A return to study


Rather than write a piece about politics, or some other aspect of society today I thought I would look at my journey through tertiary education and how it has both benefited and frustrated my attempts to work in local government. It sheds light on

I became interested in local government because of my father working for North Canterbury Catchment Board and then later on for Environment Canterbury. I was interested because I realized that whilst utilities are boring to most people, their maintenance and well being is critical to our well being. From that I deduced that I could either sit back and hope that someone else looks after them for me and for everyone else, or I could take a proactive route and find a way of working for the agencies that are delegated responsibility for them.

After about 2002 I gave on my original goal of working on active volcanoes. My mathematics was not brilliant, and I was struggling with geology at undergraduate level. I figured out at the end of my undergraduate degree that I would need to go back and study something at postgraduate level, but I did not know what.

As I have high blood pressure I had to take a more measured route, and after a short break I went back to study in 2005 for a Postgraduate Diploma of Science in Hazard Management. I could not do it full time, did not qualify for Honours due to my G.P.A. Students then that did Honours and passed were pretty much a shoo in for job they picked, as indeed some of those in my year were talking about job offers they had picked up before they had even finished their academic study. I finished my Postgraduate Diploma of Science at the end of 2006.

After a 18 months full time work at a super market I picked up a job at Environment Canterbury in 2008, which whilst casual would last 2 1/3 years and give me a significantly greater insight into local government, where I have the most desire to work. During that time though, something happened in terms of the qualifications and experience needed. I have found in more recent years with a flood of graduates coming out of universities with recognized planning qualifications that my ability to get a job in a city/district/regional council somewhere is not flash unless I have a formal qualification.

This lead me to enrol at Massey University in 2013. No particular qualification was selected because I was just wanting to see if I still had the willingness to learn new stuff. I did, but I quickly realized I would have trouble funding it, and very reluctantly backed away. Three years and a botched attempt at returning in the second half of 2016 followed. I decided after that to enrol at Open Polytechnic which offered a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management.

Aside from being my biggest academic success to date, the Graduate Diploma opened my eyes to things such as environmental economics, the  role of the media and also issues around conducting high level research. I was able to test my ability to conduct such research in an assessment that was 80% of a paper and 20% of the entire diploma.

I believe that whilst many of the candidates are probably sincere in wanting a council planning job and may know stuff I do not, I wonder what sort of grounding they had. Did they do geography and get an appreciation for humans and the environment in a spatial and temporal context? Did they do any biology or environmental science and realize that there is more truth in Sir David Attenborough’s words than we think? Would they be there because they really genuinely believe in the mission of their organization or would it be just a proverbial vehicle for them to help drive until they found something better and more suited them. Whatever the case, I wish them the best, but at the same time I wonder.

Some of the decisions that are taken by elected councils come across as questionable, or give the impression that elected officials have taken on a mind of their own, there is a catch 22 situation involved. They have to maintain a degree of fiscal responsibility when planning budgets for each year, yet at the same time it is necessary to ensure that councils are adequately staffed and resourced for the work their permanent staff are expected to do. A half baked policy is more likely to be the output of a planning staff that lack either competent staff to do the job or the knowledge/skill base necessary. Given the number and complexity of the problems dogging elected councils around the country, maybe it is time to look at how and who they hire.

Now I am back for a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning from Massey University. I still have the same interest in council planning process that I had when I was doing GEOG 444 at University of Canterbury. I still believe that if given a chance I can make an honest go of a job. And if not, it won’t be for a lack of trying to get a foot in the door. Or for attempting to get relevant qualifications!

 

Early rumblings in 2019 local government elections


The first rumbles of the 2019 local government elections are starting to reverberate through the political landscape of New Zealand local government. Although the main campaign period is some months away, it has not stopped several notable local politicians from announcing they are standing Mayor.

In Auckland, former Labour Member of Parliament John Tamihere has announced his intention to stand against incumbent Mayor of Auckland and one time Minister of Justice, Phil Goff. Mr Tamihere proposes to open up the council finances to Aucklanders so that they are able to better see where their rate payer dollars are going.

Further south in Christchurch, incumbent Mayor Lianne Dalziel has announced that she will stand for a third term in office. Ms Dalziel secured the mayoralty in 2013 after much of the Christchurch City Council was voted out following a controversy – and disaster ridden – second term by the then Mayor Bob Parker. During her tenure, Councillor Raf Manji has rebalanced the council books which showed serious flaws, including considerably under-estimating the value of Christchurch’s assets when filing a claim with the insurance companies over earthquake damage.

