Lobby group pushes for Hawke's Bay unification

DIANE JOYCE
Last updated 10:23 11/12/2013

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Hawke's Bay

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Napier residents should look at what their city will gain from council amalgamation, says former Labour Party president Mike Williams, who is running the campaign promoting amalgamation.

"You can make the argument that it will be good for Napier.

"Instead of just another provincial city, if the council seat is in Napier it will be a regional capital."

The professional campaign manager and Howard League for Penal Reform chief executive announced last week that he would be running the campaign for A Better Hawke's Bay.

The lobby group lodged the application that saw the Local Government Commission recommend amalgamation this month.

The commission recommended one council for the region, doing away with Hastings, Napier, Wairoa and Central Hawke's Bay councils, and the Hawke's Bay Regional Council.

It said any debt on the various councils' books should be ring fenced (that is, treated as a separate entity) for "at least" six years, and the seat of power should be in Napier.

Napier mayor Bill Dalton is opposed to the proposal, while Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule is in favour.

Mr Williams, a Karamu High School old boy, had taken on the unpaid position prompting amalgamation because he believed unification was essential to improve the region's fortunes. "I've thought for a long time that there should be amalgamation. I was devastated when the union of Hastings and Napier didn't go ahead [when it was mooted] in 1999. Our unemployment statistics are worse than average; our Maori unemployment is a scandal."

Those opposed to the move had two main arguments he said: debt and identity, and they were "dead wrong".

"Hastings has debt; Napier doesn't. The Local Government Commission has addressed that with ring fencing. The second, that places will lose their identity, is nonsense.

"Havelock North and Taradale haven't lost theirs [after being absorbed in Hastings and Napier respectively], and Napier won't lose its."

The battle was likely to go on for more than a year, Mr Williams said, and would pitch friend against friend.

One of his friends, Stuart Nash, the likely Labour candidate for Napier in next year's general election, was opposed to amalgamation. "He's dead wrong, he's on the wrong side of the argument," Mr Williams said.

He would be at his holiday home in Havelock North for January, and then planned to be in Hawke's Bay at least a week a month after that.

He said he would move back to the Bay from his Auckland home but for family commit- ments. "We will retire here."

Mr Williams' family moved here when he was 3. His first school was Parkvale Primary, after which he went to Hastings Intermediate and Karamu High. He left to go to university then trained as a teacher, returning to teach at Karamu for a year in the early 1970s.

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"I would've stayed, but there were no jobs in my areas, English and history."

He was back for a year in 1978 to run winning Hastings MP David Butcher's election campaign. In the run-up to this year's local body elections he ran Peter Bevan's winning campaign for a Hawke's Bay Regional Council seat.

Labour at loggerheads?

The debate over whether to amalgamate or not is pitting friends and traditional allies against each other.

Among them are Mr Williams, strongly in favour of the change, and Napier's labour spokesman Stuart Nash, strongly opposed.

Also regarded as being in the "pro-amalgamation" camp is former Labour MP and now Hawke's Bay Regional Councillor, Rick Barker.

All three men are friends.

Mr Williams said Mr Nash was on the wrong side of the debate; and Mr Nash said those two men are "the old versus the new".

Mr Nash was vehement that amalgamation was wrong for Napier.

He said international studies showed local council amalgamations did not produce the promised advantages.

The onus to prove otherwise, and convince Napier residents, lay with those wanting change.

Of most concern was that if an amalgamation went ahead it would have been "forced" on Napier, he said.

Before legislative change this year a majority of voters in each each affected area would have to approve change. Now a poll would be across the whole region, with a majority of the whole area deciding the issue.

"It won't be democratic."

Mr Nash said the issue may have Labour affiliates on different sides of the fence, but that applied to both sides of the debate.

"The issue is apolitical. "There's a lot of cross-political support, from National and Act people in Napier, against amalgamation."

Mr Barker was in China last week and could not be reached for comment.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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