IT is only a few years since the Far North District Council began to formally devote energy and funds to economic development.
Historically we could only envy the resources available to bigger councils and districts for this strategic activity.
We simply don’t have the population or industry to fund a full-blown economic development infrastructure of our own.
But the people of the Far North made it clear at the last local elections that they wanted their mayor and council to play an active role in social and economic development.
This has become an area of strong focus in my time as mayor.
For several years now, we have hastened slowly within the communities of the Far North, identifying our strengths, and the well publicised hurdles and gaps that prevent us from truly prospering as a district.
A first step was to create, from the vacuum that existed previously, our own Far North Development Trust.
Our council inherited many financial challenges, so the Trust’s budget in its first year of operation was a mere one thousand dollars. In the last two financial years we have been able to devote $50,000 a year to the Trust’s activities.
One can’t help but compare what can be achieved on such a modest budget, with those of well established, well funded development agencies elsewhere in New Zealand. We have made significant progress with humble resources, thanks to the voluntary efforts of our trustees.
What was significant for us about that first $1000 and our later investments in economic development, was the Far North District Council’s recognition that it must mentor this area – waiting for successive Governments to wave magic wands and alleviate our problems, has achieved little for the Far North over a period of many years.
We knew we had to be more proactive.
There is considerable debate within New Zealand about how economic development relationships should operate. Since the central Government election 18 months ago, it has been made clear that the coalition Government, through its Ministry of Economic Development, prefers to deal with regions on the basis of geographical boundaries.
Of course regions such as Northland, with its three rural districts, need to cooperate in many areas. And we do.
But we believe the opportunities for social and economic development extend far beyond the borders of our own region. The issues requiring attention extend far beyond those of roading and transport, and the traditional concerns relating to shared industries such as farming, forestry, and tourism.
We are addressing the latter on a regional basis through our Mayoral Forum, with input from the mayors and council managers of the Far North, Kaipara, and Whangarei.
We are also enjoying some new development relationships, which are becoming as important to the Far North as those with our near geographic neighbours.
Significant among these is the recently announced Intradistrict Partnership forged by the Far North, Southland, and New Plymouth district councils.
This agreement was signed by the mayors, Prime Minister Helen Clark, and Local Government Minister Sandra Lee last October. We have since been working together to progress our initiative.
We have met in New Plymouth, where Claire arranged for her district’s local MP, Harry Duynhoven, to participate in our meetings. Our district’s development teams have regular contact to discuss and progress shared opportunities. And recently, with the support of members of Parliament from the three regions – the Hon Dover Samuels, Mark Peck, and Harry Duynhoven – we have put forward a proposal to the Government for partnership and support. The proposal reflects the determination of our rural provincial communities, to take advantage of modern global economic forces, technology tools, and fast bandwidth to support our existing businesses and industries … and to attract new ones that no longer need to be based in urban areas.
The creation of the Intradistrict Partnership has been questioned by some, who wonder why “strangers” would come together to share resources and knowledge in the area of economic development. Why not put all of our respective development eggs, into regional initiatives based on traditional geographical relationships?
There is a simple and compelling answer to this question – despite arguments to the contrary, we recognise that there is no single or “right” way to undertake economic development. We want to nurture the strong philosophical ties we have discovered in our early discussions with the Southland and New Plymouth councils, which make our geographic distance from one another irrelevant.
Already we are achieving hard outcomes from the Partnership. Venture Taranaki is sharing its branding, intellectual property, and investments in successful development programmes with Southland and the Far North.
Soon Venture South and Venture North will join Taranaki in a formal development partnership to be known as the Venture Group. We hope to achieve a number of things through this partnership:
Meat is forming on the bones of these academic concepts.
An early Far North Development Trust initiative was a small business clustering project, funded by the Department of Labour’s CEG programme. Water Witch was a trading vessel moored in the Far North whaling village of Mangonui during the late 1800s. It delivered goods produced in our district to ports all over the world. Our Water Witch Employment Creation Cluster will operate as a virtual trading vessel, carving new distribution channels for branded consumer products made in the Far North. The aim of the cluster is to help our small businesses grow sales from a shared e-tail website and 0800 catalogue, to a point where each can justify the employment of at least one more worker.
An interesting twist to this familiar experiment with Internet marketing, is that the Water Witch website will be piloted by a successful e-tailer based in Southland. Express Group will maintain the Water Witch pilot site, take orders for Water Witch products in multiple currencies, and ship Far North products all over the world – from Southland. It is an example of the knowledge economy in action, and proof that trading relationships can thrive across distance. As the initiative matures, makers of branded consumer products from Southland and Taranaki may wish to join the Water Witch cluster, which offers yet another national and international distribution channel for companies that want to grow.
Further clusters are planned in the Far North in areas such as floraculture and aquaculture; these may also be expanded across the Intradistrict Partnership.
Forestry is a major industry in all three regions and here, too, we have an opportunity to share knowledge, skills, and strategies to grow and support a sector important to our rural regional economies. The fact that our forests are not joined by a physical boundary is immaterial.
A key area of focus for the Intradistrict Partnership, is to ensure our communities have access to a new kind of infrastructure never envisioned by the forefathers who invested in our highways, ports, railroads, and power lines.
This infrastructure is telecommunications – bandwidth to support business applications; fast Internet access; and the many emerging technologies that will become as important to rural and provincial New Zealanders as to those of us who live in cities.
Who will make this investment to bridge what is known as the Digital Divide? If rural people accept second class telecommunications, will we become second class citizens in the world’s Information Economy?
It is an important question for the districts of the Far North, Southland and Taranaki, at the heart of many of our plans for social and economic development.
We are not waiting for telcos or the Government to answer this question for us … we are researching the technology options that will deliver the best, most cost-effective communications to our people and to our businesses. We are targeting service providers who can help us connect with the rest of the world … and bring the rest of the world to our doorsteps.
In the Far North, such infrastructure will help us attract service industries and employment that could not have operated easily from a district like ours 10 years ago.
We look forward to learning from the successes of Southland and Taranaki, which have made significant investments in industry attraction and are well ahead of us in this area.
We hope that before long we can announce successes of our own and make, in partnership with them, a worthwhile contribution to the development of rural regional New Zealand.