards at Te Ahu in Kaitaia. There I had the privilege of presenting certificates to 10 outstanding Far North citizens who have gone far beyond the call of duty in helping to make the Far North a better place.

Our recipients shared common attributes of selfless service and a willingness to put back into the communities in which they live. They expect nothing in return and were genuinely shocked to find they had been singled out for (well deserved) recognition.

On Monday July 27 Far North District Council was glad to support the Trustpower Far North Community Awards. These awards have special significance for the Far North, as Focus Paihia won the Supreme Award at the 2014 Trustpower National Community Awards.

Mahinepua-Radar Hill Landcare Group was the winner in the Heritage and Environment category, whilst the top award in the Health and Wellbeing Category went to Hospice Mid Northland. The Bay of Islands Arts Festival Trust UPSURGE 2015 was successful in the Arts and Culture Section. The quality of nominations in the Sports and Leisure category was high and the judges were unable to split the Kawakawa Business and Community Association Pool Committee and the Northland Mounted Games.

The Northland Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) Group was successful in the Education section for its Youth in Emergency Services (YES) programme which provides opportunities for young people to train with emergency services groups such as St John, the Northern Rural Fire Authority and volunteer fire brigades. FNDC civil defence co-ordinator Bill Hutchinson has been active in CDEM and was delighted to be a co-recipient of the award.

The night also featured a talented array of young people nominated for the Youth Spirit Award with Logan Alexander of Springbank School being a worthy winner.

But the highlight came when the Hokianga Hospital Auxiliary scooped the Supreme Award. For the last 48 years the auxiliary has raised money to buy essential medical equipment for the Hokianga Hospital.

Over the last 12 months they have fundraised for items such as a portable community bed, dressing trolleys and even an oxygen concentrator. They have raised $20,000, which is huge for the Hokianga community. In a relatively isolated area, access to hospital services can be the difference between life and death.

Another of their projects was refurbishing the hospital's maternity ward, making it more comfortable and safer. Clearly a very determined bunch, they raised $35,000 for this.

The Hokianga Hospital Auxiliary received a trophy and $1,500 in prize money. These folks also will represent the Far North at the 2015 Trustpower National Community Awards in Dunedin next March. They follow in the footsteps of Focus Paihia and have big boots to fill. But I am happy to wish them all the best.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Roads for the Future

Since I became Mayor of the Far North almost two years ago I've travelled thousands of kilometres on roads throughout the District.

And as Mayor, the biggest gripe I hear from people from one end of the district to the other is the state of our roads. And as I've travelled along almost all of these roads, I agree that these complaints are usually legitimate.

But I've got sympathy for the council's roading engineers and contractors. For our roads take a beating from the weather. And our roads are being clogged with forestry trucks, even though they were never designed for them. No sooner do our contractors fix potholes than it rains again and the potholes reappear or new ones are created. We've also sealed 100-metre sections of roads where logging and other heavy traffic leads to dust problems for residents and marae. But the cost of sealing those roads from end to end is prohibitive.

Yes, fixing our roading problems comes down to cost. When the Council spends money to maintain or improve roads, it comes from your rates and your taxes. There is no free lunch.

We'd love to have more money to make our roads better. The good news is, that for the next three years, we will. It comes from the National Land Transport Programme announced recently by Transport Minister Hon Simon Bridges. It provides $77.7 million for Far North roading operations, maintenance and renewals for 2015-2018. That is a 23% increase on what we've received for the last three years.

In a recent media release I described this as fantastic news for the Far North - and it is. But we have to keep it in perspective. It does not mean that every project on everyone's wish list will automatically happen. Also, $10 million of this increase has been tagged to upgrading roads that have been hammered by the significant increase in forestry traffic in recent years.

To access this funding we first have to put business cases for each project to the New Zealand Transport Agency. That is why I am unable to say which particular projects will go ahead.

However, I am confident there will be a significant increase in roading activity over the next three years in our District. And because roading is a lifeline for our businesses and essential for our families and communities, this is good for us all.

But the good news does not end there. The NZTA Board has approved the designation of Mangakahia Rd and Te Puia Rd as a state highway. Currently we spend $500,000 a year to keep Mangakahia Rd open. Once formal agreements are signed, it is likely that the local share of this money will be available for the Council to spend on the other 2500km of local roads in our District.

Although we will not end up roads paved with gold, the extra funding will mean better roads and more connected communities and businesses in the Far North.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Finding support from old friends

I've spent the last few days in Rotorua at the Local Government New Zealand Conference.

It was great meeting up with old friends from councils across the country, talking with them about the common issues we face and hearing new approaches to deal with them.

We all face the problem of growing demand for services and infrastructure at a time when many households are facing constrained incomes and jobs are scarce. The drop in dairy prices is having a significant effect on districts like the Far North where dairying is strong. Yet we have still have roads, water and sewerage schemes and community facilities that require substantial investment and maintenance.

Far North District Council successfully moved a remit calling on the government to reinstate $40 million worth of subsidies for water and wastewater schemes across the country. Our remit was so well received that it was passed unanimously and was the first in in recent years that has achieved such overwhelming support.

These subsidies have existed since the 1970s and have become increasingly important as national environmental standards and more rigorous enforcement by regional councils has meant a number of old sewerage and water schemes have to be upgraded or replaced. This work is costly and can be a huge burden on small communities and ratepayers. But earlier this year the Ministry of Health decided to axe the subsidy scheme.

This decision is very disappointing. A safe and healthy environment is in the best interests of us all. This is basically a public health issue.

The argument in favour of abolishing these subsidies was that most urban areas across New Zealand already have schemes in place and fewer and fewer new schemes were being put forward.

That argument isn't sustainable when you consider that applications for subsidies last year outweighed available funding by three to one. I was delighted that Mayors and councillors agreed with our arguments and gave their unanimous support to our remit. I await the Government's response with interest.

Local Government New Zealand President Lawrence Yule spoke about a report called Mobilising the Regions. Mr Yule said nearly 40% of New Zealand's total GDP is located in our regions. "This means that if New Zealand's regions are doing well, so is New Zealand. Quite simply, local, regional and national objectives should be shared and linked."

I agree with Lawrence Yule that local government has a huge role to play in achieving strong regions throughout New Zealand. But if we want central government to invest in our regions, we should act in a partnership role, encouraging businesses and communities to leverage and obtain maximum benefit from these investments. That will give central government confidence that investing in regions is good value for money.

Talking about investment, I'm delighted that the recent National Land Transport Plan will mean much more money for our local roads, while the decision to make Mangakahia Rd a State Highway is also good news. I'll talk more about them in my next column.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Connecting with Paradise

In the Far North we have a number of isolated coastal communities. These settlements provide their residents a peaceful and tranquil lifestyle. There are no traffic lights and congestion, pollution, noise, and little evidence of the ills of modern society. There's just the beach, the waves, the sounds of nature and magnificent scenery.

