On the closing date for nominations for last year’s Auckland Council elections, young Glenfield resident youth worker Richard Hills decided to run, submitting his papers that day. Life has changed a lot for him since: he is now Auckland’s youngest serving councillor, and a personal friend of the Prime Minister.
Channel’s Heather Vermeer met him at Marlborough Park, a place close to his heart...
“I asked if you’d to meet me here because I’ve had a lot to do with this place,” Richard explains after emerging from his small white car, stylishly-suited and with a ready hug. Firstly, he explains how rare it is that he drives; preferring public transport hands down. He then goes on to expand on his involvement with this place. To say that he’s had ‘a lot to do with this place’ where we stand, is understatedly true.
The Glenfield park, near where Richard grew up, contains a recently opened youth centre and vibrant playground complex; the culmination of years of effort from him.
Richard is a Shore-born, family man. The eldest of three, he has received from his two younger sisters and his parents the kind of unflinching support we would all hope for in an ideal world.
“They’re great role models,” he volunteers. “My parents have always been community people, very caring. I’m so grateful to have the support that I have from my family, my partner and my friends, who I can zone out with! They are so thoughtful and understanding about the hours I put in. I’m lucky they allow me the space to be an elected member."
Work hours can stretch over 70 per week, Richard says. It’s clear he puts his heart into this role – community action requires passion. This passion first came to the fore when he was in primary school. With a group of other local schoolchildren, Richard approached the Local Board at the time with a proposal to create better facilities for young people in the area. It was a pivotal moment.
“The response was quite negative. Actually, the response was hostile. I think that was when I thought ‘how do we get other younger voices into local decision-making?’”
This is how:
He went on to Glenfield Intermediate, Glenfield College, then AUT, where he completed a Bachelor of Communications. In 2010 he was convinced to stand for election to the Kaipatiki Local Board by former MP, Auckland councillor and mayor Ann Hartley, a woman he greatly admires. He served two terms on the Kaipatiki Local Board while working as a youth worker in high schools across the Shore and wider Auckland.
He’s now sitting outside the new youth centre where he worked – in partnership with The Kaipatiki Community Facilities Trust, most other board members and local youth – to transform from a ‘tired, run-down old hall’ into a ‘new, activated youth-focused space’. He has made what he wanted to happen, happen: getting new voices into local decision-making and creating better facilities for local young people.
“It’s so awesome to have these facilities here,” he enthuses about the playground, the basketball courts, the grassy areas, the community hall that provides so much: free health advice for young people, a space for events, and ‘it’s available at times, for people to hire too’. He speaks like a proud father. “It was my vision and hope for this place to happen, and it’s really taken off!”
The completion of the new youth centre coincided with Richard’s election to Auckland Council last October. The playground opened this spring. Done. Onto the next project. And he’s taken on rather a big one as a fresh-faced councillor. When George Wood stood down from Auckland Council just before the last election, Richard explains, a number of people from the community encouraged him to stand. He says: “I jumped at the chance! I ran a positive campaign and it was a privilege to be elected, with a 128-vote majority.”
It’s clear he puts his heart into this role – community action requires passion. And this passion first came to the fore when he was in primary school.
As well as Ann Hartley, another woman he greatly admires is his friend, and Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. "I have a great personal connection to Jacinda," he says. "I was so excited for her to get in [as Prime Minister]. I have spoken to her about youth issues, the environment, public health, housing, for many years. We both share a passion about supporting people with mental health issues. She's spoken to me a lot about this."
A political passion they also share is public transport. Richard tells me he secured double-decker buses for Glenfield and Birkenhead areas, and that transport is a main focus for him on council, namely: “Investment in public transport, kicking off big projects like the Lake Road upgrade and Skypath, and to get commitment for a new rail crossing to the Shore”.
His other main priority is affordable housing: “I want local young people to be able to afford to stay in this area,” he says.
“We grew by 50,000 people over the last year, yet there were only 6,500 new houses built. I know here in Glenfield we have people living in garages and cars, 13 or 14 people living in one house, and it’s not good for anyone – those directly involved or us as a wider community. That is not going to produce good outcomes for anyone.
“People sometimes think the North Shore is fine and dandy, but there are issues right across the spectrum. I like to get people to realise the Shore is not always the stereotype people think it is, and I also think we are a lot more community-focused on the Shore than people imagine from the outside.”
Another of his passions is political and community engagement among local people, particularly youth. He sees social media as an ideal way to do this. He likes being part of the Twitter community, and uses Facebook and Instagram to share information and photos.
“I want to help increase participation within the political and council process,” he says. “I see social media as a great thing, that can also be a poisoned chalice. For those councillors who don't do social media, it's probably quite a bit more relaxing out of work hours," he smiles.
"Some people say it's anti-social media and that my generation is too focused on it, but I see it as a great way to keep connected. It can be isolating for some people, I know that. But if you can manage to keep it for positive connections, then it's a good thing."
He is dutifully conscientious about responding to the Aucklanders he serves. "I can have 50 or 60 people contact me in any one day, and I may have been in consecutive meetings until 9pm. It does sometimes seem overwhelming.
“Sometimes you just can’t get back to everyone straight away, but I do my best. I've always worked hard for everything I've done.”
Richard displays an ounce of frustration at only one point during our conversation. "I think some people hate either Council or politicians in general. It is quite sad when we think we have worked 60-70 hour weeks…
“I am quite defensive of Council, and all the staff who do this work for good reasons. People have different opinions; one person might want us to fix a road, then another will complain about the roadworks! It's impossible to please everyone. You've got to have thick skin. But I do wonder how you can get people to see that we are doing our best."
Does he ever switch off? “At around midnight I try to switch off," he laughs. "And when I go to the movies! The movies is great for a break as you actually can’t be on your phone.
“I find I actually have to go away to get a proper break though. Dad’s side of the family are from Cooper’s Beach area, so we've always gone up north with the family. I like to go up there to zone out."
And that is where he will get married this summer. In February, he and his partner of 11 years will wed on his uncle’s Northland farm. He tells me how he proposed on a rowing boat in New York’s Central Park a couple of years ago, and he's joyfully animated as he talks about the family farm wedding. I wonder if his friend Jacinda has the date in her calendar.