Turbo-Charging Tairāwhiti Technology Take-Up

Lytton High School students demonstrating Auto-CAD to Ilminster Intermediate students at Tairāwhiti Techxpo 2012.

I recently visited two initiatives in Auckland to look at what they are doing with young people and technology. At Point England School in Glen Innes students all have their own NetBook, each family pays $3.50 per week for the child to have their own device for school and home work. At Clubhouse 274 in Otara I visited the Community Technology Centre where students go after school to use high-end equipment they can’t access at home and many were working on commercial projects.

Recently a number of local people and projects have converged to progress some exciting technology opportunities for the district that are already having positive social and economic outcomes, but more support is urgently required.

Tairawhiti Techxpo was a great day last week that provided a solid foundation for a bigger and better event next year. Thanks to the schools that participated, we had hundreds of young people get a taste of employment and career opportunities in the Information and Communication Technology sectors of robotics, hardware, networking, software, app development, entertainment, aerospace, imaging, animation and computer-aided-design industries.

Thanks must also go to the generous sponsors including Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, EIT Tairāwhiti, Eastland Community Trust and the small businesses and individuals that contributed on the day and through the event organising.

One of the Techxpo keynote speakers from Wellington joined the monthly Gizzy Geeks meeting in the evening. Nathalie Whitaker is a net entrepreneur and is keen to move to Gisborne with a number of her colleagues, the lifestyle, surf and clean environment are what attract them. Something that would make Tairawhiti even more appealing to these IT entrepreneurs is for Gisborne to have a bunch of competent geeks who can do the technical programming work that sits behind the software products Nathalie and her friends develop.

What the Techxpo highlighted was that our high schools are now growing such talent locally. Lytton High School had a large contingent of IT experts and Gisborne Girls’ High School and Campion College were also very well represented in the demonstrations provided by students. Other schools have already booked a spot for next year to showcase the skills and products being developed through cutting-edge teaching and learning.

A number of Gisborne school students are now making and selling smartphone apps internationally – this is a $40billion global market with over 10 billion downloads last year alone.

The Rangitawaea Nati Awards next week is an annual fixture that encourages and recognises IT talent in Ngati Porou schools, another fabulous showcase of skills and creativity grown in our region and reaching out to the world.

The Techxpo, the Gizzy Geeks group, the Nati Awards and the new Tairāwhiti Computer Hub Trust have proved a fertile ground for collaboration between technology specialists and a number of exciting new business opportunities are emerging from the relationships built around particular skills, interests and networks.

And where does all this sit in terms of regional economic development planning? It is dismissed in the Regional Economic Development Strategy (2009) as an unlikely prospect and rendered invisible in the subsequent Economic Development Action Plan. Perhaps this absence is not a big issue considering the Action Plan has been largely ignored from the day it was produced.

What is important is that the IT sector is recognised as a cornerstone of every local business and that it is factored into the priorities of entities like the Eastland Community Trust and Gisborne District Council that have a focus on supporting sustainable economic development. While public entities ‘don’t pick winners’, they do provide limitations and opportunities for the expansion of particular industries.

We need to look urgently at what infrastructure beyond Ultrafast Broadband will enable a fledgling IT sector to quickly become a serious economic driver for our local communities. Neighbourhood computer hubs, low-cost residential wi-fi and a commercial programming academy seem sensible ideas to explore.

Business case to close Gisborne rail link needs independent review

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Photo: KIERAN CHISNALL : “This is train 687. One of the weekend fert trains that were running before the squash trains started. This was taken just south of Black’s Beach winding back down to Nuhaka.”

Gisborne District Councillor and Regional Transport Committee member Manu Caddie says KiwiRail needs to provide the Council with a copy of the full business case that has led to the decision to close the Napier to Gisborne railway line.

