Mayor Talk: Kickstarting the district

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THE role of local government during a global crisis.

Our district has had more than its fair share of crises in recent times. And although the extent, spread and length of the current pandemic remains uncertain, this will be one of our most challenging by far.

Challenge accepted, but just how should a council respond?

Over the past six weeks, alongside dealing with the health response we have all been considering what a “recovery”might look like. But a recovery suggests we are going back to what we did before, and it has become apparent that we won’t be. We have to reimagine everything we do.

The reason for this is the enormity of the shift we are currently experiencing. We’re in uncharted territory. This pandemic is changing how we work, how we travel, how we communicate and do business, in fact how we live, and if not forever – then for the foreseeable future and in ways we may not yet even realise. A “new normal” is upon us.

So while we don’t have all the answers, we do know that the key to our approach is being agile enough as an organisation to cope with rapidly evolving events and being open to new ways of operating.

As part of this approach we created a 13-step plan as a guide to our district’s recovery, but with a clear understanding that this is a living document and subject to change as the pandemic develops over the coming weeks and months.

The fundamental shift that an event of this magnitude brings can be very unsettling. There are negative impacts we are already witnessing that may take some considerable time to mitigate. Things might be tougher for some time to come. But we also need to recognise that there will be opportunities our district needs be open to, and ready to take advantage of.

How we do this as a council may look and feel quite different to how we’ve operated in the past. For instance, we are likely to be a more obvious and entrepreneurial driver of economic activity and development. We realise that the private sector, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, are doing it tough.

So we’re looking at ways in which the council can stimulate economic growth and create job opportunities while businesses are getting back up to speed.

The same applies to the social, cultural and environmental wellbeing sectors of our community. We will need to think, act and forecast differently but we must still hold fast to the local government kaupapa of inter-generational wellbeing.

To advance, we will need to work closely with central government as it drives economic recovery on a national scale and provides opportunities for us locally. On this front, the Whakatane district has already secured a $36.8 million investment through the Provincial Growth Fund for the new boat harbour; the Town Regeneration Project; and the re-purposing of the army hall into a tourism hub by Te Runanga o Ngati Awa.

And we recently applied to the Crown Infrastructure Partners Fund. This Government initiative offers significant financial support to councils with “shovel ready” projects that have job creation potential and can quickly be implemented.

Our council, alongside our Eastern Bay counterparts, submitted an initial raft of projects valued in excess of $100 million, including: six cycleways projects, four roading projects, four three waters projects and seismic strengthening of the civic centre.

You can be assured that your council is doing everything in its power to take advantage of these and other recovery opportunities. We’re not undertaking this planning in isolation, however, the council is connected locally, regionally and nationally. Through a partnership approach, our aim is to kickstart the local economy back into life again, while at the same time protecting our social and cultural uniqueness.

Part of the advice received from a number of economists to local government is that we should not take an austerity approach to this setback. Nothing would be more tempting right now than pulling back from council projects and activities with a view to cutting costs, but history and clear advice is that this would be the wrong thing to do.

A better approach is to keep people working, continue spending on priority projects and keep the wheels of industry turning. It’s also important that we have skin in the game, as the Government has been clear that it cannot cover all costs.

This is easier said than done when we are acutely aware of the financial hardship that many of our families are experiencing at this time. The council’s current challenge in this space is translating what we know about the impacts of Covid-19 into a budget and annual plan that best responds to our community’s short-term needs.

It will need to allow council to be agile and responsive to the ongoing crisis, but also enable us to meet the future goals and aspirations of our district.

We are putting our minds to how best to achieve this. The last thing we want to do is make knee-jerk decisions based only on current needs and what we know now. Yes we are in the middle of a crisis, but this is precisely the time for clear heads.

The community deserves decisions that make sense now, that create scope for responding to a rapidly changing environment, and that don’t create legacy issues for our children and grandchildren. We want to continue to be good ancestors.

There will be more pain to come. These are uncharted and difficult times, but I want to emphasise that it’s a journey we will be taking with you, and with the intention of re-imagining a brighter future together.

It’s reasonable to assume that the Whakatane district of the future will be different. We’re working hard to ensure it’s even better.