Local Elections Candidate Interviews: Noel Smith - Waikato Councillor - Waikato Regional Council

As part of the Morning Show's coverage of the 2022 Local Elections, Aaron will be interviewing candidates standing for positions on the Raglan Community Board as well as the Waikato District and Regional Councils. Below is a transcript of Aaron's interview with Noel Smith.


"I don't see myself as a greenie, but ... I'm here for my children, my grandchildren and future generations. It's not about high production right now. It's about what's going to be best for the long term," he said

(Listen to the full interview below:)

Aaron: On the phone I've got Noel Smith.

Noel Smith: Good morning Aaron.

Aaron: You are a current district councillor, but you're running for regional council at this local body election. Do you want to tell us about that decision first up?

Noel Smith: Well, I've done 15 years as the local ward councillor here at Te Kowhai, Whatawhata and Rotokauri. After 15 years, I've done what I think I can do for the ward and I believe it's time to step aside to allow others to take the baton. However, the regional council, I think there's some challenges there. We've all seen what's happened in the last three years in this current ward of the regional council which is the Waikato district and it has not been getting heard around the table sufficiently, I believe.

Aaron: Okay. What are the reasons you think that our area hasn't been heard sufficiently?

Noel Smith: Oh look, the reality is that Fred hasn't been at the table and he needed to be. I've got a lot of respect for Fred. He's got a huge contribution under the Raglan community, but I think the regional council, I asked a few friends when I was thinking about this. I said, "What is the regional council to you?" And they said, "Well, we pay rates to them but I really don't know what they do." And to me that's an appalling state because of the ability of the regional council to support the communities.

Aaron: Yeah, I spent a lot of time on the radio explaining that there's a district council and a regional council - otherwise they have the same name. It's kind of like even knowing that the council exists is a bit of a challenge. I guess with the controversy that happened over the last couple of years, people are now aware of it. I don't know whether that's a success, though, do you have a perspective on that?

Noel Smith: Well, it's made an awareness that there is another council. But in simple terms, the regional council looks after the environment, the air and the water in the district - the land. And the reality is, we've got to work together - the two councils - for the support of the community - because one without the other it leaves gaps. I think people were confused when the regional council changed their name from Environment Waikato to Waikato Regional Council, it immediately brought about a lack of understanding of what's really going on.

Aaron: Something I'd like to do as well is just for people who don't know you, just to introduce yourself a little bit. Tell us a little bit about your life, your work life and a little bit about the family - just so people kind of get a feel for who you are.

Noel Smith: That's fine. I started off life after school as a police cadet and spent 14 years with the New Zealand Police working in Auckland and the Waikato for a time. When John Gower left Raglan, I was the person that relieved out there while they put a new person on. After leaving the police I went to the Ministry of Justice and became the district manager for Waikato, King-Country and Coromandel. After that I retired again as I did after the police and went onto the farm. I've been farming here at Te Kauwhata for 40 odd years with beef cattle and I decided one day to put my hand up for the district council, thought I could do a better job than what they'd been doing and have spent 15 years doing that and I've been very happy with what I've contributed. So that's really simply about me. I've done a lot of things along the way. I'm currently the president of the Waikato JP Association, so really community minded and helping build the Te Otamanui Walkway here at Te Kowhai. So yeah, anything else I'd like you'd like me to expand on? Happy to do so.

Aaron: Normally I ask people how aware of the rest of the district they are - or the constituency in this case. We've seen you out here in Raglan doing submissions or accepting submissions for the Coastal Reserves Management Plan, for instance. So have you got out and got around most of the district over the last 15 years?