“KiwiRail may have skewed the figures to justify closure rather than invest in what is at present a marginal business proposition for them but a lifeline for us. The communities of the East Coast need an independent review by reputable economists of how KiwiRail arrived at its claim that there is no alternative. I think that is the least the Government and KiwiRail owe our region if they are going to strip us of this billion dollar investment.”

“Make no mistake, mothballing is not a temporary arrangement – look what happened in the Bay of Plenty when the line was mothballed, it doesn’t take long to deteriorate to a point where its unsalvageable.”

“Hard on the heels of provincial roading cuts, this Government is clearly abandoning the regions.”

Mr Caddie said his grandfather worked on the railway line in the 1940s and 22 men died while building the section between Wairoa and Gisborne.

“The Government this week passed legislation that will cost $85m to underground a short piece of Wellington motorway so the national war memorial can have more space – our railway line is the memorial for the 22 men who gave their lives for it and we may be the generation that abandons their work.”

Federated Farmers, Gisborne Chamber of Commerce, Hawkes Bay Chamber of Commerce, forest owners and transport operators have all said it is essential to keep the line open. And before the washouts in March, business on the line was booming.

“Fuel prices are only going to increase and rail will become more and more the mode of choice for exports and imports to the region.”

Government Cuts Gisborne Roading Funds

A three year road funding commitment for the Gisborne District has been compared to the washouts plaguing the region at present.

“With more than $400,000 per year cut from the roading programe, this announcement leaves some big potholes in our road maintenance budget” said Regional Transport Committee member Manu Caddie.

Mr Caddie says the Government has cut funding to the region and ratepayers could end up footing more of the bill to maintain local roads.

“There is little in this package to ‘bolster’ Gisborne’s economy – while road maintenance and repair costs are going through the roof and ratepayers are struggling to make ends meet the District doesn’t even to get to keep what it had, we are getting less than last year!”

Mr Caddie pointed to a study presented to the Regional Transport Committee early this month that showed there was little if any economic benefit to be expected from increasing truck sizes on Gisborne roads.

Mr Caddie said while the Regional Transport Committee ended up supporting the funding bid to NZTA it did so largely because Gisborne District Council was told the amount put forward was the maximum the region had any chance of securing under current Government policy.

“It is good to see cycling and walkways made the cut but if you read the fine print, they are only going to be funded if the major project to allow bigger logging trucks to run from Tolaga Bay through the city to Matawhero costs no more than is budgeted for.”

“Regional roads are essential to the economic wellbeing of the District and the country, which is why our Regional Transport Committee is joining other provincial roading authorities and councils to call on the National-led government to drop its commitment to the seven Roads of National Significance. A few roads in the big centres are sucking so much money that the Government has not only taken funds off the regions but is borrowing more overseas to pay for them.”

Local Government Reforms?

Some of the reforms being proposed for local government by Minister of Local Government Dr Nick Smith are to be welcomed.

For one, I think it’s great to see a review of Development Contributions. No doubt the review will find that they need to be increased so that essential services such as social housing can be part-funded when a flash new subdivision is built. New Zealand is one of the few countries that doesn’t require such a provision.

However, many of the reforms aren’t so welcome.

I raised the issue of being proactive about the pending reforms at last week’s Community Development Committee meeting and was told by council colleagues that the Minister was simply “flying a kite” and was unlikely to make any radical changes.

But some of the changes certainly seem radical to me, particularly the gutting of local government to be nothing more than an engineering department and administrative office for fast-tracking resource consents.

I encourage Gisborne residents to provide feedback through the 10-year plan consultation process on what services they want to see their council provide.

For example, does council have a role in monitoring how central government spends locally? And should we be concerned about local social and economic development issues?

If central government was so good at it, we wouldn’t have any homeless, any youth unemployed, any hungry kids, any crime.

The reality is central government does a terrible job of addressing social issues, education and health care because there is so little accountability and lack of responsiveness to local priorities. Ruatoria is not Wellington and Elgin is not Dunedin . . . one size doesn’t fit all and centralised government is the problem not the solution.

