Rebuilding democracy from the grassroots

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    A raft of council planning processes which will “fold” (aka homogenise) and lock in Waiheke’s future character and aspirations during the term of the next Waiheke Local Board emerged as a major island issue at Waiheke Radio’s local government candidate meeting earlier this week.

    In a week of back-to-back meetings round the hustings, candidates had been in the spotlight at smaller venues than Artworks hearing and having to come swiftly to grips with the pressing concerns of the island’s affairs. Debate and changes had been called for on our construction industry, dismay voiced from commuters, widespread fallout from the island’s ferry monopolies withstood, and issues raised by housing action groups and the habitués of Blackpool’s monthly Dog and Pony popup dinner meetings.

    The possibility of reticulation to free up the island to beachfront and apartment development followed revelations of extraordinary costings put together by Auckland Council earlier in the year and featured large with some candidates on Monday night, as did the prospect of the island being required to navigate the shoals of a 30-year plan which the board will have to scrutinise early in the new term.

    It’s a process in which the supercity plans to “fold” our most recent district plan (infamous for its proposal to extinguish the island’s “green belts”) into its isthmus unitary plan.

    The future of the island is at stake in all this busy-work and it’s an exhausting prospect for those of us who have over the years come up against supercity planning regimes which, from the safety of distant offices, have produced successive drafts of “best planning practice” rules for our offshore island – and then run a black pen through all resident and ratepayer “submissions” that questioned this orthodoxy.

    How to work constructively with a council hegemony that rules by right of its own certainties and a tight rein on the purse-strings  briefly divided the candidates between those who wanted to forge links and those who favoured a firm hand in lobbying for important issues (with some candidates shuffling between the two, which is usually about how it goes).  

    Eleven thousand council bureaucrats significantly outnumber Waiheke’s population and seldom indulge in self-reflection, even when their antithetical ambitions are in plain sight, so it’s probably best if we end up with a board fluent in both approaches. 

    And neither will work unless the incoming board demands proper information from the city’s various relationship, planning and governance “managers” who orchestrate their meetings. 

    I recall a board discussion recently on how to respond to planning applications, keeping to the stipulation from officials that they had only three days to give their collective opinion on public notification and other pivotal issues. 

    How many months and years does a resource consent take?  How many times do many of them twist and turn?  How often are they arbitrated by notionally “independent” commissioners paid and appointed by council? 

    Accepting such a constraint on informed input from board members was, at best, absurd.

    Democracy depends on elected representatives being informed and respected as a pivotal part of sound decision-making. Much of the public apathy and poor opinion of both national and local politicians in recent times comes from the essential imbalance that came with centralised power and resources.

    Perhaps the most striking aspect of this election cycle so far has been the depth and variety of the various groups lining up to take ownership of Waiheke’s issues, which bodes well for electing a board with demonstrable community engagement behind it and a good range of sapient eyes on the outcomes. 

    It’s productive if individual groups take ownership of the Little Oneroa Stream, predator free practices, individual reserves, future planning, conservation of island values and distinctiveness, retail interests, housing, coastal imperatives with rising tide levels, marine reserves, rubbish minimisation, road safety and sustainable practices in uncertain times.

    In the regulatory framework we work within, five of the nine candidates lined up to represent Waiheke in this election will be charged with managing all that and much, much more.

    Theirs to determine the balance between arts and leisure activities, opportunities for young people, care of the vulnerable, housing for a diverse mix of ages and family sizes and the unintended impacts of boundary-to-boundary site coverage on stormwater and wholesale removal of hilltops for high-end housing which is rapidly running us out of cleanfill sites.

    To these labours of Sisyphus, we can add the duty to enable every one of us to contribute meaningfully to our society and the renaissance of grassroots community decision-making. It’s proving to be useful process. • Liz Waters

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