STRONG ECONOMY | HE OHANGA PAKARI

Image - BlarBlair Keenan,  principal economist for Waikato Regional Council, says economic wellbeing is more than balancing the books.

We want people to be able to make their way in the world.

We want them to choose how they want to make it without undermining other people’s values and their own future values. That’s why having a strong regional economy is so important to us as an organisation.

If you were to describe what the regional economy looked like, you would need to look at the bigger picture.

The Waikato region and our position in the country is part of a golden triangle that covers Auckland and the Bay of Plenty. A huge proportion of freight that goes around New Zealand comes through the Waikato. We have, or are building, the places to manage that freight.

The drivers of change are already here and happening now.

Huge numbers of people are spilling over the Bombay Hills into the Waikato. Consequently, we have that slightly broader perspective of understanding the links and flows that characterise an economy.

I think regional councils have a really important role in this space.

This is not to say central government isn’t important. But they can only do so much at a regional level. They don’t have feet on the ground like we do, and as city and district councils do. Of course, iwi have an important role to play, too, especially those who have settled their Treaty claims. And so do the thousands of businesses throughout the region.

At the end of the day, it’s a coordinated effort: iwi, businesses, central government, territorial authorities and us. There are others we’re working with, too, like Te Waka, the business entity in this region with its boots on the ground doing economic development work. We contribute funding to the tune of $350,000 every year.

If we go back 20 years, the regional council was largely seen as an environmental regulator. We managed the natural resources. This is still a critical role but today we seek to be effective by recognising the interdependencies between the environment, communities and economy. It can create tension – economic development on the one hand and environmental and community standards on the other – because to grow our economy people have to be able to access natural resources. It’s a balance the council has to manage.

Water is critical at the moment and it’s an evolving space.

If everyone is taking as much water as they need and things are still okay with the water, there’s no problem, no need to regulate.

But with more people comes more activity. We’re now at the point where we are hitting limits and access to water needs to be regulated. We need to make sure we’re balancing things out so there is enough water to meet our needs, and we’re not using it in ways that cause too much damage to the resource. So, in fact, water quality and allocation are intimately connected.

If we didn’t have flood infrastructure, there would be places in the region where you certainly couldn’t farm. A dairy farm sitting behind a stopbank, producing a lot of stuff that contributes to our regional economy, just wouldn’t exist. It may instead be part of a wetland. Now, wetlands are also valuable, so understanding the balance and the trade-offs is important.

Without flood infrastructure, the transport corridors between here and Auckland would be adversely affected. That’s because State Highway 1 and the rail corridor sit behind our stopbanks. If those stopbanks weren’t there those transport corridors, which are the busiest in the country, just wouldn’t function for part of the year. People would, if they had an alternative, have to drive the long way around, which would be expensive and time consuming, or it just wouldn’t happen.

Flood protection is often invisible until a flood occurs and the economy is affected, but it reduces risks to our communities all the time.

Pests can also have a huge impact on the economy. Possums can do a lot of damage to our forests and vegetation. They also carry bovine tuberculosis (TB). Unchecked, they can spread TB among dairy herds, affecting the productivity of one of our biggest industries.

If we weren’t managing pest control, farmers and others would be wearing the costs.

Economics is fundamentally about allocating resources. I believe businesses need to access natural resources but balance is important. We want to make sure that the use of resources now doesn’t undermine our ability to use them in the future, otherwise businesses may not be able to continue using the resources they rely on in the years ahead. And, if they want to hand their businesses on to their children – or, indeed, sell them as a going concern – they’ll still be able to do that, too.

That means the thousands of resource consents we grant, giving people the right to use a natural resource, are as much about supporting our economy as protecting our environment.

Energy is a really important resource. How do we deal with our energy systems?

We’ve got a whole lot of hydro dams along the river. We’ve got wind energy. We need to ensure the whole energy system is working in the interests of the region and the country.

When it comes to the region’s economy, we’re not the doers, we’re enablers! We enable people to build a strong economy and that starts with the work we do to enable a healthy environment. The outcome of all that? We enable people to live in vibrant communities.