Noel Smith: Absolutely. Allan Sanson, our current mayor, has asked me four years ago with Aksel Beck the current deputy mayor to lead the blueprint program and that involved going out into the communities, our major towns and villages to seek the aspirations of those communities. In Raglan, for example, we've got alongside Raglan Naturally and the people there. Getting out into those communities which basically went up the river right from Raglan, Whatawhata, Te Kowhai, Ngaruawahia and up through Huntly to Tuakau in the end. Now we're just going out to Port Waikato. So I have been engaging with the community on that base, I've been an RMA Commissioner, so I've gone out into the community developments. I'm currently chairing the district plan appeals, which is all the rezoning of the district, and that's taking me out into the community to look at locations and what the appeal points are. So certainly had a huge engagement with the community and the whole district. And then in my policing days I served in Huntly and the greater area. So I've got a very deep knowledge of what's going on, where things are at. So very fortunate in that area.

Aaron: Can we just leap into the district plan, if you're working on that at the moment, that's presumably running through the election. So do you stay as a commissioner in a situation like that - or what happens?

Noel Smith: Well, that's really for the new mayor. There have been some discussions with a couple of the mayoral aspirants because they are on the committee with me. That's Aksel Beck and Jacqui Church. But the reality is that it's entirely over to the mayor and the new council as to who remains. And look, if I was elected to the regional council, I don't think it's appropriate that I stay on if I'm not elected, which I hope not to be the case. Then with half, possibly even over half a new council for the district, there are some suggestions that one or two of us could stay on as independents to assist with that process - because of our knowledge of the whole process.

Aaron: Back to the blueprints, because I think this will tie in a little bit to the regional thing in a moment. Is that something quite new for councils to do or is it just new around this part of the world?

Noel Smith: It is reasonably new... one or two others have done it, but when I came on to council 15 years ago, I asked what our strategic directions were and I was told it was the annual plan and the long term plan. The reality of the long term plan was basically council staff coming up with some plans, going to council, we put them out to the community. Community wanted to do other things; they came and made submissions and we said we didn't want to increase the rate so we wouldn't do what the community wanted, we'd do what the staff wanted. That was really arrogant and I just advocated for so long to change that. 

Finally we got enough people around the table that we went into Pokeno actually, and the new town centre there, and brought in external consultants and they were seeing the benefit from that exercise that we could go to other communities and ask for their input. So that has been a real change and we've been working, and we now have some of those aspirations funded on the long term plan or we're partnering with other groups. So we're finally, the district council, is listening and that's one of the things that I think is important that I can try and advocate for around the table in the region, is that we need to be seeking more from our communities of what they expect from us, rather than telling them an annual plan or long term plan process.

Aaron: Do you think the blueprint idea is applicable to the regional council?

Noel Smith: It's not because that's about placemaking, that's about local infrastructure assets and the like. But it's possible the principles involved about going out into the community as councillors and seeking and drawing out what that community's expectations are, like we've got. Raglan, there's the harbour and the district council has just been working with the community on the Whāingaroa Harbour Strategy. Now, that's great and that was signed off by the Strategy and Finance Committee on Wednesday, endorsed at the district council. I think there's some work in there that will need the regional council's support. Where initiatives like - and this is where I see the breakdown at the moment between the district and the region, we haven't worked well politically and we need to cross that divide and support. There are regulatory processes that the region can stand aside from the district, but we should be working together for the benefit of our communities.

Aaron: Do you think that's a bit of a problem with the structure that regional council and district council are so distinct and separate and that it's up to the councillors and mayors and chair-people to find a way to work together. But if they don't, there's nothing to force them to do it. Do you think a better structure is due?

Noel Smith: Well actually on 28th of October, the government is going to release the local government review and I am predicting that we will see some unitary authorities created. That's my crystal ball. If I'm right, there'll be major changes and it'll be like Auckland. There's no separate councils up there with a regional council coming over the top and making environmental rules and everyone is getting upset. I just think that's a potential. But you know, look at the example we've used between Waikato District and Hamilton City. We've had a cross boundary committee with the two mayors and three councillors of which I've been fortunate to be one, where we have set together regularly for the last four or five years and we've done cross-boundary issues as if the boundary didn't exist. That's worked out extremely well and we've put things in place where if it's better to be in the city or if it's better to be in the district, so be it. Forget the parochialism and let's do what's best for the community. I think all the territorial authorities need to have a better relationship with the region and that can be done by people who have the experience in the district, and particularly if there's local government reform, as I suspect, you need to know your district extremely well.