Also possibly standing for Mayor is Councillor Jamie Gough, linked to businessman Anthony Gough who was one of the major private players in the dividing up of C.B.D. land. Mr Gough’s decision to announce a possible stand was in part informed by the growth of council projects that amount to unnecessary expenditure, but also a need to rein in rates.

However, since then, a tendency by the council to embark on projects that do have necessarily have sufficient or appropriate rate payer support, has resulted in much criticism being laid. They include a current plan to redesign Riccarton Road to have a traffic island with green space down the middle, unnecessary arts installations around the city including random steel sculptures set in the middle of the Avon River. Also planned is what I call an arty farty design around the perimeter of Cathedral Square which in my opinion do nothing for it.

Worryingly for some districts where the population base is quite tiny, a person can stand for council and get in simply because in their ward there might not be anyone else standing. Such a situation to me suggests two things:

  1. Local Government politics are simply not worth most peoples time
  2. Perhaps these small districts whose population base in some cases is only a few thousand should be looking at being dissolved into their neighbouring districts

In other councils such as Westland District Council, which has been rocked by scandal, rate payers will be looking forward to enacting a change of guard. The W.D.C., which in 2016 was made to admit that it had hired a company that bakes cakes to do work on a waste treatment plant in Franz Josef, that due hiring processes had not been followed. All of this which resulted in multiple high profile departures

Watch this space as we move further into 2019 and other potential candidates put their hands up to be a on a local board, council or even mayor.

 

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Tourism – Part 1


When one is on holiday, it is a chance to note how the locals live and what one can learn from the experience. As a tourist through the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands, I kept a photographic record of what I saw. This part focuses on tourism in Europe.

Starting off in the United Kingdom I visited central London over the course of several days. It is a nice city with much history. The congestion in the central city, despite the efforts of the local councils to reduce it is still as present as ever. I found that there were parts that were really clean and lovely and parts that were not so great. The grounds of the attractions were clean and well maintained, but the number of people just casually stubbing out cigarettes on the ground and leaving them there at railway stations like London Paddington was disappointing, as was the sight of full up rubbish bins that obviously needed urgent emptying.

The old town quarters in Stockholm and Goteburg were cleaner. That might have more to do with the banning of non emergency and service vehicles from them. As cars did not exist when the streets were first laid down, it is also too narrow for them to safely manoeuvre. But the great aspect of this was, as a tourist on foot, you did not need to worry about being run over, and it also enabled street artists to perform their crafts and let audiences gather to watch.

These centres also had nice pedestrian friendly squares where much activity was taking place. Again, no cars unless they are service or emergency vehicles. These public areas were being used for concerts and other public events, as well as food, craft stalls and buskers. I saw good examples of this in Amsterdam, Stockholm and Brussels.

Public square in Stockholm, Sweden, with the creamy coloured building housing the Nobel Prize Museum (R. GLENNIE)

Small towns such as Ypres had their own centres of public attention. Each night at Ypres, which spent most of World War 1 within both German and Allied artillery range, there is a short ceremony to acknowledge the huge loss of lives in the five battles that took place around it. The ceremony happens daily at 2000 hours at Menin Gate, which is this huge arch over one of the vehicle entry points into the old town. Roughly 800-1000 people turn up each night. Each panel in the walls of the arch from top to bottom are filled with the names of dead Australians, British, Canadian and other allied nationalities who fought in the battles.

The daily remembrance ceremony at Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

Others, such as Brugge did not so much have a focal point, as a wide range of craft stores. Brugge is renown for its chocolate, waffles and craft beers – all specialties of Belgium. Bars, restaurants and cafes as well museums with rich local histories all help make the flavour of the town. To cap it off, a functional wind mill and historic watch towers also exist in the town limits.

The need to understand “bureaucracy”: Something not all politicians do


Now that A.C.T. Leader David Seymour has announced his intention to return his party to its traditional small government, lower taxes stance, one has to wonder how long it will be before the employees of city, district and regional councils around the country find themselves in his sights. Whilst the A.C.T. Party has yet to say anything about local council bureaucracy, its swing at central Government with a promise to lower M.P. numbers to 100 and reduce the Executive to 20 Ministers, would not have gone unnoticed by the Public Service Association. So, how well do politicians, Mr Seymour included, actually understand how city, district and regional councils work?

