Far North District Council acting CEO Colin Dale was awarded life membership of LGNZ at the organisation’s recent annual conference in Dunedin. He reflects here on Kiwi fair play, instant communities and unfinished business as he looks back on his six decades in the sector.
If there’s one unifying thread to Colin Dale’s 60 years in local government it’s his focus on community. He talks passionately about creating community facilities, improving community relations, of promoting a holistic approach to community health and of community service.
Colin has dedicated decades applying that vision as a servant of local government in Auckland and Manukau cities, and more recently in the Far North where he has been the district’s acting CEO over the past two years.
Community has also tended to spill beyond the confines of career. In his spare time Colin has been on the Housing NZ Tamaki Establishment boards. He was chair of the Auckland Regional Migrant Services Trust, and Counties-Manukau DHB’s ‘Let’s Beat Diabetes’ campaign. He has advised the Chinese New Settlers Services Trust, and was a member of the Hillary Commission for Recreation and Sport for six years, to name just a few of his roles outside council.
It reflects his family values, he says. “I was taught respect for people and for community and I’ve always been concerned about social justice issues. But if I’m honest, I’d say what really interests me – what really drives me – is helping individuals and communities achieve their aspirations.”
An early lesson in achieving aspirations came from his father. He was down the mines by age 13, but by educating himself at night he managed to escape the pits to become a senior salesman. “He ended up wearing pin-striped trousers and a bowler hat.”
Post-war Liverpool, where Colin was born, was a tough environment fractured by class and social divisions. It was here that Colin got his first local government job in 1955 as a trainee health inspector with Huyton Urban District. But he aspired to more and in 1962, aged 23, Colin bought a ticket and sailed for New Zealand. He never looked back.
Colin found work with Auckland City Council as a health inspector: “Unlike where I came from, people here got opportunities regardless of their background. New Zealand was so much more egalitarian and that was amazing to me. The Kiwi sense of fair play and family was tremendous.”
In 1964 he moved to Manukau County Council (it became a City in 1965). It would be an association that would last over 40 years and one Colin describes as a “lifetime occupation”.
“When I started, Manukau had 40,000 people and when I left it was home to 350,000. We were adding 10 streets a week.”
It was a unique opportunity creating a city virtually from scratch in a booming economy. “We were providing for the needs of ‘instant communities’ as we called them. Areas like Otara, Manurewa, Pakuranga, Mangere… they came up overnight. And I was growing up with these communities as a new settler too, because I was bringing up my family in Mangere.”
Family was wife, Billie, and two young sons. Billie has Te Rarawa connections from North Hokianga and they have been together for over 50 years. “My success was only possible because of Billie’s support, taking part in Manukau City’s civic life when she had a full work life as well, managing 12 staff for a major training provider in Manukau City centre.”
Health to CEO
Within two years of joining Manukau, Colin was made senior health inspector. “I learned that health is a holistic concept: it’s as much about the mental as the physical.” This led to several community health initiatives, such as opening community houses for families and community health centres.
The new city had its deficits. As mayor Sir Barry Curtis later recalled, “Otara was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s without considering the need for libraries, shopping facilities, public transport, Plunket services or even public phone boxes. There were few medical and community health services either.
“Otara eventually had 20,000 people living in this ‘social desert’. Central government simply failed in its responsibility to provide essential facilities and services. So, we took up that role.”
Colin led the effort after being appointed the city’s – and New Zealand’s – first community development manager in 1979. “We had a big hand in developing the philosophy of community development in local government. We worked very closely with other government agencies – health, education, community safety, economic development – and community organisations representing the ethnic diversity of Manukau.
“We became renowned for developing innovative community, environmental and economic development policy.”
In 1985 Colin was appointed city manager of Manukau City. Sir Barry later recalled what a nervous applicant he made. He needn’t have been: “All of us on the panel knew what we were looking for – a person who understood community development.” Colin held the position for another 21 years before departing in 2006. During his farewell, Sir Barry described Colin as the best local government manager in the country and wagered that his then 50 years of public service was a record “unlikely to be repeated”. He was further recognised later with a Companion of the Order of New Zealand.
Ten years on and Colin refuses to draw a line under that record. With his role as acting chief executive of Far North District Council drawing to a close, he admits he is looking forward to having more time with Billie and the wider family.
Yet, the word ‘retirement’ clearly makes him uncomfortable. “I feel I’m still in a position to make a contribution, to share my experience in governance and community service and help people work together. In fact, I’ve already been approached by community trusts … Let’s just say I’m always happy to act as a mentor.”
Advice for local government
Colin Dale calls for more respect for diversity and the views of others. New Zealand has a tremendous reputation for offering opportunities, he says, but my impression is that this is changing.
“There seems to be an increasing empathy deficit generally, and public services more concerned about their own interests rather than the communities they serve.”
From 1989 particularly local government became more goal-oriented, he says, with long-term annual and strategic planning. “I think, however, that smaller authorities are going to find it tough to demonstrate sustainability and maintain independence. For my part, councils need to have more people on the ground working on local issues.”
Seeing what communities can and do achieve keeps Colin involved. “You see tremendous things happen in the Far North and other communities. We have many community organisations that have stepped up and are changing things for themselves; growing self-esteem and achieving their aspirations. They are driven by volunteerism and we need to encourage more of that.”
Colin Dale clearly feels there is still work to be done. So what does he think about the current climate in local government? He fears the “local” may disappear from local government with central government becoming more interventionist.
“I was saddened when legislation change removed local councils’ involvement in social, environmental, economic and cultural well-being. Local government has had its wings clipped and central government appears to regard councils as a vehicle focused on national objectives rather than community objectives.”
He is concerned the emphasis seems to have swung to local government being focused on minimal services rather than wider community development. “Local government is about people and about community. That’s the bottom line.”
Colin describes his leadership style as inclusive and vision oriented – bringing people together, both elected members and staff is vital.
In the Far North Colin has enjoyed working with a mayor and council that have encouraged community involvement. He says staff are more engaged with the council’s vision and work better across the organisation. Council is also working across boundaries; working more with neighbouring councils.
“That was not happening previously and Northland innovation is being encouraged.”
One example of that collaboration is an agreement between the Regional Council, and Whangarei, Kaipara and Far North districts to improve Northland’s road infrastructure together.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.