These settlements may lack some of the trappings of modern life, such as piped water and sewerage, shops, pubs and broadband and other telecommunications. Residents understand and accept that they have to accept some sacrifices to continue living in their slice of paradise.

But we need to remember that these communities are part of our world. Their residents pay taxes to the government and rates to the council. They are connected to our road and air networks and they are within range of our broadcasting and telecommunications infrastructure.

I have just gone into bat for one such community. In April last year the people of Taupo Bay came to me with their concerns. They told me their telephone exchange was old and frequently breaks down. When that happens they lose not only their phone services but Internet as well. The exchange's capacity is limited. That means in summer when holiday homes are occupied, the use of WiFi takes up most (if not all) of available capacity and other residents are unable to connect. Telecommunications company Chorus had been told of these concerns but appeared unwilling to do anything about them.

You may ask: why is a dispute between a community and a telecommunications company is of any concern to the Mayor? The answer is simple. Unless it is resolved, lives could be lost.

We live in a district that has more than its share of severe weather events. Many of us remember only too vividly the flooding and other disruption caused by last winter's storms. When events like this occur, it is essential that residents have the chance to inform emergency services if there is significant damage or loss of life. And as the Taupo Bay's civil defence authority, Council has a statutory responsibility to ensure a communications system is in place that allows emergency services to quickly ascertain the state of play in all communities and to respond accordingly.

I decided the situation in Taupo Bay was a civil defence matter. I then asked the Council's Civil Defence Co-ordinator Bill Hutchinson to contact network company Chorus to seek action to resolve an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I am now pleased to report that Chorus has come to the party. Work to upgrade the Taupo Bay exchange is underway and is expected to be finished by the end of July. I am delighted that a company like Chorus - whose main function in life is to provide an acceptable return to its shareholders - is nevertheless cognisant of the needs of one of our more isolated communities.

Good work, Chorus. I hope that other isolated Far North communities also receive the telecommunications infrastructure they need.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Light at the end of the tunnel

Building Pou Herenga Tai - the Twin Coast Cycle Trail has been a long hard slog, but we've now reached a stage where we can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. The project got a big push forward in May when Prime Minister John Key announced the Government would contribute $3 million to the project. I am pleased to now report that Northland's regional economic development agency Northland Inc has also got behind the project by contributing a further $900,000 to construction costs. These grants mean we have sufficient funds to complete the unopened sections of the trail. We will soon call for tenders for construction work at Ngapipito and at Horeke where we are seeking resource consents for a boardwalk over mangroves.

It was a pleasure to bring landowners and other interested parties up to speed with these developments at a meeting in Kaikohe on Monday. About 50 people attended this meeting in Council chambers and there was lots of robust discussion. This is an encouraging level of interest in the project. New Zealand's most famous cycle trail, the Otago Central Rail Trail, was instigated by the Department of Conservation, but it is now run by a community trust. I'd like to see something similar in the Far North. After all, the biggest beneficiaries of the cycle trail will be local communities, including hapu, along the route. It is only right that we give them a stake in the governance and management of the cycle trail which has the potential to attract thousands of people to Northland each year. I have asked the Council's Chief Executive Officer (Acting) Colin Dale to task the Council's legal team with the job of drafting a possible deed for a community trust. I hope to call another meeting of landowners and other interested parties in the next four to six weeks to discuss this deed.

We are a long way down the track from where we were two years ago when this project had effectively stalled. Negotiations with landowners opposed to the trail being built near their properties had reached a stalemate and the Council lacked the funds to complete unfinished sections of the 84km trail. We now have agreements with landowners, as well as the funds to open the trail from coast to coast. We are in discussions with the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust, hapu and the community about a permanent route from Opua to Taumarere within the railway corridor. At some point, the Crown will also need to address Treaty of Waitangi claims on affected sections of the overall trail, but this is progress for now. I want to thank everyone who has played a big or small part in getting us to this point. We can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Happy New Year

You may not have noticed, but a new year began yesterday. I am referring to the Government's fiscal and financial reporting year which starts on 1 July and ends on 30 June. Most people won't think that's anything to get excited about. But for me, it's a chance to quietly celebrate what we have achieved over the last year and where we are heading. I say 'we' because I am referring not just to the Far North District Council, but also to the other organisations and people that make up the Far North and Northland communities. For starters, we finally have a recovery plan that addresses historic underinvestment in the District's core infrastructure. The Long Term Plan the Council adopted last week flags our most critical water and sewerage problems for attention and also provides significant and much-needed investment in road improvements. Exactly how we will address these problems is still to be determined in some cases, but that is only because we are committed to following a rigorous due diligence process and finding solutions that are cost-effective and supported by communities. Other things happening in the broader world make me optimistic about the Far North's future as well. We are making progress on the vexed issue of Maori land rates by applying polices that bring land into production and provide a fair basis upon which rates will actually be paid going forward. We look forward to a Parliamentary Bill later this year that promises to make it easier for the owners of Maori land to manage and develop their whenua. Also, Te Hiku Iwi are months away from settling their Treaty claims with the Crown. This will provide these tribes with an economic base and usher in a new era of cooperation between Iwi and Governmental organisations. We already have constructive relationships with these Iwi, so I am confident we can develop other partnerships that allow us to address challenges and opportunities effectively as a district. Likewise, Councils in the region are looking for opportunities to improve or make local government services more cost-effective by sharing in the provision of these services. A work programme has been underway for a year and a number of initiatives are already up and running. Northland Councils also recognise that they need to work together on regional projects that benefit Northlanders. Central Government is looking for opportunities to invest in regional economies, but it wants to work with regions that are organised and have a strategic plan. We stand a good chance of getting a share of the $360 million the Government is investing in regional broadband and cell phone infrastructure, because the four councils have collaborated on a regional bid instead of going it alone. This is progress. Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Our destiny is in ourselves

Most of us have some idea of how we want our lives to look in 10, 20 or 30 years' time. We also accept that we need to take certain steps now to ensure that the life we end up living in the future is the life we dreamed of living. This may mean training for a better job, changing our diet and exercising more or saving for our retirement. Most of us, if asked, also have some idea of what we would like the Far North District to look like in 30 years. However, we probably spend less time thinking about this future than we do our own. Now is the time to think about the future of the Far North!

