The address by Chris Laidlaw* to the Wellington North Rotary Club 19 November 2016.

The occasion was the dinner celebrating the 50th Birthday of the Club

“Rotary is a great organisation for good; and for fellowship – congratulations to Wgtn North on 50th Anniversary. 50 is a good age – neither young nor old – in one’s prime.

Congratulations also on your anniversary project to establish signs, seating and a peace grove on the section of the great Te Araroa walkway between Kapiti and Wellington. This contribution aligns well with the work the regional council does all around the region, hand in hand with community volunteer groups. In recent years we’ve seen a huge rise in local community identity and pride along with a determination to take responsibility for local wellbeing – it is one of the reasons why the super city option with its dissolution of local identity couldn’t gain traction last year. We underestimate the power of localism at our peril – more of that shortly.

You’ve asked me for my perception of the future –and particularly for this region. No easy task. The pace of change is now so compelling that the cult of short-termism is now the norm. Longer range planning has almost become a form of voodooism. It is today that matters.   Tomorrow? Well, that will just have to take care of itself. This of course has inevitable consequences. Some of the challenges we face in this country are in danger of getting beyond our capacity to deal with.

Here, in my view are the three major challenges this country faces.

The first and biggest is the slow but steady slide toward inequality – something we seem to be incapable of admitting. This society was born essentially out of a drive for egalitarianism. It set us apart from just about any other country on earth. It is still there in our minds but the reality is – like many other western societies – we’re sleepwalking toward a new Victorian era in which society splits into two – those who have and those who are increasingly desperate. Our short termism effectively prevents us from applying anything more than band aids on a fast growing cancer. I don’t need to tell you of the risks to stability that this poses.

The second is the increasingly unaffordable cost of public services. Our expectations and entitlements have outstripped our national income. This is manifest right across the board – in central and local government and it is not sustainable. The starkest example is in health. I’m on the Capital Coast District Health Board (CCDHB) witnessing a rapidly escalating bill for an increasingly aging population with chronic health problems that are the product of bad diets and lack of exercise. And we keep adding new drugs and new ways of patching people up and the health budget rises to dangerous levels. Escalating child obesity rates guarantee that the long term costs of health will overwhelm the national budget. The clinicians have been warning the body politic for years that more radical action is needed – to outlaw junk food and drinks in particular but that – for political and commercial reasons remains distinctly unpalatable. Something’s got to give, and soon.

The third big factor is an alarming disengagement from politics accompanied by a growing cynicism among the bulk of the population – and especially among the young who have effectively tuned out completely. One of the key reasons for this is the corrosive nature of party politics. If one party declares that this or that policy is good then the other is morally or tactically obliged to declare that it isn’t, even if they secretly acknowledge that it makes sense. A vast amount of time and resources is wasted in this perpetual pantomime and the public have – quite understandably –grown tired of it. Now, you might say that partisan politics are the lifeblood of our system and there’s some truth in that. But, here and in just about every other democracy on the planet, that sterile contest has led to alienation and deep cynicism. Here again, something’s got to give.

These big challenges need to be acknowledged but solutions simply can’t be engineered in a context of partisan politics. There are however some promising lights on the horizon. A few years ago – faced by political gridlock when it came to arresting the alarming decline in water quality with all the environmental risks this implied – not least to NZ’s rather smug assumption that this was the cleanest and greenest land on earth – a number of key participants, farmers, environmentalists, local government regulators, decided to form what became known as ‘The Land and Water Forum’ to chart a way forward, independent of partisan political interference. This led to a grudging acceptance by both main parties that the process should be allowed to unfold on its merits and the result has been substantial advances in environmental bottom lines. In that way both national and labour – and of course the greens – were able to share the credit. We need more of this kind of non-partisan collaborative approach to the big, challenging issues. To lift some issues out of the parliamentary bull-pen and by mutual consent deal with them in an independent politics free zone, as the The Land and Water Forum has managed to do. Having the debate around these in parliament is usually a kiss of death to any genuine consensus. And we see evidence of that almost every day.

