April marked my final month as Chair of the local board in this term. The changeover took place on Wednesday April 28th. This was obviously an arrangement that was agreed upon back in October 2019 following the elections. In this, my final report as chair, I have chosen to highlight a few current issues and projects as well as reflect on the 18 months as Chair, a period which was also my first taste of local body politics.
Anzac Day in Takapuna, 2021
I was hugely honoured to lead the commemorations as MC for the event. For the first time I wore the medals of my late grandfather Claude Lowe who serve in Europe and the Middle East during WW2. Thanks for the effort that everyone put in to making this annual commemoration the success that it was.
Challenging period for Auckland Council and Local Boards
My period as Local Board Chair has obviously coincided with one of the most difficult periods that New Zealand has encountered. We were sworn in in late October 2019 and the COVID19 Pandemic hit in March 2020. Much of our early planning and future desires were thrown out the door due to the well documented financial damage of having to shut down the city and then endure the ongoing impact of the pandemic. The added challenge for me has been to apply damage control to our own business during this period.
I want to congratulate everyone at Auckland Council and in Local Board land for the way they have handled this very difficult period. It has been a real challenge, but one that the whole organisation has responded to. As local board chair I have been involved in many meetings and briefings of pandemic management for the city, then the emergency budget and more recently the long term (10 year) plan that has been impacted hugely by the happenings of the past year. I/we have been kept very well informed and consulted during this process by the mayor, councillors and staff.
While being a newbie to all the protocols and processes has meant I have done a lot of listening, I have endeavoured to represent Devonport-Takapuna strongly during this process and at the monthly Chairs Forum meetings. The added challenge has been a high percentage of these meetings and briefings being held on Skype For Business over the past 13 months. Many of our Devonport-Takapuna Local Board meetings and workshops have also been held on Skype For Business.
This clearly hasn’t been an easy time for a first-time local board chair with a focus on progress and making things happen. The resulting (financial) constraints are real and will be with us for some time.
Congratulations to the Mayor Phil Goff, Councillor Desley Simpson who has led the financial recovery process and all councillors and staff who have been involved. There has been a huge effort and the end result has been pretty good.
Community Funding retained and great ‘Renewals’ under way
Despite the COVID19 constraints we have continued to work with our hardworking council and local board staff to deliver what we can for the Devonport-Takapuna area.
The board shares a collective desire to see service levels remain strong at all the council entities that are important to our community. We have worked to maintain funding for these amenities/entities and also for the community trusts, business associations and important not-for-profit groups that we support. We can be very pleased with retaining funding levels for all these entities, despite the financial situation.
‘Renewals’ is council speak for updating council assets that are important for the community. Despite constraints we have a range of renewal projects under way or coming up, these include:- Sunnynook Park Community Area (that includes drainage, a renewed playground and furniture, new paths and surfaces): Milford Reserve Changing Room and Toilet block renewal: Gould Reserve Takapuna Changing Room and Toilet block renewal, including Changing Places Room space so people with severe disability and mobility challenges can wash and change more easily: Additional Play Equipment & Landscaping for Gould Reserve Takapuna: Renewal of Playgrounds at Melrose Reserve, Devonport; Kawerau Reserve, Bayswater/Belmont; Linwood Reserve, Forrest Hill; New toilet at Lake Town Green Playground, Hauraki: Renewing the pathway, seat and handrail at wharf entrance in Killarney Park: Renewing stairway to Rahopara Pa, Kennedy Park, Castor Bay. There is also stage one of the Patuone Walkway upgrade in Takapuna.
We can’t thank Jackie and Chris Reeve enough for their contribution to the two projects in Gould Reserve, Takapuna.
Totally new projects will be harder to deliver for some time. The budgets aren’t around at the moment for totally new projects/assets or to put money into non-essential projects. My belief is it will take a few years of getting over the financial damage and complete committed projects before we can contemplate totally new expenditure.
Our Governance needs to be strong
As I vacate the chair I do have concerns over our ability to be strong in the governance space. As a newbie politician this is an area where I have been seeking to add value.
My belief is that to be strong in governance and do this role justice we must not have any pre-determined positions on such things as selling assets and preparing for the future. Making much-needed change as the needs of our community changes is very important.
My concern, that I have voiced previously, is that there is too much politics at this local level that can lead to decisions being made for the wrong reasons. We need to be able to look at each issue on its merits and make pragmatic decisions accordingly.
There are past and present members who appear to have a stance that we should ‘never sell anything’. I believe this is wrong and my thinking on this matter has only strengthened with being on the inside of local board and Auckland Council business. The council owns lots of land and property with many dated and no longer fit for purpose. These are a problem. There is an aging portfolio of deteriorating assets, with many of them not being used due to community needs changing, not being fit for purpose and in some cases having very low earthquake/seismic/safety ratings. The world has changed since these buildings were built – 30, 40, 50 + years ago.
The cold hard and real fact is that Auckland Council has no money to improve all these properties that came into their portfolio with amalgamation. It’s a problem. There’s a good answer to this problem. It’s called optimisation. Since being elected I have made it my business to find out about this process. It’s good.
The problem is the pre-determined ‘never sell anything’ stance which stymies anything getting done, means nothing gets done. Many properties sit idle or under-utilised, costing the council and therefore the ratepayers money.
I challenge our local media to do balanced reporting on this issue. One local media group appears to take delight in publishing the number of days council owned buildings have been empty in our area due to this problem. How about going a little deeper and discover the creative ways that we can solve these issues – that won’t always be selling them?
The problem is a community problem. Not just a council problem.
A caution against opening up the workshops
I reckon there is a problematic school of thinking that local boards should be involving the community in every decision we are making. It’s seen to be democratic – “nothing should happen behind closed doors” is the catch-cry. I say this is balderdash.
The democratic process is very robust without the need to do that. My belief is we are elected via a rigorous democratic process to do a job. A job of governance on behalf of the community. We are elected members, charged with listening to our community and working closely with council staff to deliver good outcomes for the community. Along the way there are very strong legal requirements for consultation and transparency with the community (in addition to listening), without having to involve them in every meeting.
The danger with involving the community in every meeting, and decision, is the local board is high-jacked by special interest groups or those who have the time and energy to stay close to the process and influence members. It compromises the local board member’s ability to make pragmatic democratic decisions on behalf of the whole community – be truly representative of the silent majority as well as the super-organised special interest groups.
From time-to-time our decisions may be unpopular, but may be important given the facts that elected members have in front of them, if they have done their homework and listened to advice and information provided.
My strong belief is that opening up every local board meeting to the public will actually have the reverse affect to the reasons proponents say. The democratic process will actually be compromised.
Aidan Bennett, QSM
Please note: Views expressed here on important these issues are my own personal opinions.