There is only one week left for you to tell us what you would like the Far North to look like in 2050. More than 800 people have already completed the Our Voices Our Vision questionnaire and 500 people have taken part in community discussions facilitated by Deputy Mayor Tania McInnes. This is an impressive result for a consultation campaign that has only run for a few weeks and tried to reach people who don't normally take part in the Council's strategic planning processes. However, we need to hear from as many people as possible if a cross-sector stakeholder reference group is to develop a shared vision for the District that reflects a wide range of values and perspectives. I strongly encourage you to provide feedback at before June 28. You can also fill in an Our Voices Our Vision brochure at one of our Council service centres if you don't have access to the Internet. It only takes 10-15 minutes to answer the questions, which are designed to find out what you value about living in the Far North. You will also go into a draw to win a tablet computer sponsored by Samsung and Spark.

People in Te Hiku Ward responded strongly when Social Development Minister Paula Bennett asked them in 2013 to suggest ways of ensuring that social spending in Kaitaia and the wider District was more effective. About 1,250 people took part in the Make It Happen Te Hiku Project which resulted in a community plan that social service agencies and the government are now implementing. We need to get a similar level of community buy-in to the Our Voices Our Vision Project. Please have your say before June 28 and help shape the future of the Far North. As someone famous once said, our destiny is not in the stars but in ourselves.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Listening to each other

I have often said in this column that the Far North District Council aims to be a council that is guided by the community in its decision-making. Our approach to developing our Long Term Plan 2015-25 proves that this isn't just a hollow promise. Those of you who read our Consultation Document will know that we outlined a significant programme of capital works designed to address historic gaps in services and infrastructure. We were acutely aware of the costs these works would create for households so provided a range of options with varying costs for addressing these. We needed you to tell us what was affordable, sensible and realistic, not just for you but the District. We were impressed with the turnout at the 10 community meetings and hui we held across the District in March and April. Councils typically struggle to involve the wider community in their decision-making, so we appreciate the fact that many people took the time to come and talk to us. We are also grateful to the 2,675 people who made submissions to the plan. Most of these were from people who wanted the Council to partly fund a pool in Kaitaia. However, the quality of other submissions, particularly those from interest groups who are representative of our communities, gave us a good understanding of the wider community's concerns. We were pleased to see that, in most cases, the Council's preferred option for addressing a particular issue was also the option supported by most submitters. In fact, nearly 80% (27/33) of the options the Council proposed to address infrastructure and funding issues were supported by the majority of submitters. It was really gratifying to see this level of support for our plan, particularly as some of our preferred proposals weren't always the cheapest options. It shows that we are getting better at communicating with communities about the challenges we face as a District. It also shows that our communities are capable of making sensible choices if you present them with the facts. Council deliberated over those submissions last week and will officially report on the outcome of those deliberations after it has finalised the Long Term Plan on Thursday next week. Most of the decisions confirm proposals in the Consultation Document, so we looking forward to delivering a 10-year plan that represents a significant step forward in terms of addressing historic infrastructure gaps, has a high level of public support and provides a reasonable balance between the 'must-dos' and the 'nice-to-haves'. Notable exceptions are Kerikeri-Paihia sewerage where we have reserved our decision on the most appropriate treatment option until we have completed a multi-criteria cost-benefit analysis. We have also listened to those who weren't in favour of Council partly funding indoor heated pools in Kerikeri or Kaikohe. We haven't included funding in this plan for these proposals, but will ask staff to work with community groups on options to include in the 2018-28 plan. Overall, I am pleased with what we have collectively achieved by listening to each other.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Progress on roads

The New Zealand Transport Agency's proposal to designate Mangakahia Road a State Highway is, on the face of it, good news for the Far North. Northland Mayors have been asking the Agency for years to add the 71km road (and Te Pua Road, Otaika Valley Road and Loop Road North which join Mangakahia Road to State Highway 1) to the highway network. I am pleased that the Agency's board has recognised these roads' importance as an inland freight route and is prepared to raise the level of maintenance on this route. I look forward to gaining a better understanding of the conditions attached to this offer which is dependent on Northland Councils entering a formal arrangement with the Agency to jointly asset manage the roading network. The positives I can see so far for the Far North are that the District will get a viable alternative to State Highway 1, which was closed for nearly a week last winter when heavy rain and land subsidence reduced a section of the highway south of Kawakawa to one lane. Big trucks were diverted to Mangakahia Road. However, the road wasn't designed to carry high volumes of heavy traffic and had to be closed periodically for safety reasons, forcing trucks to make even longer journeys via State Highway 12. Designating Mangakahia Road a highway and raising the level of maintenance would give the Far North a second roading link to the port in Whangarei and to points south, including Auckland. This would be welcomed by Far North businesses, who depend on the roading network to get goods in and out of the District, and by ratepayers who shoulder the 'local share' costs of maintaining these roads. I am unable to comment on any drawbacks until Northland Councils have met with the Agency. However, rest assured that it is our intention to negotiate an agreement that is to our collective advantage.

Other good news is that the New Zealand Transport Agency has got the green light from the Government to build the Puhoi to Warkworth northern motorway extension through a Public Private Partnership. This is a significant step towards completing this long-awaited motorway which will cut journey times between the Far North and Auckland and improve the movement of freight between Northland and the upper North Island area. The new motorway will also improve safety on this heavily-used route which currently passes through the accident black spot Dome Valley. I look forward to seeing what Far North projects the Agency is planning when it releases its budget for the new financial year. These two projects represent progress, but we have a long way to go in terms of the Government addressing other roading issues in the District.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Make yourself heard

It's hard to believe, but only 14 years ago most Northlanders had no access to email or the Worldwide Web. Incredibly, a mere 28% of households in the region had internet access when Stats New Zealand conducted a Census in 2001. The Census didn't include a question about the internet before 2001, but you probably don't need to go back many years before you hit single figures. How things have changed! In the 2013 Census, 68% of Northland households had access to the Internet, compared to 77% of households nationwide. It's easy to see that 68% being in the high seventies, if not the low eighties, when the Government does the next Census in 2018. The growth of Internet use in a region as large and as sparsely populated as ours shouldn't really come as a surprise. Those of us who live in rural areas rely on email and the Worldwide Web to keep in touch with family and friends and to feel connected to other people and the world. We also use it to educate ourselves, search for work, run businesses, manage finances and order and sell goods online. It's still not quite as vital to our wellbeing as electricity, running water or roads, but it's just about become a 'must have' rather than a 'nice to have' for most people - myself included. That is why it's essential for us to have a high-speed internet network that is able to cater for this growth and deliver the economic and social benefits of a more connected region. Northland currently has a rare opportunity to get a share of $360 million of funds the Government is investing in new broadband infrastructure and improved mobile coverage across New Zealand. The Far North District Council signalled its interest in becoming an active participant in a registration of interest process the Communications Minister Amy Adams announced in Kerikeri in March. It has since joined forces with the other three Northland councils on a region-wide registration of interest which economic development agency Northland Inc is currently developing. The Government is looking for proposals that show a coordinated regional approach and include support from councils and collaboration amongst telecommunication providers. Another key factor is the strength of consumer demand for better broadband and cell phone services. The Government wants to invest its money where it gets the best bang for its buck. Northland Councils are asking Northlanders to tell them how better broadband and mobile coverage would create new economic and social opportunities in their communities or allow them to carry out more of their daily lives online. Please help us to help you by going to before 3 June and taking part in our short survey. Our bid for a share of the $360 million stands a higher chance of success if we have Northlanders behind us. Please make your voice heard.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Creating opportunities for young people

