Whatever the outcome of next month's vote on local government amalgamation in Hawke's Bay, the region will be granted a fresh regional leadership opportunity, whether or not it includes structural reform of the region's five councils.

The amalgamation proposal has been a major regional distraction, driving virtually all local government matters. It has been extremely divisive. On the basis of media coverage, separate councils should remain. Accompanying messages say we're "performing acceptably" or similar.

By implication, long-term independence has ably advanced each local council. All Hawke's Bay councils provide first rate infrastructure. All our councils have consistently delivered their customers and ratepayers enhanced value.

If so, how does one explain decades of Hawke's Bay under-performance? There has, unfortunately, been a significant mismatch in the misleading words of some local body politicians and any objective analysis of our long-term economic performance - either by area as determined by council responsibility or the region as a whole. In the early 1970s, Hawke's Bay was on the sheep's back, so to speak. Forty years later we have a sinking regional economy, one which consistently underperforms compared with most New Zealand regions.


The reality of our daily life is that we live and work in a borderless community and not in unconnected cells. Interdependency across our region is the fabric that makes us unique, two complementary larger cities and two smaller towns with reliance on our rural sector. Thousands of Napierites travel to work daily in Hastings (and vice versa). Many Hawke's Bay residents view Napier as the region's prime retail centre; most of the region's manufacturing/production is Hastings-based. The by-product of our longstanding regional discord is observers - especially those from outside Hawke's Bay - viewing us as highly dysfunctional.

It has been indicated to me three times since March in Wellington government circles, that some New Zealand regions are able to effectively connect with central government. These regions also comprise separate councils, however they place importance on always being well-dressed, organised and regionally cohesive when in a public setting. What goes on behind closed doors stays there. Their regional leadership is proactive across all important issues and is said to be easy for central government to work with. It was clear that Hawke's Bay certainly isn't one of those regions.

Like it or not, most of our region's needs (by way of resources and infrastructure) are dependent upon the government of the day and its policies. Although Hawke's Bay is a reasonably important net contributor to the New Zealand economy - that is our (export dominant) earnings exceed total government expenditure in the region - we get no Bank of Wellington "credit ".

Ever larger sums of government expenditure bypass us, as Hawke's Bay's credits are increasingly moved into supporting metropolitan New Zealand, the "golden triangle" (Auckland/Hamilton/Tauranga), Christchurch and Wellington.

Who is going to begin contesting this and a number of other important issues confronting Hawke's Bay? It would be disappointing, therefore, if local body politicians post-amalgamation return to their familiar, separate ways. We need to be ambitious and regain sustainable regional growth, as other regions are currently making progress at our expense. Each Hawke's Bay community has strengths and frailties. As these well-known lyrics state, it is high time we "... accentuate the positive eliminate the negative". We should embrace our strengths and be courageous by forgoing unnecessary and wasteful processes. Adding value to ratepayers to my mind should be a regional mantra - it makes little sense having five sets of replicated council services.

Regional development is a key example - I understand there are 19 staff employed on an "economic development" payroll region-wide. Governance of this activity is carried out by a staggering 70 councillors and directors (representing a population base of a mere 158,000 residents). Little wonder we struggle to be effective, especially when many other New Zealand regions have a single, focused and well-funded economic development strategy and structure. Of note, Wellington is the latest region to recently establish a single structure, relevant for Hawke's Bay is that it includes tourism.

There are acres of opportunities if the sustained political will is in place to objectively seek ongoing efficiencies and improved services. Savings produced by being savvy could potentially be pooled to allow increased regional investment.

The most important part of the mix, council customers - the region's ratepayers - might again be seen as being traditionally silent on this matter. I sense, however, a high degree of pent-up frustration over the collective lack of leadership and performance by our councils.

To all Hawke's Bay's political leaders and voters, what are we going to do next? Return to playing in own backyard or turn the many wasted years of talkfests, inaction and poor performance into creating a proud new regional legacy that is of appeal to young and old alike?

-Chris Bain is an independent business adviser, a Business Hawke's Bay board member and former COO of Napier Port.