Shortly after the Government appointed Commissioners took over Environment Canterbury in 2010 there was a critical commentary in The Press asking what the 500 staff (myself included at the time) did there. The commentator might have been genuinely curious or not have knowledge of council’s statutory requirements and thereby possibly not an awareness of why so many staff exist. Also there is a perception among many politicians that public servants are just a bunch of paper pushers creating endless documents and trying to set policies about which they know nothing. This is not true in many respects, not least those “bureaucrats” are employed to do the statutory work that their Ministry or Department of the Crown requires.

At a city, district or regional council one is going to need policy planners who know how the statutory plans prepared in accordance with Resource Management Act and Local Government Act requirements. Those plans are reviewed by statutory requirement every several years and shorter term plans which reflect more immediate priorities that are consistent the longer term goals and objectives have to be prepared. There is also the prospect that a developer proposing something like a new subdivision will have looked at an existing plan, found that their proposed activity is non compliant and ask for a Plan Change to be made to enable their activity. For all such activities qualified planners are needed.

To ensure that that work gets done one needs a range of support staff from across a number of disciplines. At a regional council for example people with knowledge of Geographic Information Systems are needed to translate environmental data such as ground water wells, zones at risk from debris flows or liquefaction into maps that spatially display the data. To get that data in the first place and do the physical analysis specialists such as hydro geologists, possibly engineering geologists and so forth will be needed. Planning staff will be from a range of planning backgrounds such as urban, environmental and transport and will also include policy analysts.

A council has a difficult balancing act to do. Do it hire an extra planner part time on a permanent basis to take some of the administrative pressure off the full time staff. Or does it hire a fixed term full time planner who is only around for a couple of years. Given that their budget comes from the rates people pay, they need to choose carefully.

So, to cut a long story short, this idea that they are all “paper shunters” is really misleading if not out right wrong.

 

Local Government Act 2002 becoming convoluted


As we approach the end of the third term of this Government, it is important to look back at how the legislation defining local government in New Zealand has changed. Since 2008, a number of changes have been made that significantly alter how local councils operate and the obligations that they are expected to meet. As many of these changes have flown under the radar many New Zealanders are not aware that they even happened.

To understand how the Local Government Act 2002 came to be in its current state, we need to look at prior legislation. One of these prior Acts of Parliament is the Local Government Act 1974, which among other things made provision for the establishment of District Councils, Regional Councils, Unitary Authorities,

Prior to the 2002 Act being passed by Parliament, the 1974 legislation was quite prescriptive in terms of what councils were permitted to do. The newer legislation gave councils the flexibility to choose activities and how they are undertaken, viewed as relating to general competence and applicable in equal terms to both regional councils and territorial authorities. Since then these changes have been amended by the Local Government Amendment Act, 2010. This was prompted by public perceptions that there were councils over reaching their prescribed mandate to spend money on activities and items that are not permitted in the Local Government Act.

One such case was Kaipara District Council which in the end was found to have not breached the Act, after a dispute over the Mangawhai waste water scheme. The Auditor General agreed to pay out $5.4 million in settling the dispute.

Another is Westland District Council, which has been found wanting over repairs to infrastructure damaged by flooding in 2016. W.D.C. have had a long, drawn out and at times messy public dispute with key council managers and the Chief Executive, which have led to some high profile resignations. Although it is not clear if the Act was breached, given that a cake decorating firm with no prior knowledge of waste water was involved in a multi-million dollar contract, I think it is safe to say something went wrong.

In acknowledging the 1974 Local Government Act and the 2002 Local Government Act, it is important to briefly acknowledge the 1989 Local Government Amendment Act. This Act acknowledged that the increasingly complex, convoluted and potentially dysfunctional L.G.A. 1974 needed a significant overhaul. To that end it dismantled or merged 850 separate bodies into 86. Of those 850 there had been 249 municipalities and the other 601 were catchment boards, drainage boards and harbour boards. The current configuration includes 13 regional councils and 73 territorial authorities (City and District Councils).

In 2012 there were changes made that repealed Sections 91 and 92, which pertain to the processes for identifying community outcomes and obligations to report against said community outcomes. This essentially meant councils were no longer obligated to indicate how they were progressing in terms of creating healthy integrated communities, compared with the outcomes identified in council planning papers. In the same year, the powers of the Minister were significantly increased (s257-259) so as to permit the appointment of a Crown Observer, Crown Manager, a Commision or even calling of general elections of a council in place of one thought to be incapable of performing its statutory obligations.

I fear that if too many more Amendment Acts are passed that the Local Government Act 2002 will be too convoluted to remain in existence, thereby becoming obsolete.