Lawrence Yule has steered the local government sector for the past nine years in his role as president of Local Government New Zealand. On the eve of his departure from the sector, Ruth Le Pla talked with him about local government’s changing role from perceived adversary to advocate and partner. She also asked a number of people about some of the major changes they have seen in local government in the past nine years, and for their own personal take on Lawrence Yule’s legacy.
Nine years ago, Lawrence Yule stepped into a very different local government world than the one we know today. Newly appointed as LGNZ’s president, the mayor of Hastings faced the difficult task of having to re-establish a relationship with a just-appointed central government which often took an unfriendly, and at times blatantly antagonistic, approach to local government.
LGNZ’s principal policy advisor Mike Reid recalls that the then Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide swung into his new role by renaming himself the Minister of Ratepayers. One of the minister’s first acts was to invite anyone in New Zealand who had a problem with their local council to write and tell him.
His narrative ran that local government was out of control, not accountable and it was his job to fix it.
Adding further complexity to the central / local government relationship, Rodney Hide was a minister outside cabinet. In an additional complicating twist, he was from a minor coalition party which didn’t necessarily have influence over what a government could do anyway.
The new scenario had the potential to slam the brakes on much of the momentum gained under Helen Clark’s Labour government. And despite LGNZ’s close work with the National Party in opposition to develop its local government manifesto, all such bets were off under the new coalition.
In speaking with numerous people while researching this article the word ‘challenging’ crops up quite a lot.
Nine years later, Lawrence Yule is now about to depart the sector for good. His terms of office at LGNZ have drawn to a close. His successor as LGNZ president will be decided at the organisation’s AGM in Auckland on July 25. And after 16 years as mayor of Hastings he’s stepping aside to focus on his bid to become the National Party’s Tukituki electorate MP.
Over the past three years I’ve conducted numerous interviews with Lawrence. They’ve typically been rapid-fire Q & A sessions with very little small-talk but always considered, professional and to the point.
I’d hoped my ‘exit’ interview with him would be a more relaxed affair – a time to plumb his reflections on the past nine years.
We end up squeezing in an interview in a lunch break during LGNZ’s Freshwater Symposium in Wellington, fighting to hear each other over the triple-cafe sounds of other people’s voices, coffee machines and music.
Lawrence says LGNZ itself was a very different beast nine years ago too. Its focus was more on being a membership organisation rather than an advocacy group.
He repeats a favourite story about how back in the day LGNZ would get embroiled in interminably detailed debates about microchipping dogs and other such minutiae.
Mike Reid tells me later that when cats popped up on the agenda about a year ago, Lawrence “wasn’t particularly enthusiastic”.
If there’s one over-arching legacy that Lawrence has left behind, most people agree it’s the shift from sweating the small stuff to creating a big-picture vision for the sector.
Lawrence says he spent the first few years of his time as president learning, getting to know people and making himself known. “People had to learn to trust me,” he says.
By all accounts, his early signalling that relationships and accessibility are important has continued to pay dividends. His longstanding willingness to get to know people from councils right around the country underpins one observer’s comment that he is unusually good at spanning the different viewpoints of rural, urban and metro councils.
He attributes the fundamental shift in the organisation to the opportunity that came from appointing a new chief executive with a strong streak of lobbying.
Since April 2012, LGNZ’s current chief executive Malcolm Alexander has helped make real the organisation’s determined focus on what Lawrence calls the big stuff.
Lawrence lists as examples water, infrastructure and climate change. LGNZ is tackling plenty more big ticket items besides. Its five policy priorities span infrastructure, risk and resilience, and environmental, social and economic areas.
Bundled within these are complex thorny issues such as how to make sure people have access to affordable housing, how to bolster economic growth in very different regions, and how to help protect communities from earthquake hazards without imposing undue burdens upon them.
There are no dogs in sight. As one colleague says, Lawrence has homed in on issues that are important for the country and for communities, and has kept the focus at a high strategic level.
As Lawrence summarises, “we’re playing in the big sandpit now”. That, he says, requires both central and local government parties to be “strong but respectful of each other”.
“One of my fundamental challenges to my successor, and one of my drivers, has been to make sure that relationship is enduring and successful: that central government understands we are not a burden.
“We have a lot to offer New Zealand and we need to be used collaboratively in decision-making and policy-formation. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Such power-sharing may prove more difficult for central government which is used to being in charge. Local government, meanwhile, continues to hone its skills at logical persuasion-cum-lobbying.
Lawrence acknowledges that, if elected to parliament, he will have a very different profile in the future. He knows he will need to take time to learn the system and earn the respect of his new colleagues. “I’m going in to a political party as a third former starting a new school.”
If this article had been written a year ago it would have read very differently. But the events of August 2016 have been etched large on the minds of both Lawrence’s home community of Havelock North and the local government sector as a whole.
The facts are, by now, well known. An estimated 5500 people became ill with campylobacteriosis. Some 45 were hospitalised and it is possible the water-borne contamination contributed to the deaths of three people.
The outbreak was traced to contaminated drinking water supplied by two bores on the outskirts of Havelock North within Hastings District Council’s area.
The first of two inquiry reports has been published. It found failings by several parties, including Hastings District Council.
Lawrence has front-footed the issue for his council and said he accepts the inquiry’s findings as balanced and fair.
“While no individual or organisation was found to have caused [the outbreak], I am regretful of some of the failings they found with my own council in terms of record-keeping and maintenance scheduling and the safety plan,” he says.