Anyone who has been reading this column since I was elected Mayor of the Far North in 2013 should have detected a theme by now: we will address the challenges we face as a district most effectively when we work together. It is amazing what opportunities open up when government agencies join forces with private businesses, Iwi organisations and non-governmental organisations. Last month, the Far North District Council and 13 other agencies and businesses hosted a Fast Track Job Match day at the Council's chambers in Kaikohe. Thirty-four young people ('Fast Trackers') who were seeking employment or training opportunities got to meet representatives from 14 agencies ('Opportunity Providers') in a fast-paced interview process not unlike speed dating. The Fast Trackers had already attended a Careers New Zealand aspirations workshop and a two-week motivation and work confidence programme run by Work and Income and Ngati Hine Health Trust. The speed interview event gave them an opportunity to match their aptitudes and skill sets with real job and training opportunities. I am pleased to report that People Potential and five employers, including the Council, were so impressed by the calibre of the Fast Trackers, they offered 21 of them eight-week cadetships under the Kaikohe Opportunities, Dreams and Experiences (KODE) programme. This is great news for these young people who will be placed with these employers if they successfully complete their cadetship training. I would like to thank Transfield, Recreational Services Ltd, Northland District Health Board and McDonalds for giving them opportunities to gain work experience and to establish career pathways. I also want to thank Hauora Hokianga, KFC, New Zealand Police, Ngapuhi Asset Holdings Ltd, Ngati Hine Health Trust, Northern Rural Fire Authority, NorthTec and Te Runanga a Iwi o Ngapuhi for making the first KODE Fast Track Job Match a success. We are still seeking five employers to offer cadetships to some of the Fast Trackers who have not yet been placed. Please contact Bronwyn Ronayne at People Potential if you can help. None of us want to live in a District with one of the highest levels of unemployment in New Zealand. Nor do we want to live in a region like that described in the Salvation Army's Mixed Futures report on poverty and deprivation. But we can create a different future for our young people if we look at problems differently, build new relationships and leverage the diverse skills and collective wisdom that is in all our communities. It's amazing what opportunities open up when we work together.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Looking after our soft infrastructure

Most of us think of roads, bridges and pipes when we hear the word 'infrastructure'. But not all local government infrastructure is hard. Local authorities in New Zealand are also part of a complex system of 'soft infrastructure' that is equally vital to the wellbeing of our communities. By 'soft infrastructure', I mean the institutions, human capital, knowledge transfer and networks that create the prosperity and progress that set us apart from less-developed countries. To illustrate the importance of this soft infrastructure, imagine how grim life in New Zealand would be without a health system staffed by highly-skilled specialists supported by empirical research and knowledge shared across an international network of healthcare specialists. Local government is no different. Councils everywhere face complex challenges, so gain a lot by sharing knowledge about how they are addressing these challenges. Soft infrastructure also has to be maintained just like hard infrastructure, so we need to keep building new relationships with stakeholders, as well as maintain existing ones. Knowledge transfer is also about listening to the people we are here to serve not just our peers in local government. This week, my Council has been doing all of the above. On Monday and Wednesday, we held the first of our Long Term Plan public hearings in Kaikohe and Kaitaia and another is planned for Kerikeri on Friday. The collective wisdom we possess as a district is one of our greatest strengths, so we view these hearings as opportunities to learn from our communities. Similarly, we look forward to the biennial New Zealand Community Boards' Conference because it allows us to network with elected members from other councils across New Zealand. It will be a pleasure and a privilege to speak at this year's New Zealand Community Boards Conference in Waitangi tomorrow. I'm sure that our three community boards will gain a lot from the knowledge shared at the conference which is called 'Influencing Change'. Businesswomen in the Bay of Islands should also benefit from a new breakfast club called Bay of Islands Women's Nexus which Deputy Mayor Tania McInnes is launching at Waitangi on May 28. I congratulate Tania for this initiative which will give businesswomen opportunities to share experiences, make new friends and develop new business relationships. I also commend her for inviting New Zealand's first female Prime Minister the Rt Hon Dame Jenny Shipley to speak about inspiring women into leadership at this event. We need more soft infrastructure like this if we are to influence positive change as individuals and as a District.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Just the beginning

It would be fair to say that the Twin Coast Cycle Trail project had stalled before the current Council was elected to office in 2014. Negotiations with landowners opposed to the trail being built near their properties had reached a stalemate and the Council lacked the funds to complete unfinished sections of the 84 km trail. I am pleased to report that we have managed to turn that situation around. We now have the approval of all people who own land alongside the rail corridor the trail follows, thanks to us talking and listening to them over the last 15 months. We've also secured most of the $4.8 million we estimate it will cost to complete the Otiria-Kaikohe and Okaihau-Horeke sections of the trail, which total 51km. This figure also includes the cost of building a permanent cycle trail alongside the Opua-Taumarere section of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway. I want to thank Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key for the $3 million Government grant it announced at Opua on Sunday. I am delighted that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has responded so positively to the request for funds we lodged in December. We now await the outcome of a $900,000 grant application to the Northland Regional Council's economic development agency Northland Inc.

I also want to thank communities and people who live along the trail route, or who have been involved in the cycle trail project, for their support. We now have a realistic chance of opening the trail from coast to coast before the end of December. This is news we can all get excited about. The Otago Rail Trail, which first opened to the public in 2000, now attracts 10,000-12,000 tourists each year and up to 80,000 people are thought to use the trail on a regular basis. We estimate that the Twin Coast Cycle Trail Pou Herenga Tai will attract 5,000-8,000 people to Northland in its first year and add up to $1.5 million to the region's economy. The cycle trail already has a competitive edge over most of the cycle trails on the 23-trail New Zealand Cycle Trail Nga Haerenga by being the third closest cycle trail to Auckland. But the bi-cultural history along our trail also makes it special. No other trail passes through such historically significant landscape. Mangungu Mission House near Horeke is where the largest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi took place and Okiato near Opua was the site of New Zealand's first capital. The opportunity to link the trail with the vintage railway or to the historic steam ship Minerva when it is restored will also make the trail unique not just in New Zealand but possibly the world. We also see the trail eventually forming the backbone of a regional network of cycle trails. Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail is just the beginning of a 20-30-year economic project that will create business and recreational opportunities for communities across Northland.

