Consultation with the public will be key to some of
the issues facing the Otago Regional Council in 2013, writes
councillor Trevor Kempton.
In 2010, I stood for election to the Otago Regional Council,
eager to contribute to striking the all-important balance
between preserving what we value as a community and
fulfilling our economic aspirations.
I came from a career in business where, likewise, striking
this balance is the bedrock on which many successful
companies are founded. Many of the disciplines I found in
public enterprise are very similar to those in good private
enterprise; none more so than the discipline of strategic and
business planning. However, one major difference was the
degree of stakeholder communication and engagement involved
in this planning process.
Unlike private enterprise, where the shareholder is by
definition the primary stakeholder, in public enterprise the
stakeholders are the communities we serve.
My council's strategies are described in policy statements
and resource plans which set out the terms on which our
communities interact with their natural environment. The
consequential business activities of the council and their
financial implications are then set out in a specific
long-term plan and refined in an annual plan.
Before the reform of local government in the late 1980s, what
and how much the public heard from their councils had a good
deal to do with the natural inclination of the elected head
and their senior officials to communicate; and then,
generally, on a one-way basis. Officialdom generally had
little appetite for a two-way process.
With the reforming legislation of the late 1980s and
subsequent amendments, a much more comprehensive set of
minimum requirements for stakeholder engagement and
consultation have evolved.
All council policy statements and resource plans are exposed
to public consultation, as are the long-term and annual plans
setting out proposed activities and the rating implications
of those activities. Any proposed changes to those plans must
also be exposed to public scrutiny and comment.
I recall a great deal of concern from elected representatives
and communities that statutory consultation processes would
slow up decision-making and create a great deal more
bureaucracy. My observation is that the processes have, in
the main, raised the quality of planning and decision-making
and have certainly not hindered the ability of local
government to undertake record levels of infrastructure
development during the past 20 years to meet the demands of
growth and rapidly rising community expectations.
Yes, the formal processes now required by statute have added
more bureaucracy. Some of this is necessary if plans which
better reflect community aspirations are to emerge. There is
a view in both central and local government that significant
streamlining can be achieved.
In the time since my election I have gained a high level of
respect for the public consultation process. However,
feedback I receive strongly suggests that this is not
mirrored across our constituency. I often hear comments such
as ''consultation is just a box-ticking exercise and your
mind's made up before you start''.
When a proposal is put to public consultation, the only
decision that has been made by the council is to do just
that. The decision to abandon, proceed with modifications or
proceed as proposed after consultation is an entirely
It is rare the final decision on a council proposal does not
involve at least some change as a result of the consultation
process. However, ironically, significant changes in a plan
proposal are often heralded in the negative as ''back-downs''
or ''flip-flops'', implying that council has been brought to
account by submitters - much more newsworthy, I guess, than
simply representing it as ''local democracy in action''.
The regional council and our stakeholders are facing up to
some major issues which have the long-term balancing of the
regional economy and environmental wellbeing at their core.
The water quality strategy proposed in water plan change 6A
has seen these interests meet head-on. Deciding on the
outcome will be an important item on the council agenda in
early 2013. Consultation on the proposed Tarras irrigation
investment, which would help the economic development of the
area and produce some collateral environmental benefits (or
vice versa, depending on your inclination), is under way.
This will provide the council with interesting feedback on
the community appetite for investment, with some rating
implications, and potentially shape future thinking.
These issues are tough and with ever-increasing pressures
around both the drive for economic growth and the state of
the environment in Otago, future decision-making will be no
easier. High levels of community interest focused on the
issues at hand will be vital as we search for sustainable
It is often said democracy delivers us the government we
deserve. Similarly, it could be said the scope and quality of
community involvement in the consultation process delivers
the decisions we deserve. But there is one caveat.
Consultation involves careful listening and consideration.
Agreeing with and being able to incorporate community
contributions is very satisfying. However, not agreeing with
points raised or not adopting a submitter's proposition does
not invalidate the process. We cannot deliver what people
want all of the time. Ultimately, politicians at all levels
are duty bound to do what they believe to be right.
• Trevor Kempton is an Otago regional councillor and
former managing director of Naylor Love Ltd.