I have been going round the country calling for more of this, as have others but it won’t be easy to engineer without the public demanding that the body politic get out of the way and allow those who can find solutions to do so. In the end of course its parliament’s job to give effect to any such consensus through legislation but by then it’s too late – and too unpopular – to start unpicking the consensus.

Anyway, having got that off my chest let me turn to this region’s challenges. And where the regional council figures in these.

One of the most notable features of the regional council is the fact that very few people have more than the vaguest notion of what it does. For years, we and other regional councils round the country have more or less flown under the public radar. That’s begun to change however as public attention focusses more and more on big issues like transport and environmental degradation. And of course the elephant in the local body room -amalgamation.

Regional Councils are the product of the 1980s reorganisation of local government. They were established for the express purpose of dealing with the environmental and land management responsibilities of the old catchment boards. The Resource Management Act codified many of these responsibilities and gave regional councils a very solid list of regulatory functions. From the very beginning there were areas of overlap between Regional and District Councils that today still cause confusion and extra cost. But for us the most challenging aspect has been taking responsibility for regional public transport. Transport governance in this country is little short of a dog’s breakfast. In one corner you have the government, which, through the ministry of transport is responsible for overall land transport policy. Then you have the NZ transport agency which is the funding and delivery body. This is where it starts to get complicated. Government is responsible for all state highways and local councils look after all other local roads. Railways are different. Kiwi Rail, the government SOE owns most of the infrastructure, the main trunk freight and passenger services and the locomotives. Regional Councils own commuter stations but not the platforms – the government owns them. This regional council also owns the commuter rolling stock – minus the locomotives – which it bought from Kiwi Rail for a dollar a decade or so ago and has been steadily upgrading ever since at eye-watering cost to regional ratepayers( I hope I haven’t lost anybody yet – it gets worse)

Around the country, there are Regional Transport Committees composed of all the various stakeholders and managed by regional councils. These RTCS are charged with prioritising all the transport projects in the region in the hope- usually a vain hope – that the government will agree to fund them. In reality the government funds what suits it and the particular ideology of the day. Regional Councils have particular responsibility for public transport and they put together policies and priorities around fares, services, ticketing etc. They must negotiate with the Government as to which initiative gets funded – or part funded because the Government picks up part of the cost and the local community picks up the rest according to a complex and ever shifting formula. This is not a landscape on which easy decisions are ever made.

That became obvious when it came to getting a decision on the Basin Reserve flyover recently. The Government, the Regional Council and Wellington City Council found themselves in a three ring circus surrounded by passionate and often hostile citizens who objected to NZTA’s highly engineered solution – a bridge or flyover. Remember, this route is a state highway under the control of the government who had pledged the funding. The regional council’s primary preoccupation was and still is with creating a freer flowing system for the bus rapid transit system around the basin. We tried not to take sides when it came to how that could be achieved but in the end, when it became apparent that NZTA were hell-bent on one option only, the flyover, we had little choice. Wellington Council City didn’t much like the flyover either but they too succumbed when NZTA threatened to take their money elsewhere. As you know it all ended in tears when the court threw out the flyover and we are now back to the drawing board – the 3 ring circus is examining other options and this will take more time and more of your money to resolve.

You are probably thinking there has to be a cleaner and simpler way of doing all this and you are dead right. Shifting that massive machinery isn’t going to be easy however and this issue, too, cries out for some independent analysis a la Land and Water Forum.

We are faced with some tough decisions in the immediate future. One of these is the trolleybus network owned and operated under contract to the council by NZ Bus. Trolleybuses were a great invention in the 1940s and Wellington’s trolleybuses have served us well for decades. Now, however, they have reached the end of their useful lives and a decision has been made to decommission them in 2017. When I took over the chairmanship of the Regional Council I asked why on earth we would want to get rid of the only genuinely emission-free transport option available. The reasons are pretty stark. First, while some of the buses superstructures themselves are in reasonable shape their mechanics – the expensive bits – are severely dilapidated. So too are the electricity sub-stations round the city which the network depends upon; there has been massive deferred maintenance over the years. Then there is the overhead wiring and associated infrastructure. This too is in a parlous state and the number of breakdowns is causing huge disruptions to timetables which commuters depend upon. There is also a lack of flexibility in the systems with trolleybus routes and that severely constrains the whole operation. So, the trolleys have to go and we have explained to people who protest that it would be irresponsible to impose on ratepayers the tens of additional millions of dollars to keep them going. We are hard enough pressed funding the new Matangi trains without throwing more money at a technology whose time has come and gone.