Thursday 30 April 2015

Use it or lose it

It was sad to see the last Air New Zealand flight out of Kaitaia take off for Auckland on Monday. The final flight marked the end of a 68-year relationship between Kaitaia and our national carrier. To put this into perspective, I wasn't even born when National Airways Corporation (NAC) started scheduled air services at Kaitaia and Kaikohe in 1947. NAC axed Kaikohe from its route network in 1970, but continued flights between Kaitaia and Auckland and Air New Zealand retained this service when it merged with NAC in 1978. I am sure I am not the only one who felt a sense of loss when the small Beechcraft disappeared into grey skies over the airport. But Monday wasn't just about farewelling an old friend. Kaitaia also made a new friend. Most people reading this will know that Great Barrier Airlines has agreed to provide daily flights between Kaitaia and Auckland. This new service started yesterday and it was a real pleasure to greet Great Barrier Airlines General Manager Murray Pope at a welcome reception the Council and Far North Holdings laid on for the airline. Great Barrier Airlines is not exactly a stranger to Kaitaia. The airline has operated flights between Whangarei and Kaitaia four times a week on behalf of the Northland District Health Board for the last 10 years. But its new Kaitaia-Auckland service represents a more significant presence in the Far North and a vote of confidence in the District and its economy. I want to thank Far North Holdings for the role it played in persuading Great Barrier Airlines to take over this route which has been marginal in recent years. This is a small privately-owned airline that cannot be expected to subsidise unprofitable routes. It is up to us to make the route viable by ensuring that there is strong demand for the more business-friendly flight schedule Great Barrier Airlines is offering. The three daily flights between Kaitaia and Auckland put central Government in closer reach of businesses and allow them to take advantage of commercial opportunities in our larger market and further afield. They also make Kaitaia more accessible to private investors, tourists and government workers. Great Barrier Airlines has put its faith in us. We need to show the airline that it has made a wise investment move by supporting the new service. If we don't use it, we will lose it. We also need to encourage Air New Zealand to enter codeshare and baggage transfer agreements with Great Barrier Airlines. I am currently leading talks about the possibility of a partnership agreement between small airlines and Air New Zealand which supports connectivity for the regions. I will keep you posted about progress in future columns.

Thursday 23 April 2015

The ultimate sacrifice

Saturday is ANZAC Day and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
I will be speaking at the dawn service in Kaitaia and the morning service in Kerikeri and councillors and community board members will be attending and speaking at other ANZAC Day services across the District. I encourage young and old to take part in these events, which include an 11am service at Te Ahu to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. This event is supported by the Te Hiku Community Board and everyone is most welcome. Te Ahu is also hosting ANZAC displays by Kaitaia College students and a display of World War One weapons, while the 1981 movie Gallipoli starring Mel Gibson will screen at Te Ahu Cinema at 1:30pm. I encourage those who haven't seen this film to make the effort to see it so they understand what our soldiers went through at Gallipoli. The Gallipoli campaign cost 2,779 Kiwi lives, or about one in five of the New Zealanders who fought in the battle. The loss of such a large number of able-bodied young men in just one battle was an incalculable blow felt in almost every city, town and rural community throughout the country. And, of course, the destructive battles at Ypres, Messines, Passchendaele, the Somme and others in France and Belgium were yet to come. Almost three quarters of New Zealand's war dead resulted from these battles. In total, more than 18,000 New Zealanders died from war wounds and war-related injuries. While statistics are important in conveying the sheer scale of the conflict, they can also obscure the fact that the victims of war are real people who died, or were seriously wounded, or had their lives irreversibly changed, mostly for the worst. And they were not the only victims. There were wives and children deprived of husbands and fathers, communities who lost potential leaders and businesses, schools and other enterprises deprived of talent and skills. And while we remember those who died on the battlefield, most victims of the war were not killed in action. Many more died of disease. The Spanish flu epidemic, which was carried around the world by troop ships after hostilities ceased in November 1918, is estimated to have resulted in 25 million deaths worldwide. A century later, New Zealand is blessed with freedom and peace. That is something we should celebrate every day. But we should never take that for granted or forget those who helped make to his freedom possible. Please join me in remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice this ANZAC Day.

Thursday 16 April 2015

No silver bullets

It's not every day that the world's largest and oldest high IQ society seeks my opinion, so I was intrigued when Mensa recently asked me to provide 'thoughtful input' on the subject of local politics for its magazine. What is the biggest challenge of being a mayor of your area, was the first question. What is the most important thing that residents of your area could do to improve it and what is the biggest project in the future for your area? These aren't difficult questions to answer. Perhaps I expected a more penetrating inquisition from our nation's greatest minds. Maybe I hoped the questions would reveal dazzling insights honed by a superior knowledge of political history, economics, law, geography and sociology. But there were no silver bullets; just three simple questions. Yet they are good questions. Here are some of the points I plan to make in my response.

Maintaining vital infrastructure scattered across a large, sparsely-populated and relatively poor district is arguably our biggest challenge, given that we rely on a small rating base and dwindling Government subsidies to fund this work. We are proposing a significant programme of capital works over the next 10 years to catch up on deferred maintenance, but have prioritised these works and asked ratepayers to tell us what is affordable to minimise hardship for households.

We are also working hard to gain the confidence and trust of the communities we are here to serve. This means being open and honest with residents and ratepayers, listening to them and ultimately allowing their wishes to guide our decision making. This approach is already working for us. We have had constructive discussions with communities about our Proposed Long Term Plan. The challenge is to extend this style of open communication to all our communities and stakeholders, including Maori who make up more than 40% of our population.

How can residents help us to address these challenges? Engage with us more and get more involved in your community. Paihia is a great example of what a community can achieve if it works together. Also, recognise that there are no silver bullets and be realistic and sensible about what we can afford as a District.

What is the biggest project in the Far North for the future? Developing a shared vision and action plan that puts the District on a path to a future where Maori and Non-Maori work together to achieve common goals, infrastructure is fit for purpose and affordable, young people can get a job without leaving the district, our natural environment is protected and the Far North is a place that people want to live and work in, as well as visit.