Aaron: I imagine there's been times in the past where a district council has said to the city council… or the city council has gone, we need more land to be incorporated into the city. And the district council is like, "Well, we don't want to give up our land."

Noel Smith: Well, fortunately, that was one of the big issues that we dealt with in this term. About 18 months ago, (maybe two years) we sat down with the city and it took us a year, a year and a half to get to, but we worked up a principal document and we can now - without any argy bargy -  the city is about to trigger a request to move land across. We've got three areas that could go and that's surrounding the city. Once the city actually does that, that will then foreshadow a local government process which will transfer land from the district to the city for their expansion. That's been negotiated, it's been consulted on, and so we've got rid of the politics out of it. We've done it for the right reasons.

Aaron: And that's what we want to hear really. Stuff that we haven't been happy to hear about is (unless you like the excitement of it) the controversy with the regional council. You're running for regional council and I've been talking with all the candidates about this. I wasn't even fully aware of it. I'm becoming more and more aware of it - I wasn't aware of the whole scope. But we have councillors threatening each other around the council table, by the sounds of it, I'm assuming you're going to say that's not really acceptable, but just how unacceptable is that and what can the other councillors be doing about that?

Noel Smith: I can never condone bullying but I'm not in the tent. I've been fortunate in that a number of the current councillors and potential councillors have contacted me and I've met with them and we've had some discussions and I think some of those probably should stay in house. But the reality is it's not acceptable and we're all thinking that if we get around the table, that we need to have some pretty strong protocols set out. And look, I'm the first one to engage in robust debate, but it's the issue that you get into, you don't get into the people. So, yeah, it's not acceptable in any form, any threats of violence or whatever. I used to be in the police and lock people up for that in the good old days. Yeah, but you know, it's in the heat of policy, people do lose it, but you've got to stand up and say sorry, you've got to learn from that. If you don't learn from it, there are consequences.

Aaron: So some of the discussions that we've been having about the regional council; we’re in a situation where we talked about environmentalism versus farming and that in a lot of ways isn’t a very helpful way to frame the debate - but that's the way it's kind of gone out there. I guess the farmers have been asked to deal with a lot of regulatory changes. It's possibly too much for them. But also we've got scientists saying they just need to happen. Is this a problem that can be solved at the regional council or is this something that you'd want to see the government come and actually help out with?

Noel Smith: Well, interestingly enough, I am a farmer and I farm on the Waipa River and I've got the Mangaheka Stream, which comes out of the Te Rapa subdivision, where Porters are at the north of Hamilton. So I've got water coming out of the city through my land. I've got the Waipa River. So I'm very aware of the issues around that. Forty years ago, before it was fashionable, I fenced all the waterways. So I think I was ahead of the game back then but the reality is, we need to protect our waterways. We've got to have healthy waterways. I was a sceptic. But the reality is something is happening, and whether you call it climate change or whatever, let's just accept it as climate change. It's just the right thing to do - is to not pollute our waterways - to have the appropriate programs and planting regimes. We've seen what riparian planting and margins can do in wetlands. It's a balance. I've said to a number of farmers, "Just get on with it." You need to get on board. I stopped using fertilisers probably 15 years ago, and I backed off the production, the number of cattle in this place. My production now is higher and better without fertilisers. So I'm not saying that it suits everybody - I get natural fertilisation from when I get floods on the river. But there are alternative ways that we can do things that are better for the environment. I'm not sure that I've probably answered all the questions, but I'm pretty strong on how we as individuals can make a difference.

Aaron: I think I made it a pretty complicated question.

