Business Leaders

Palmer not about to tread water

James Palmer was appointed the new chief executive for the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in June. He has taken on the challenging role at an organisation that has been under the public spotlight for a range of issues such as the ongoing Ruataniwha Water Storage Project, the water contamination crisis that struck Havelock North and the current consenting process for Water Bottling.

The Profit put James under the spotlight in this Q& A.

What’s your career background

After studying politics at university my first permanent job was as an electorate agent for a member of Parliament in Wellington. I then worked for 7 years in the Beehive as an advisor to government ministers, mostly in areas of economic and industry development, energy and environment policy. I spent the next 4 years as the director of strategy at the ministries of Agriculture and Forestry and Primary Industries, followed by 3 years as Deputy Secretary Sector Strategy at the Ministry for the Environment, overseeing the government’s Natural Resources Sector and its part in the Business Growth Agenda. I also led policy in areas such as national environmental monitoring, hazardous substances and new organisms, international environment agreements and marine management. At the beginning of 2016 I started at the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council as Group Manager Strategic Development, overseeing regional planning and economic development.

In the mid-2000s I took a break from government and had a couple of years in private consulting, along with governance roles at the Eastern and Central Community and HB Power Consumers’ trusts. As a consultant I project managed the feasibility and consenting of the Esk hydro power scheme with local developers Chris Pask and Hugh Lattey. I was also fortunate to do an internship in the British Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in London during this period. In the end I’ve chosen a public sector career because I enjoy the continually changing and complex problem solving. Putting my energy into making the world a better place gives me a sense of purpose. It’s intellectually demanding work, and everyone has an opinion on what you are doing and what you are not, but it’s never boring and it’s satisfying. I feel incredibly fortunate to do this kind of work.

What have you learnt from the Hastings water crisis? (not what council has learnt – but what’s been your key takes from it)

The crisis was particularly stressful due to the scale of the suffering and disruption, and the frustration of not being able to readily pinpoint what had happened and why. The lack of trust between HBRC and HDC was uncomfortable and added a lot to the stress for the council staff involved. I learned about the risks of making hasty judgements when under pressure, and how easily you can be misunderstood when other people don’t have all the information and context you do. I also learned that ratepayers prefer their money not to be spent on councils prosecuting each other, even when one is in breach of their resource consents. Ratepayers understandably just want the problems fixed. The whole experience, coupled with the tragic death of one of our staff, Michael Taylor, on the job earlier this year, has prompted me to strengthen our focus on risk management and pay more attention to low probability, high consequence risks.

Will there ever be a water storage system in CHB?

I think it is likely. The economics of water storage is a function of the value of reliable water for primary production, as well as the value of water for environmental enhancement. I think the value of both will grow in the future so the business case is only likely to get stronger. If water storage can be an enabler of land use change to production systems with lower nutrient and soil loss then the inevitable increase in regulation of farming generally will also make the case stronger. The current work we are doing relooking at the environmental aspects of the Ruataniwha scheme is all about this. The key question is whether landowners on the Ruataniwha Plains can make the economics of alternative land uses under irrigation work.

What are your top priorities in the first year as CE?

In general terms my overarching priority is to reset public trust and confidence in the Regional Council and clearly demonstrate the Council’s value proposition to its ratepayers. While this will take time, it is urgent because it enables everything else we do. Getting a new RMA plan completed for water management in the Heretaunga zone and bringing decision-making on the Ruataniwha scheme to a conclusion is also at the top of the list for the next year, as well as completion of the Coastal Hazard Strategy with Napier and Hastings councils. Napier Port needs significant additional capital for a new wharf and so working through a new financial strategy for the Council is also an immediate focus, and it underpins our 2018-2028 Long Term Plan, which we will be developing over the next twelve months. This plan charts the future course of the Regional Council and is my primary vehicle for taking the Council forward.

Will you make any dramatic changes to how the organisation operates?

The Regional Council has a fairly strong innovation culture and so continuous improvement is already the norm. I am looking to accelerate this in some areas but I’m generally looking at more evolution than revolution. The work we do with farmers and growers will have to scale up substantially and we need to do this efficiently and effectively alongside industry service providers. The community is demanding stronger environmental protection so we will be more active in compliance and enforcement, while also looking at new incentives for natural resource-based businesses to change their practices. I also want the Council to start evaluating its performance based on the outcomes it achieves, rather than just measuring its outputs.

Environmental sustainability seems to be your gig – why have you had such an interest in this area?

My great grandparents all came to New Zealand to start new lives and did so off the back of the land clearance and establishment of farming that occurred in the 1800s. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I’m very conscious now that the quality of life I enjoyed as a young kiwi, my education and upbringing here in HB, was essentially off the exploitation of the region’s natural capital and the blood, sweat and tears of settlers breaking it in. In my early 20s I read Geoff Park’s book Nga Uruora: An ecological history of New Zealand, and learned of the rapid transformation of our landscapes, with untold devastation of indigenous flora and fauna. It had a big impact on me because we weren’t really taught about it at school. As someone who enjoys the outdoors I now realise how much we have lost and the legacy we are left with. Our declining biodiversity and water quality, and globally significant rates of soil loss, are symptoms of this. I love our region and our country, and what we produce, and I want us to lead the world in doing it sustainably with the market premiums and demand that can go with that. I think NZ is better positioned than any country on the planet to be truly sustainable but if we can’t do it then there’s not much hope for the rest of the world.

HBRC has many stakeholders – how will you aim to keep them informed and happy?

I intend getting out of the office at every opportunity to meet with businesses and community groups to hear their perspectives. We will continue to increase our use of social media and online video to foster discussion on issues, and get ideas and feedback from the community. I also want to make our expenditure and our functions more transparent and easier to understand, so ratepayers know what they are buying and can track how much progress we are making on their behalf.

HBRC has a new CE and a new chair in Rex Graham – what sort of relationship will you aim to form?

I’m aiming for a relationship based on regular, free and frank communication and mutual respect. We don’t need to agree on everything and it’s important that I can give advice even when it isn’t what the chair wants to hear, so an open and respectful relationship is important.

What’s your view on consents for water bottling?

Given that the overwhelming majority of rain that falls in HB flows out to sea I don’t have a problem with some water bottling as long as we don’t have a higher value uses for the water and there are no adverse environmental effects. However, I do think all water users should contribute more to the costs of managing water and I’d like to see regional councils given the power to charge more for water that is taken for commercial benefit. I do think people underestimate how hard it is to make a commercial success from water bottling, the easy part is pulling it out of the ground and putting it into bottles. There’s been a bit of gold rush for bottling consents around NZ but time will tell how many of these will become commercially viable.

What do you do in your spare time?

My wife and I have a 3 hectare block with a fair bit of garden so this often takes up a good chunk of the weekend. In summer I try to swim most days, I cycle the HB trails regularly and I try to get a couple of tramps in each year. I also hack a golf ball around occasionally, but too infrequently for any consistent form, and now and again I throw a surf cast out without much success.

If there’s one thing you could wave a magic wand over to it would be resolved – what would it be?

I tend to think if human beings could fundamentally understand their dependence on, and connectedness with, everything and everyone around them then we would make better choices and most of our issues would probably be resolved.