Thursday 9 April 2015

We are listening

When this edition of The Age hits the streets, the Far North District Council will have completed all but three of nine public meetings to publicise its proposed Long Term Plan 2015-25. It would be fair to say that the public hasn't turned out in droves to hear our plans for the next 10 years. Attendance at the meetings has ranged from a few people in Kaikohe to 15 in Kaitaia and about 50 people in Kerikeri. While we would have liked to talk to bigger groups, we have been impressed by the quality of discussion we have had with small, but very well-informed audiences. We are committed to being a local authority that is guided by the community in its decision-making so it is gratifying to see people critiquing our proposals not just from a position of self-interest but also from a concern for what might be good for the wider community. We are also aware that many people have an opinion on what we are proposing but are too busy to attend public meetings or take part in formal submission processes. That is fine. We recognise that we need to provide as many ways as possible for people to have their say. Staff will monitor conversations about our proposals on Facebook this month and summarise these in a report to elected members before they deliberate over Long Term Plan submissions.

As we predicted, the affordability of the capital works we are proposing has been a major concern for some people, particularly in Kerikeri where we spent two hours fielding tough but reasonable questions about our proposals to fix the town's ageing sewerage system. Unfortunately, the law directs us to sort out Kerikeri's sewerage problems, so this is one of those proposals where there is less scope for people to choose a lower level of service to reduce upward pressure on rates. That said, we will review the feedback we received at this meeting and do everything we can to sharpen our proposal in favour of ratepayers. We also plan to address the affordability of sewerage upgrades when we review our rating system in 2015/16. One of the questions we will consider is whether we need to change our sewerage funding policy so that the costs of upgrading schemes are spread across a larger group of people in recognition of the health and environmental benefits they create for the wider community.

I want to finish by encouraging you to make a submission to our Long Term Plan before the consultation period ends on 23 April. The collective wisdom we possess as a district is one of our greatest strengths. We need to tap this wisdom more if we are to address challenges effectively, make the most of opportunities and move forward together as a community. We are listening. Please talk to us.

Thursday 2 April 2015

Changing Northland's story

One of the first things I did when I became Far North Mayor in 2013 was to extend the hand of friendship to the newly-elected leaders of our neighbouring councils. I recognised that we would achieve more for Northlanders if we worked together on regional issues. I was delighted that Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai and Kaipara District Council Commissioners Chairperson John Robinson shared my desire for more cooperation between the councils. I was also pleased that Northland Regional Council Chairperson Bill Shepherd wanted to forge a more constructive relationship between the Far North District Council and the Regional Council than had hitherto existed. I am pleased to report that we are still working together with these councils and the spirit of collaboration is alive and well. We are exploring opportunities to collaborate in the provision of better and more cost-effective services to Northlanders and already have a number of initiatives underway. For example, our roading teams are starting to work more cooperatively with a view to establishing a roading centre of excellence that models best asset management practices.

We also had a very productive meeting at Waitangi on Monday to begin a discussion about what Northland Councils might want to achieve collectively for the region. Goals discussed included securing a bigger share of national infrastructure subsidies. We need to speak to the Government with one voice on regional issues and we need to send Wellington compelling messages about our unique challenges and opportunities. Last weekend's by-election result has created an unprecedented opportunity to engage with a Government that needs to show real intent and convince Northlanders it is doing the job for them. We will be doing everything we can to help it in this endeavour.

We also discussed the need to change the way local government in Northland works and engages with communities, Maori and the business sector. We lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product, household incomes and employment. That is what we are famous for, but it doesn't have to be that way. We have great natural resources and a diversity of skills and talents among our people. We could lead New Zealand if our councils and communities were united behind a shared vision. The Paihia community's recent wins at two of New Zealand's most prestigious community awards shows it is possible for us to be famous for something else. We can change Northland's story if we choose.

Thursday 26 March 2015

What can we afford?

The biggest single challenge we face as a district is paying for essential public services. We have a small rating base, but have to maintain one of New Zealand's longest roading networks, as well as 16 sewerage schemes and eight water supplies. We need a growing economy if these services are to be affordable. This means salaries, wages, business incomes and property values increasing faster than rate increases. This did not happen from 2006 to 2013. Median household incomes increased by only two percent during this period and property values fell by an average of 16%. Yet, rates increased by 8% a year. The community cannot afford a continuation of large annual rate increases based on these figures. It simply isn't sustainable. We also can't afford to keep deferring essential maintenance on core infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewerage. We need to maintain these utilities so they meet the needs of current and future generations. The dilemma we face then is how do we make the necessary investments in our infrastructure, but in a way that is affordable for households? We can stage this recovery over a number of years to spread costs, which we are doing. We can also review the rating system to ensure this allocates operating costs to ratepayers fairly and equitably, which we propose to do in 2015/16. But we still face issues of affordability around our infrastructure in the meantime. The Proposed Long Term Plan 2015-25 Consultation Document the Council is inviting submissions on includes options for addressing years of underinvestment in water and/or sewerage schemes at Te Kao, Kaitaia, Kerikeri, Paihia, Rawene-Omanaia and Opononi-Omapere. Proceeding with Council's preferred options will result in significant to substantial rate increases for properties connected to these schemes. We urge property-owners to find out about these proposals and tell us what level of service they are prepared to pay for before submissions close on 23 April. For example, we could repair leaking pipes in Kaitaia's sewerage network so the network could cope with a large, one-in-five year storm, but this would cost nearly $26 million. Alternatively, we could spend $13.7 million fixing the system so it coped with a smaller one-in-one year storm. This is the Council's preferred option, but some properties connected to the system may want to pay more for a higher level of service. We urge people in Kaitaia and other areas to tell us what is affordable for them so we can consider this feedback when we finalise our Long Term Plan and also include it in the rating review next year. We are here to serve the community and be guided by its wishes in our decision-making. Now is the time to tell us what you think.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Caring for our neighbours

We often think of Australia as our nearest neighbour, but many people may be surprised to know that New Caldeonia is marginally closer to New Zealand. Some of us may have visited New Caledonia or its neighbour Vanuatu on a holiday, but most of us don't know much about these islands or their people. Now is a good time to get to know our neighbours to the north.

UNICEF has described Cyclone Pam as possibly one of the worst cyclones in the history of the Pacific. It's not difficult to see why. The cyclone hammered Vanuatu with winds of up to 320 kph, leaving dozens of people dead, 10,000 homeless and most buildings in the capital Port Vila, including much of the main hospital, damaged or destroyed. It will be years before life returns to normal there. This is a country that has to start again. It won't be able to do that without significant support from other nations and international organisations. I am pleased that the New Zealand Government has pledged $2.5 million in aid and sent two air force planes packed with supplies to assist in the relief effort. But more money will be needed in the months and years ahead to help this tiny archipelago get back on its feet. I encourage Northland Age readers to donate to the wonderful charities who are involved in the relief and recovery effort. They include Red Cross, UNICEF, World Vision, Tear Fund, Oxfam New Zealand and Save The Children.