Noel Smith: There are farmers who have properties that are seemingly impossible, but it's a matter of changing your farming practices to do the right thing, but don't bankrupt yourself. The community out there who are saying, "Stop farming in New Zealand, I'm sorry, I can't accept that there are ways in which we can farm that are better for the environment, better for the community and for farmers to exist." And if you take farming away, if you go to cropping and people have talked about that, that cropping needs machinery, you've got carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere - whichever way you look at it. So it's moving to the right practices rather than just blanket-ly getting rid of everything.

Aaron: I think the thing that I've looked at, and I'm not involved in the farming community at all, but I can see that a lot of young farmers … anyone who owns anything these days has got a lot of debt. There might not be a lot of capacity for them to make changes. They could be running from dawn to dusk through parts of the year just because they're so busy. I know farmers literally run around some of the time just to get everything done. I'm thinking we need the central government to come in if we want to do it as fast as the scientists say it needs to be done. Does the central government need to be putting some money there.

Noel Smith: Yeah and it's interesting, as a district councillor and potential regional councillor, my concern is that the Government needs to be putting money in and people keep saying the government needs to do this but where are they going to get the money? It's going to come from us, as taxpayers. They've already spent so much on the COVID response that our children and grandchildren will be paying for that and I'm not criticising it - that response was needed. Absolutely. The reality is, the government can't continue to do everything without taking money from people. It's a matter I think we've got to get it out of the political agenda and actually get everybody onside. At the end of the day, if it's a political decision, let's get to it sooner than later and don't muddle along.

Aaron: There does seem to be sort of conservative forces in the community who just want to stop any kind of change. I mean, have you talked to people with that kind of vibe? And how do the conversations go?

Noel Smith: Reality is, I haven't really experienced that. People that I've met are very positive. The naysayers, I haven't really got an experience of it, to be absolutely honest and I'd rather not make something up.

Aaron: No, I'm not asking you to do that. I'm thinking of when Plan Change One came through the regional council and that was about riparian management. There were people arguing successfully, I think, to put the fences just a bit too close to the streams for riparian management to be effective. I understand that's now gone to the Environment Court. So there must be people out there who are trying to slow things up a bit.

Noel Smith: Yes, there is. And I submitted on the Plan Change One insofar as there were aspects like they're using a product called Overseer to determine some of the calculations and that tool is not fit for that purpose. That's been acknowledged. I fenced my waterways, about 1981 it was, and we came back just over a chain from the river edge and triple planted trees along over a kilometre of the river. Then I fenced the streams - and because of the topography and the level of rise with the streams - it came back up to 12 metres from the creek edge and then did some planting. So when people are saying, "No, you've got to take it to the top of the bank and if that's only a metre from the waterway, well that doesn't filter the sediments and so on." So I think they were being ridiculous in saying that, you know, you've got to go to the top of the bank, environmentally, that's not the right thing to do in my personal opinion. I don't see myself as a greenie, but I see myself as; a touch of green in me. I'm here for my children, my grandchildren and future generations. It's not about high production right now. It's about what's going to be best for the long term. I think people have got to take that longer term view. 

Aaron: Okay folks, we're talking to Noel Smith, current district councillor, looking to move to regional councillor at the next election. Noel, do you have a quick sentence to tell people why they should vote for you?

Noel Smith: I think the issue for me is leadership experience, and accountability is key and I bring that experience with my knowledge of the district and my connections with various groups and communities. I think that I'm the right person to go into the regional council on behalf of the Waikato District communities.

Aaron: Thank you for your time this morning and good luck for the rest of the campaign.

Noel Smith: Thanks very much. Appreciate the opportunity.

If you're an enrolled voter in the Waikato district, you'll get a voting information pack in the mail from Friday 16 September 2022.You will have until 12 noon on Saturday 8 October 2022 to vote. If you are sending your vote via post, please ensure that you have allowed enough time for your vote to be received by the due date. You. can also drop off your vote to: 

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7 Bow Street, Raglan 3225
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