Image - Karen BennettKaren Bennett, Manager of the Chief Executive’s Office, supports the Chief Executive with stakeholder relationships and strategy. She also looks after corporate sustainability and the legal and risk team.

We’re here to make a positive difference to the community and the environment, now and for the long term.

Caring locally, competing globally – that’s our vision for the region. It’s about working together: caring for people and the world we live in to make the Waikato the best it can be, environmentally, socially and economically.

But good intentions don’t provide for a clear path forward. It can be tough finding common agreement on what a better world looks like, the steps needed to get there, who’s going to do what and, always the tricky bit, who’s going to pay.

No one can whistle a symphony, it takes a whole orchestra. We need to work together to build the Waikato we all want to see. That involves central and local government, iwi, community groups, health and social agencies, scientists, educational institutes, activists and others co-operating, collaborating and networking to understand our risks and opportunities, the technical complexities, the players and the audiences.

We need to listen to and walk alongside stakeholders to understand the issues that people care most deeply about so we can make good decisions and enable actions that will make a positive difference.

A great example is the work our staff do in partnership with landowners and philanthropic funders to fence and plant stream banks to enhance biodiversity, improve water quality, reduce sedimentation and help mitigate the effects of land use on climate change. Some 152,000 metres of streambank were permanently protected last year and an extra 720,000 plus plants put into the ground. Now, I’m no land management expert but I love being outside and it’s always a good day when you spend it with a care group planting trees, or even checking pest traps.

On a formal level, we have stakeholders from each of our eight catchment management zones that sit on zone committees to advise the council on work programmes and services.

Over the past 10 years, there’s been a shift in what matters most to Kiwis. The focus has moved from just the economic bottom line to a more holistic view. That’s why sustainability is no longer an add-on but central to the strategy of New Zealand’s leading businesses.

As a community, we’re concerned about pollution of lakes, rivers and seas, caring for the ageing population, the cost of living, suicide rates, affordability of housing, climate change and more. These issues influence our own strategic direction and actions.

Some people think this council is only interested in water and other environmental issues. Yes, we have statutory responsibilities to protect the environment and to sustainably manage the region’s natural resources. These resources underpin our economic wellbeing and sustain our lifestyle. But we also have a mandated role to play in community and economic development activities at regional scale.

The ingredients are all there for success. The Waikato region’s natural resources, prime location, diverse economy and can-do communities offer great opportunities. But to make the most of these opportunities, we need to take action on environmental and social issues that are having a negative effect on people right now and also threaten to strip future generations of the ability to enjoy a high quality of life.

Complex and interconnected issues like water quality, climate change, biodiversity, waste, transport, the future of work, growing inequalities and community participation are so challenging that no organisation can provide the solution on its own.

That’s why our mission talks about working together. Shifting the dial on big societal issues that impact wellbeing can only be achieved through collective effort.

We’ve already seen the power of partnerships. The Protecting Lake Taupō project, The Peninsula Project on the Thames Coast and the Tui Mine remediation in Te Aroha, all of these achieved important environmental, economic, cultural and social objectives. More recently, the partnership with the Waikato River Authority has resulted in $8.5 million in funding, and that has meant we’ve been able to do more than business as usual to achieve work on the ground to protect our waterways.

A ground breaking example of collaboration was the process to develop Healthy Rivers/ Wai Ora: Proposed Plan Change 1 for the Waikato and Waipā rivers. Iwi sat alongside councillors as decision makers. The community held the pen and we facilitated the process.

UNISA (Upper North Island Strategic Alliance), Waikato Mayoral Forum, Waikato Plan and the region’s economic development agency, Te Waka, are some other key relationships that illustrate the importance of working together. Some of our partners say we can be hard to work with. I think that’s true of any collaboration. It’s not easy and we’re always looking to improve.

Everyone has to give up a degree of control, respect the value each organisation brings to the partnership and accept that resourcing, culture and motivation might differ. It’s always about nurturing the relationship.

But by building on each partner’s strengths and bringing together resources, new ideas and know-how, access to key audiences and decision makers, we should trust that we can make stuff happen and that our collective effort will magnify the impact, increase effectiveness and reveal new opportunities.

I think it’s nicely described by the whakataukī:

Nāku te rourou, nāu te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi.

With my baskets and yours, the people will thrive.