NAVIGATING IN A TIME OF UNCERTAINTY

One of the things I have been talking about since being on council is the need for a more strategic approach. I mean a couple of things by this. First, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sidetracked by funding opportunities. Whakatāne District Council is good at prying money out of government hands but it has a cost. We cannot afford to spend time and energy on things that don’t take us where we are trying to go. We need to clearly define, with our communities, what our priorities are, and only seek funding for things that fit those priorities.
Secondly, we live in a time of great uncertainty. Perhaps all generations do, but the pace of change seems to be speeding up. We face real challenges with climate change and resource depletion. There is growing instability from worsening poverty and inequality. Then we have Covid, with all its implications. We need to think strategically about how to face an uncertain future and what our communities need if we want to thrive in a changing world.
Because thrive we can. Our district has huge positives, from fertile soils, to flowing waters, to a rich cultural tapestry, to creative and resilient peoples, to a population willing and able to help itself. The question for council is how we can help rather than hinder those qualities.
In 2020 and 2021 I facilitated a series of workshops with councillors to identify a high level vision and some key priorities. We thought a lot about council’s role, because it is a large organisation that does lots of different things, from planning and consent processing, to running swimming pools, to building roads, to keeping the taps flowing. The purpose of all of that is to enhance the well-being of our communities. We summed that up with the words MORE LIFE IN LIFE – working together to make living better for our communities, now and in the future. This has always been a place of abundance. By working together we can ensure that our descendants enjoy a plentiful future.

To do this we need strong, connected, interdependent, diverse communities. The resilience of our local communities is obvious with every natural disaster, but different communities have different characteristics. This includes real poverty in some, as a result of raupatu and nearly 40 years of neo-liberalism. We need to serve all communities in ways that are relevant for them. We can support connectedness through spatial planning, affordable housing development, good infrastructure, by supporting events and clubs that bring people together, and through civic engagement and fair representation. Interdependence comes out of this connectedness, with the recognition that we are in it together. He waka eke noa.
Council needs to be much better at working constructively and collaboratively with whānau, hapū and iwi. Mana whenua were here as political entities long before our council and they will continue to be here long after it. They are wrapped up in the very identity of half of our population. They control significant resources and they have economic, social and cultural aspirations for their people and the wider district. They act as kaitiaki of their ancestral areas, for the good of all, and they have statutory recognition in a number of Acts of Parliament. Recognising their mana is simply acknowledging those facts.

Local government has a very poor history when it comes to acting against the interests of Māori. We need to repair a relationship that we have damaged. One thing is for sure – we can only truly thrive as a district if we are able to work together towards some shared aspirations.
To do this, and to ensure an abundant future for our descendants, we need to integrate nature into our decision-making. We have to do more than green-washing. This is both about specific programmes, such as the climate change initiatives I have written about before, and about how we design all our activities. As an example we are starting to look at how flood control drains can be rethought as habitat for native species, an example of biophilic design.

An economic system that supports rather than degrades nature is also possible, with a thriving circular economy. I have written about this before but basically a linear economy takes a resource, extracts it, uses it once and then throws it away. A circular economy keeps resources in circulation for as long as possible. It looks at the sustainability of the source of that resource, how it is used, how it is circulated within the economy, and at the end of life how it can be returned to nature in a beneficial way

But it’s not just about the materials. How do we keep money circulating in our local economy rather than draining out? How do we provide education that leads to well paid satisfying work so that our young people don’t need to move away? How well can we meet local needs when things like Covid disrupt supplies? As a large organisation Council is looking at how our procurement spending can better support a local circular economy. We have also been assisting local business planning during Covid and with government funded Kia Kaha and Provincial Growth Fund money.

All of these things are about having a council that is able to face the 21st century with a clear focus rather than reacting with confusion. Our vision and priorities were agreed unanimously by councillors last year, and now we are working on bringing them alive through the whole organisation. It takes time, but we have started.

(First published in the Whakatāne Beacon 28 Jan 2022)

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