Now is also a good time for households and businesses to review their preparedness for a natural disaster. We can count ourselves lucky that we were spared the destruction Pam unleashed on Vanuatu, but that is no reason to be complacent. We know there will be more big storms like Pam. This time last year, we were dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Lusi which battered the Far North after taking the lives of at least three people in Vanuatu. The question we all need to ask ourselves is are we any better prepared now than we were then? Every household should have an emergency plan and enough food and supplies at any given time to look after itself for three days. I would also encourage people to get to know their communities and neighbours if they don't already. We are stronger when we look out for each other and our neighbourhood is as big or small as we choose it to be.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Starting a conversation

In less than two weeks, the Far North District Council will begin its biggest community consultation exercise in years. The Council is close to finalising documents that outline what it plans to do in the next 10 years and it will invite public submissions on these documents from 23 March to 23 April. Local authorities are no longer required to produce a Draft Long Term Plan. However, they must produce a Consultation Document which outlines key Long Term Plan issues and the main options for addressing these. Our Consultation Document tells an overarching story about the infrastructure and financial challenges we face as a District and proposes a major programme of capital works, particularly in water, sewerage and roading, over the next 10 years. These proposals will result in significant rate increases if they go ahead, so we are sending all households a brochure about our Consultation Document. Please look out for this brochure in your letter boxes later this month and check out the Consultation Document which will be available on our website and at service centres when the community consultation period begins on 23 March.

We also plan to hold community meetings in Kaikohe, Kaitaia, Kerikeri, Paihia, Opononi-Omapere and Rawene, as well as hui at Mahimaru Marae (Awanui), Karetu Marae (near Kawakawa) and Ngawha Marae between 30 March and 14 April. These meetings are an opportunity for you to ask questions about the projects we are proposing so I encourage you to attend one near you. We have limited meetings to main centres and places where we are proposing significant capital projects, but are willing to consider requests from other communities that wish to meet with us.
The Council that was elected in 2013 is committed to serving communities and being guided by them in its decision-making, so these meetings are not just a box-ticking exercise. We genuinely want to understand what concerns you have about our proposals for addressing issues that the Council and communities face. We also want to start a conversation with communities where we are proposing new infrastructure projects. It would be fair to say that most people don't have a good understanding of how we manage or fund our water and sewerage schemes or maintain our roading network. We are keen to start a dialogue and education process that goes beyond the scope of the Long Term Plan consultation and gives people a greater appreciation of the challenges we face in providing these services, as well as the value these add to people's lives. I look forward to talking more about our plans in this area in the new financial year. In the meantime, I encourage you to join in the conversation about our Long Term Plan.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Places powered by people

We don't always make national news headlines in the Far North for the right reasons, but we're starting to distinguish ourselves as a district where great places are being created by the power of people working together. Take Kawakawa for example. It would be fair to say this town was in the doldrums 20 years ago. Today, it is a vibrant, buzzing community thanks to the vision, drive and energy of countless locals. Tourists think of the late artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser when they stop to photograph his world-famous toilets. But many hands built these toilets, so they are as much a monument to human cooperation as they are the creation of a lone artist. The spin-off projects that have given Kawakawa's mainstreet its funky, laid-back vibe are also the result of people stepping up and working together. Of course, one can't talk about Kawakawa's renaissance without mentioning the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust. This is a community group that has taken volunteerism to a new level. When the trust won the TrustPower Community Awards 10 years ago, a small army of 400 volunteers had clocked up a staggering 105,000 hours of work. I continue to be impressed by the trust's achievements which are helping to ensure Kawakawa doesn't become a so-called 'zombie town'. The Kawakawa Business Association is also a big part of Kawakawa's success story with plans to turn the local pool into something 'cool and different'.

The DIY, can-do spirit is alive and kicking in most of our communities, but it has arguably achieved its greatest potential in Paihia. I have long been impressed by the cool things this community has done with its public spaces and the way it has grabbed at opportunities. I was therefore delighted to hear that Paihia had been named Mitre 10 Community of the Year at the prestigious Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards last week. Most towns in the Far North have committees and groups that do great things to make their communities better places. But Paihia has managed to develop a shared vision for the town and create a change process that has been driven by the wider community. Another critical success factor has been the leadership of Focus Paihia. I want to acknowledge the talent, vision and determination of its members, as well as the Deputy Mayor Tania McInnes who was a founding member of this amazing group. I am delighted that the group wants to help other communities and I encourage interested people to take advantage of this generous offer. I would also like people to think about what we might achieve as a district if we work together towards a common goal like Paihia has done. The Deputy Mayor is leading a project called 'One Voice - One Vision' which aims to develop a shared vision and action plan for the Far North. As Paihia has shown, we will only succeed in this endeavour if everyone is involved. I urge you to tell us what you would like the district to look like in 2050 when we invite submissions to our Long Term Plan later this month.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Clouds with silver linings

I am often asked what my Council is doing to make the Far North a better place. Last week, I outlined our plans for investing in core infrastructure. Unfortunately, none of that infrastructure comes without a price tag, so it gives me great pleasure to report on some big improvements we have been able to achieve for ratepayers at very little cost to them.

We were all gutted when Air New Zealand announced that it planned to discontinue flights between Auckland and Kaitaia in April. But we've actually ended up with a better service, thanks in part to our trading company Far North Holdings Ltd which operates Kaitaia Airport. Far North Holdings negotiated with a number of airlines who expressed interest in picking up the Kaitaia-Auckland service and selected Great Barrier Airlines after surveying the community about its transport needs. Great Barrier Airlines plans to offer three flights to and from Auckland on weekdays instead of the two offered by Air New Zealand. The first and last flights to and from Auckland will also be earlier and later in the day than those currently on offer, allowing business people to fly to and from Auckland or Wellington to conduct a full day's business without having to travel via Bay of Islands Airport. This puts central government in closer reach of the Far North and allows businesses up here to take advantage of commercial opportunities offered by New Zealand's largest market. The more business-friendly flight schedule also makes Kaitaia more accessible to government workers, private investors and tourists, all of whom are important players in our economy. The flat fare of $180 that Great Barrier Airlines proposes to charge each way is also good news for Kaitaia residents used to fares that are usually in the $200-$300 range. The fact that our Facebook update about the new air service went viral and set a new social media record for the Council (more than 10,000 people had seen the update when this column went to print) shows how excited people are about Great Barrier Airlines coming to the Far North.

I am also proud that Far North Holdings has been able to negotiate a fantastic deal with Air New Zealand at Bay of Islands Airport. The airport is getting a major upgrade under a partnership initiative with the airline. This upgrade includes increasing the size of the terminal by 50% and strengthening and extending the taxi way and apron area to cater for the 50-seat planes Air New Zealand will operate on all flights to and from the airport starting this month. We are now trying to encourage Air New Zealand to enter into a code sharing arrangement with Great Barrier Airlines. Of course, we still face big infrastructure challenges as a District. For instance, the outlook for councils seeking government subsidies to fix roads is more a case of storm clouds on the horizon than blue skies, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate when clouds have silver linings.