For a party that espouses the virtues of personal responsibility and local autonomy — and loved to bleat about the “nanny state” — these reforms seem more consistent with a totalitarian, centralised system of government that will increasingly dictate to communities what is best for us, and will remove local checks on central government decisions while expropriating resources from our communities.

Council spending across the country on so called “non-core services” (such as culture, recreation and sport) declined by $185 million between 2008 and 2010 to just 13.2 percent of authority spending.

From 2007-2010 rates were a stable portion of household expenditure, holding steady at 2.25 percent.

The recent Productivity Commission’s draft report on housing affordability notes that rates have been declining in relation to property values, indicating that in terms of household wealth, rates are becoming less significant.

While the government is borrowing heavily to fund it’s seven gold-plated highway projects, it’s hypocritical to be telling councils to stop wasting money.

Dr Smith has manufactured a crisis to drive through changes based on ideology, not evidence.

Māori Land & Council Rates

By the end of last year, Gisborne District Council was owed about $3.5m in overdue rates on Maori land. Council recently agreed to the establishment of a working group to focus on the issues relating to Maori land and rates.

As it turns out, central government also has a group working on the issues, as have many governments before the current one. In fact 80 years ago Sir Apirana Ngata and the Prime Minister, George Forbes, established a joint committee to inquire into the question of unpaid rates on Māori land. The committee found significant areas of land had no rateable value and recommended local authorities to remove such areas from valuation rolls. The committee visited a number of the development schemes on Māori land that Ngata had initiated and the members were impressed with the productivity gains generated off these blocks.

These schemes assisted in a wide range of successful cooperatives operating on the East Coast, enabled Māori to retain ownership and created thousands of jobs.

The Waitangi Tribunal suggests that rates “were initially introduced as a tool of local government to meet its own infrastructure needs and those of settlers, rather than in response to what Māori may have wanted.”

Before 1893 the law did not allow Māori land to be sold to cover rating debts and central government reimbursed local authorities for unpaid rates on Māori land (that it turns out had been grossly overvalued). From 1910, nearly all Māori land became rateable unless held under customary title. In 1924, responsibility for rates recovery was shifted to the Māori Land Court. From then on, if arrears accrued against the land, it could be the subject of a charging order by the court, and placed in receivership or trust for lease or sale.

From 1950 to 1970, new legislation extended the powers of the court to force the development of ‘unproductive’ Māori land that had not been able to pay rates. The Waitangi Tribunal has found that a major effect of legislation introduced during this period seems to have been to boost the use of receivership as a means of rates enforcement.

The whole concept of local government rates has its philosophical origin in European legal theory that all land is ultimately held by the Crown. However, in New Zealand the question has persistently arisen in the development of rating law as to whether land not held by the Crown, but rather held by Maori in customary tenure, should be subject to rates. Council’s Whenua Rahui policy recognises this issue to some degree.

Since the 2007 Local Government Rates Inquiry there has been a shift and valuations for rating purposes make some small concession for the complexities of Māori land tenure and specify this on rates demands.

Dr Api Mahuika has advocated establishment of a Ngāti Porou local government district – some of my colleagues might support this proposal given the high cost of maintaining roads across such a large area and the large proportion of unpaid rates coming from the northern part of the district. Of course such a proposal is unlikely to be within the scope of our working group but it seems a similar emphasis on self-determination is the basis of the Tuhoe position on Te Urewera, as it was for Gandhi before Britain quit India. There are myriad examples of semi-autonomous governance arrangements around the world, so hopefully these local questions eventually get the full consideration they deserve.

The new Council working group will meet next month to determine the Terms of Reference and will no doubt welcome key stakeholders in the discussions and potential solutions. Watch this space!