Paul Swain, the chairman of the Regional Transport Committee and I have been working with the government, the bus operators, NZTA and other stakeholders to chart out a pathway to transformation of the Wellington bus fleet from diesel to full electric as quickly as the technology and the price permits. There is a refreshing new enthusiasm for this emerging and the minister, Simon Bridges has been personally very supportive of the drive to full electric vehicles – perhaps missing out the transitional hybrid technology altogether. We are arranging to have a demonstration electric bus on the road in Wellington as early in the new year as possible as a symbol of things to come and the ambition is to have Wellington as the first entirely electric bus city in the country.

I see this as an essential element in the Regional Council’s overall mandate. We were originally established as an environmental protection agency and I intend to make sure we live up to that.

Part of that environmental responsibility is in the equally challenging land and water management arena. There is very little understanding of the extent of the council’s work across the region in flood protection, hazard management, biosecurity, pest management, the preservation of biodiversity and the promotion of more sustainable farming practices. Many people ask me how green this region is – really – as compared to other parts of the country. The answer to that is we are probably the most environmentally sound of any region. There is a comparatively higher proportion of our waterways and coastal waters which are in good condition. There are effective wildlife corridors throughout the region; we have all but eliminated bovine TB and we are making more progress than other regions on pest management. There is less erosion-prone land here than elsewhere and far less intensive farming. But there are some daunting challenges nevertheless. Taking our cue from the Land and Water Forum the Regional Council has just been through a mammoth exercise designed to consolidate all our environmental plans – for air, freshwater, the coasts, discharges to land and soil quality – into a single comprehensive plan setting minimum standards and providing timelines for our farmers, businesses, local councils and residents to meet these.

We have done this in a unique way by weaving Maori values and practices into the plan through a joint Maori – non-Maori committee and it has been very satisfying to be able to harmonise Maori concepts such as “kaitiakitanga” and “mauri” with hard science in identifying the way forward. Many of us have discovered that Maori traditional resource management practices are exactly the same as our modern scientifically based approaches. We have taken this approach out into each of the five great river catchments around this region to engage with local people to customise the natural resources plan to suit the values and aspirations of those communities. It is an approach that’s taking on in several other parts of the country and the government is well on the way to codifying it in legislation; because it works. And because the Land and Water Forum laid the ground for bipartisan support for it.

There’s no doubt that here in Wellington and elsewhere round the country people – particularly younger people – are becoming far less tolerant of declining water quality, compromised landscapes, a dangerously cavalier attitude to climate change and antiquated approaches to waste management. As I said before this country is sleepwalking its way to major trouble and when it comes to environmental management we have more to lose than just about any other nation on the planet. Too many of us see no irony at all in the pretentious 100% pure slogan that became the tourism board’s meaningless mantra. It might have been good for business in a superficial way but being found out on environmental integrity would have the opposite effect; and it would hurt all of us.

I’ve personally realised from all this that progress toward cooperation between political institutions is really only possible if you build relationships based on trust. That’s precisely what is needed when it comes to this whole question of amalgamation. You will have watched, probably in amazement, as warfare broke out a year or two ago between councils round this region over the question of a so-called Super City. The proposal itself emerged – not just because of the precedent of a full-scale merger imposed on Auckland by legislation – but because rivalries and personality clashes between councils had effectively prevented any rational discussion of how we could all work in a more integrated way and save money as a result. In other words it was born out of sheer frustration.