Thursday 19 February 2015

The right debate

I would like to commend Northland Age editor Peter Jackson on an excellent and timely editorial in The Northland Age last week ('New taxes won't do it', 10 February 2015). The Long Term Plan 2015-25 consultation document the Far North District Council plans to release next month addresses many of the issues raised in this editorial. The Age says councils need to conduct a stocktake of assets and liabilities, then establish a sustainable means of funding essential services. The Council that was elected in 2013 spent its first year taking stock of gaps in services and infrastructure. Some of the gaps it found are a result of the previous Council cutting operational spending and putting capital projects on hold. This was an appropriate short-term response to the global financial crisis, but it is not sustainable in the long term. The Council has an obligation to maintain core infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewerage, so it provides effective services to communities now and in the future. We must therefore plan a 'catch-up' or service levels will fall as parts of our infrastructure fail. We have prepared a 30-year Infrastructure Strategy to help the Council and community consider and plan for key infrastructure issues the Far North must address over the next 30 years. Significant capital projects and the rating implications of these projects will be outlined in the consultation document which aims to prompt the 'right debate' in the community by identifying key issues and the main options for addressing these issues. I strongly urge people to find out about these proposals and to think carefully about where our priorities should lie and how we should spend ratepayer money. Few people would deny that fixing leaky sewerage pipes in Kaitaia and securing a reliable water supply for the town are high priorities, but we are also under pressure to provide a heated, indoor swimming pool in Kaitaia. We will set out the costs to ratepayers of doing all three so people can draw their own conclusions about what is affordable, sensible and realistic. Our consultation document will also include different options for fixing our roading network, so people understand that providing a higher level of service comes with a higher price tag. Other proposals designed to put the District's infrastructure and services on a road to recovery include options for sorting out sewerage in Kerikeri and improving water supplies at Te Kao, Paihia, Rawene and Omapere-Opononi. This is a one-in-three year chance to influence the direction of the Council and the District for the next 10 years so we encourage people to join in the debate and have their say when we call for submissions at the end of March.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Pride on parade at Paihia

It was a pleasure to be at Waitangi for the 175th commemorations of the signing of the Treaty last week. This milestone anniversary of our national day was largely peaceful and trouble-free. The fact that no arrests were made is a credit to the behaviour of the estimated 30,000 people who came to Waitangi and the event management of organisations including the Waitangi National Trust, Te Tii Marae and the New Zealand Police.

Waitangi Day was also a historic occasion for Northland's three District Councils who hosted a Royal New Zealand Navy Charter Parade in Paihia. It was a privilege and an honour to address and ceremonially inspect sailors and officers and to sign a Charter which gives the Navy the right to march "with drums beating, bands playing, colours flying, bayonets fixed and swords drawn" through Northland's streets. This is not the first Navy Charter Parade to be held in Northland. A Charter giving the crew of HMNZS Taupo the right to march in the region was signed by the three District Councils in 2009 after officers and sailors of that ship marched in Whangarei. Nor is the Charter the first to give these rights to the whole of the Navy rather than the crew of a naval vessel. The 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty conferred similar rights "through the lands of the Tai Tokerau, especially the Treaty Grounds". The fact that we are so willing to bestow this honour on the Navy may be a reflection of its special place in our history and our hearts. Naval ties to the Bay of Islands date back to 1840 when the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Herald visited Waitangi. The ship's commanding officer Captain William Hobson negotiated what became known as the Treaty of Waitangi with Maori chiefs and these negotiations resulted in the signing of the Treaty on 6 February. After the signing, HMS Herald took a copy of the Treaty to other coastal parts of the country to gather further signatures. Fifty years later, the Royal Navy returned to Waitangi for the first major commemoration of the signing of the Treaty. The Royal New Zealand Navy has been an annual visitor to Waitangi since 1946.

But for a lot of Northlanders, the Navy is more about the present and the future than the past. Many of us know, or are related to, men and women who have joined the Navy where they have gained new skills, broadened their horizons and - in some cases - contributed to international peacekeeping operations from the Middle East to East Timor. Some of these Northlanders were among those officers and sailors who marched at Paihia last week. We can take a lot of pride in the contribution these Northlanders make to the Navy and to our nation. Clearly they do as well, judging by the pride that was on parade at Paihia last week.

Thursday 5 February 2015

Caring and protecting

I want to thank Far North District Council staff and contractors who kept vital services, such as water and sewerage, running during the peak visitor period. The wave of visitors that hits the District each year puts added pressure on our infrastructure, so it is pleasing to see that we came through this busy period without any major incidents. I also want to acknowledge the countless tourism and service sector businesses that stayed open while many of us had a holiday. New Zealanders and foreign tourists wouldn't flock to the Far North each summer if it lacked great places to eat, rest, stock up on essential supplies and play. It is a pity that the District's reputation was marred by national news headlines about a brutal and senseless attack on American tourists in Paihia. I am sure most people understand we are better than that. I would also like to think that most visitors leave the Far North with a positive impression of the District. It might be the extraordinary kindness of a motorist who drove out of his way to deliver a hitchhiker to a backpacker hostel before darkness or the helpfulness of a teller at a bank or Post Shop. We could become a district that was world famous for the manaakitanga it showed its visitors if every one of us made a little effort to care more about our guests. Often it just takes small actions and an awareness of others.

We could also be world-famous for the way we care about our natural environment. The concept of kaitiakitanga is rooted in the traditional Maori world view, while the flowering of the Landcare movement is one of the great conservation success stories of our nation. It is heartening to see that these traditions are alive and well on our beaches. At Te Oneroa a Tohe/Ninety Mile Beach, Ahipara Komiti Takutaimoana and Ahipara Community CoastCare, have joined forces with the Council in an education campaign aimed at encouraging beach users to respect the fragile coastal environment. I commend these groups for trying to make the beach safer until a statutory board is constituted to manage the beach. I also commend members of the Paihia community who pick up rubbish on Paihia's beaches every fortnight, sometimes filling up to seven bags. Keeping the beaches in our main tourist centre tidy helps to make the Far North a desirable place to visit. I want to thank the group and its founder Craig Salmon for providing this outstanding service to the District. Paihia is a community with a great DIY ethic and I am delighted it is one of three 'Community of the Year' semi-finalists at this year's Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards. Much of the credit for this must go to Focus Paihia which has led a community-driven transformation of Paihia's waterfront into a vibrant public space. I wish Paihia the top prize at the awards on 25 February and urge other communities to look at what this community has achieved by working together.



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