2012 Projects

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Some of the stuff I’m focused on this year…
  1. Gang Transformation Project via GDC, Police, schools, churches, sports clubs and residents associations
  2. Representation Review: ensuring the fairest electoral structure for Tairāwhiti via GDC
  3. Regional Housing Needs Assessment via GDC
  4. Keeping Kids Safe Project via Te Ora Hou Aotearoa
  5. Neighbourhood Resource Centres via HNZC, Ka Pai Kaiti Trust & Te Ora Hou
  6. Computer Clubhouse for Waikirikiri School
  7. Gisborne-Napier railway retention via Gisborne Rail Action Group
  8. Cycleways & Walkways via GDC Ten Year Plan, NZTA, Cycling Advisory Group, etc.
  9. Māori Land & Rates via GDC Māori Land Working Group with TPK, etc.
  10. Central Government better linked into local priorities via Whānau Ora, MSD, etc.
  11. Pēnu Marae – new wharepaku and wharenui roof hopefully
  12. Rere Rockslide – stream quality monitoring and restoration project
  13. Economic Development projects – biofuels and biochemistry projects, regional skills development and entrepreneurs recruitment campaign

Creating a Cycling-Centric City

The Regional Transport Committee last week had a lively debate on whether one of the top three goals for the district transport programme should include encouraging alternatives to the private motor vehicle. In the end we agreed encouraging alternative transport options is important and agreed that promoting cycling, walking and public transport is a priority.

Private cars use approximately 60% of all fuel consumed by road transport, New Zealand imports and burns through more than $20million of fuel per day!

A 2009 report by the Ministry of Transport suggests we spend a lot more time in the car and less time spent walking and cycling than we did 20 years ago. Gisborne drivers travel less distance than any other region in the country and Gisborne cyclists spend longer on our bikes each week than any other region.

In the mid-nineties there were about 15,000 motor vehicles crossing the Gladstone Road bridge each day, I suspect the volume might be slightly higher than that now. Around the country only 1% of people travel to work by bicycle, while 94% travel in a private motor vehicle. And only 5% of students – or one quarter of those that cycled when I left school 20 years ago – now cycle to high school.

In 2004 the Gisborne District Council signed up to the ‘Walking and Cycling Strategy for the Gisborne District’.

The vision of the strategy is that:

‘Gisborne District is a walking and cycling friendly region. Walking and cycling are safe, convenient, enjoyable and popular forms of transport and leisure that contribute to community, well-being and tourism.’

Targets for how the effectiveness of the strategy were to be measured have never been added to the empty boxes in document, though some general goals such as 10% of students walking or cycling to school by 2015 and an increase by 10% of commuters travelling to work by walking or cycling by 2015 are goals we now have only three years left to achieve. It is time to review the Strategy.

An iconic project included in the Strategy and championed by people like the late Murial Jones, Kathy Sheldrake, Phil Evans and Richard Coates is the Wainui-Sponge Bay cycleway. This project is designed to make it safer for commuter cyclists coming from Wainui and recreational cyclists from the city to get in and out on, particularly given the rapid increase in heavy vehicles on State Highway 35. We expect a funding decision on this project within the next month.

The Gisborne Cycling Advisory Group was established a couple of years ago and has made some great contributions to cycle route planning in both the urban and rural areas. Focused largely on commuter and tourist cyclists, the group meets monthly and is open to anyone keen on advocating for cycling infrastructure and encouraging the public to cycle more.

As a recent Australian report on the economic benefits of cycling reveals, bicycle travel cuts millions off the national waist line and bottom line. Inactivity is now a major cause of health problems and cycling provides a practical, sustainable and cheap opportunity to help get more Kiwis active and drive down the cost of health care.

Of course the more cyclists there are, the safer it becomes – and while we may be seeing a national trend away from commuter cycling, most Gisborne city residents have few excuses not to cycle or walk to work. The city is relatively compact, very flat, enjoys a good climate and has an ever increasing number of cycleways. It has been great to see so many people on bikes this summer, how can we encourage even more to make the move?