We at the Regional Council wanted to see far more joined up approaches in water management, spatial planning, economic development, climate change and hazard management, and a rationalisation of the clunky overlapping responsibilities when it comes to Resource Management planning. We couldn’t get anywhere on any of these until the threat of total amalgamation became real as a result of the local government commission’s proposal. Alas, it all deteriorated into knock down drag out guerrilla warfare and the result was inevitable.

Apart from the many potential benefits of amalgamation that got lost in the gunfire, this episode delivered up two very distinct lessons.

The first is – never underestimate the power of localism. As soon as it became clear that local identities – whether at the level of whole towns, or the smallest suburb, were to be subsumed into a series of amorphous geographically based boards, the game was effectively lost. Several threatened mayors played very effectively on these fears and the Local Government Commission promptly lost its nerve.

The Second was of course that turkeys never vote for Xmas no matter how festive the decorations.

I’ve taken the view that we will get nowhere until a greater measure of trust among civic leaders is restored – to the point where we can frankly discuss the practicalities of joined up services. There isn’t the slightest doubt that we stand to gain immeasurably from a more integrated approach. There are economies of scale that cry out to be exploited and the importance of pushing ahead with a comprehensive spatial plan for the region to bring order and longer term coherence to economic activity, water and waste infrastructure, housing development, resource management and transport is a no-brainer.

Happily the Local Government Commission has recognised this and has begun to make haste slowly. Again, this is all about relationship building and that’s where most of my energy is now directed. And we’re making good progress.

There are however some pressing issues right in front of the regional community. One is the need to future proof our infrastructure against natural hazards. It is one thing to earthquake proof the most vulnerable buildings. It is another to provide for safe drinking water in the days and weeks after a major event. The hard truth is that Wellington City will be completely isolated if we have an earthquake on the main fault through the city and harbour. Freshwater supplies would take far longer than most people imagine to restore and we are currently looking at an alternative and suitably resilient cross-harbour pipeline from Petone to Hataitai to help alleviate what would become a potentially disastrous shortage. And you can’t live without water for very long.

It is now very plain, whatever you might think about who or what causes global warming, that we are in for more and more sudden and very nasty weather events that will cause havoc in floodplains and around coastal communities in particular. All the attention seems to be focused on sea-level rise but that is only one aspect of the threat. Localised rain bombs like the one that hit Hutt City a few weeks ago are it seems becoming the norm and they can have devastating effects. One thing is clear; the age of geoengineering solutions is on the way out. Raging rivers and battering seas have little respect for structures designed to resist them. The trouble with waterways is that they have an infuriating habit of deciding for themselves what to do next and we have seen the futility of building in well established floodplain zones, or in coastal areas where the sea is destined to win no matter what you put up against it. What we, in concert with district and city councils, have to agree on is a collective game plan for what’s now familiarly known as managed retreat. And that isn’t easy when property values and lifestyles are at stake. Some councils round this region – often against the advice of the regional council – have continued to allow houses and businesses to be built in designated floodplain areas and coastal hazard zones and affected property owners are understandably outraged when they discover this.

And we have equally daunting uncertainties as we enter a round of contract negotiations with bus and train operators who are bidding to run our public transport systems over the next decade or two. Transport absorbs a far greater proportion of the council’s budget than we will ever be comfortable with and the bills just keep rolling in. You may be aware of the fact that the Government has just let it be known that they are going to cap the amount of money available for use of the Gold Card on public transport. In other words all future growth in patronage among us pensioners – and it is projected to be very substantial – will have to be loaded on rates rather than taxes. Nice for the government but yet another burden for regional councils. Remember that when next year’s rate rise is announced.

I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to take over the Chairmanship of Wellington’s regional council when I was first asked to consider it. After four months in the job I’ve found I’m loving it. I like the relationship building challenge and I am utterly convinced that we can achieve a workable balance between protecting our natural capital and building a really innovative 21st century society here in the greater Wellington area. If we trust each other enough to work together that is.”

*Chris Lailaw is the Chairman of The Greater Wellington Regional Council and is a member of the following Council organizations.