“And even though that wouldn’t have stopped the contamination, as a leader of an organisation there shouldn’t have been those failings.”
The second inquiry report is due to be put before Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson by December 8 this year.
Lawrence told delegates at the recent LGNZ Freshwater Symposium that the past six months had been the hardest in all his time as a mayor.
Talking with Local Government Magazine later he said what happened at Havelock North came as a “huge shock” to him.
“We’d had little incidents but nothing [significant] and then that happened: the biggest water-borne contamination in New Zealand’s history. I’m not proud of that on my watch because I was telling people you need to make sure your basics are right and then concentrate on the things that matter to other people.”
He says some people questioned why he wasn’t out on the streets handing out bottles of fresh water. But he sticks with his view that it was more effective for him to be at council trying to manage and organise its response.
“One of the things I have constantly reflected on through this is, if I was one of these people that had been contaminated how would I feel? What would I expect the council to do? Put myself in their shoes.”
Asked to give some advice to the selected new president of LGNZ, Lawrence says local government is a broad church with a variety of views on most issues. “You’ve got to accept there are outlying views but you’ve got to quickly get to the position which the majority support.”
He says that’s usually not too hard to do. “There will be some outliers but generally the central theme is quite easy to identify. Local government is full of politicians so if you’re not on message or not supporting what the majority think you’ll soon hear about it.
“And once you’ve decided on the things that matter, go hard after them.”
Lawrence has been able to communicate very well to central government the diversity of New Zealand and the importance of understanding that communities approach issues and problems in different ways.
That means sometimes communities need different tools to do that. Sometimes one-size-fits-all works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Lawrence has been a great advocate for mayors and councillors who are coming up with solutions that are going to work for their communities and then backing them.
Lawrence is very grounded. He’s been extremely accessible as a president. He has been a real sponsor of talent within our sector and has looked for opportunities for our newer members to have leadership roles and opportunities to be part of policy direction. I’ve valued that. He’s given me opportunities to represent the sector that I have thoroughly enjoyed.
There wouldn’t be a mayor in New Zealand that would feel disconnected from the president. He’s spent time and energy understanding who we are as communities.
And because of that he can articulate to government that an infrastructure solution that may work and be affordable for the people of a city the size of Nelson or Wellington, is just not going to work for the people of Kaikohe. He’s got that understanding.
Lawrence has left LGNZ in a position where we now have the opportunity to lead our sector and the development of policy that is going to work for local communities.
We were at the Central Government Local Government Forum at Premier House a couple of months ago. We sat at the table with cabinet ministers and had a very genuine and equal conversation around our different roles.
There are, and should be, very different roles for cabinet ministers as opposed to mayors. But the ability for us to work collaboratively across central and local government to deliver the best outcomes for New Zealand is very real.
It’s real because Lawrence and [LGNZ CE] Malcolm Alexander have got us to a point where that conversation can occur in a meaningful way and as a sector we are capable of delivering the outcomes.
The next step is for us to work on growing our confidence. We need to say that we can do these things and we can do them really well. We can do them better than anybody else in New Zealand.
RICHARD KEMPTHORNE, Tasman District Mayor
Local government has become more complex in the past nine years with continual challenges in meeting government expectations. Clearly there is a predisposition of some, not all, government ministers to either ignore local government or publicly criticise it to gain political brownie points. However, I guess that is nothing new.
There is continual tinkering with the RMA in order to simplify it, which often adds complexity. Life in the local government space involves continual challenges or problems to solve.
Today, there is an increased expectation of local government to deliver all the basic infrastructure for potable water, stormwater and wastewater without sufficient funding.
Lawrence has been a tremendous leader: articulate and a very good communicator under pressure. He is also easy to relate to. I have great respect for him.
TRACY HICKS, Gore District Mayor
There has been a raft of new legislative requirements for local government to implement over the past nine years. But the major change has been a growing realisation that we have the critical role to play in ‘place shaping’ where we live, as opposed to simply being an agent for central government in the provinces.
The infrastructure delivery role that councils play is no less important now than it has been for the past 100 years. Some would say it’s more important. But now our communities expect us to play a major role in the social, environmental and cultural challenges we face.
This is a very new, and often very scary, space for councils which traditionally have focused on delivering water and roading networks.
Considering the impact of the demographic time bomb we baby boomers are about to unleash on society as we exit the workforce has been a very large part of my role as mayor. Yet I had hardly even considered it as I began as a new mayor.
The technology revolution humankind is constantly facing has played a part in changing much of what local government does to successfully connect with its residents and various stakeholders. And it just continues to evolve at speed.
The amount of my time spent in areas that traditionally have been considered outside the scope of local government, such as social and economic development, increases by the day and I don’t see that changing.
If anything, as the concept of localism grows so too will local government’s responsibilities.
In a word, I’d describe Lawrence’s legacy as LGNZ president as ‘transformational’. The LGNZ organisation Lawrence inherited compared to the current model is substantially different.
Lawrence recognised the need to shift LGNZ from being a reactive organisation to one focused on a limited number of priority areas and projects.
He focused on the ones which would deliver the best ‘bang for buck’ for its member councils but, more importantly, for the nation as a whole.
That change hasn’t been without pain. However, the gains along the way in terms of credibility with government and many other sectors have been huge.
This, in turn, has allowed LGNZ to lead and be part of changing the face of the local government scene.
As a national council member I would describe Lawrence’s style of leadership as decisive, pragmatic, effective, active, logical and always laced with humour and compassion.
I have enjoyed working with him and have no doubt his legacy will be lasting.
This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.