Getting to grips with Gisborne's problems

Gisborne has high levels of unemployment and deprivation - the area's organisations are working on a new approach to deal with them. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Stand on one of Gisborne’s main streets for long enough, and it’s easy to get an idea of what Bill English referred to recently as the town’s “growing pains”.

Logging trucks thunder along the tarmac at regular intervals, a sign of the growing forestry industry which has led to calls for improved roading.

Yet in a number of areas, Gisborne’s pains appear to be from more than simply growth.

The region has one of the highest levels of both socioeconomic deprivation and unemployment in the country, while at 0.7 percent it made the second-smallest contribution to national GDP in 2016.

A desire to lift Gisborne off the bottom rung led mayor Meng Foon to join the leaders of the Far North and Rotorua earlier this year in asking the Government to hand over a wide array of functions typically run by central government agencies.

Foon says people in Gisborne are feeling “buoyant” when it comes to the economy, with sectors like forestry, horticulture and tourism on the rise.

However, with the unemployment rate high and some in the community dealing with family issues and substance abuse, something different is needed - hence his suggestion of a special economic zone, with the highest tax rate set at 19 per cent and other incentives to encourage investment.

“We’re never going to get to the middle or three-quarters of the way if we’re not treated specially…

“Give us a 10-year time period, let us prove ourselves, and once we’re up and our GDP [is], hey, we’re back to normal, but at least the government doesn’t actually have to look after more unemployed people, more people on drugs - we’ll just be lifting ourselves out like a phoenix, eh.”

'No grey areas'

The Government wasn’t on board: Social Development Minister Anne Tolley (also the MP for the East Coast) says it felt the council should focus on providing essential infrastructure rather than taking on extra responsibilities.

Instead, Tolley last year announced the formation of Manaaki Tairawhiti, the second in a series of “place-based initiatives” intended to improve social services around New Zealand.

Manaaki Tairawhiti, which will mark its first anniversary next week, has brought together NGOs, government agencies, local authorities and iwi to work on a joint approach to the big issues facing Gisborne and Wairoa.

Tolley says the goal is to give locals more say around how decisions are made, while reducing the confusion that comes from multiple organisations developing different strategies.

“It isn’t [moving control] to local government but it is a locally based decision-making process that will get far better results we believe than Wellington making those decisions.”

One of those around the table is Herewini Te Koha, chief executive of Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou and a co-chair of Manaaki Tairawhiti.

Te Koha says there are “some very challenging statistics” the group knows it has to deal with.

“Households in the region are doing it tough economically, and they’re vulnerable to all sorts of factors placing our kids in harm’s way in terms of their health, in terms of getting to school and staying in school...and who are in more instances than we would possibly want at all exposed to violence at home.”

Putting the different agencies together is about putting a shared challenge in front of everyone, he says: this isn’t the first time Gisborne has hosted a social services trial, but what’s different now is a willingness “to actually be properly accountable” for every last detail.

“Manaaki Tairawhiti is about no grey areas, no matters that fall through the cracks, a real commitment to eyeball each other and say, how can we succeed?”

One major focus has been cutting down on unnecessary red tape of their own making, such as barriers to different services helping the same people at the same time.

Te Koha says rehabilitation services are also a priority, with people “being dragged down by hard drugs” like P.

When it comes to the Gisborne economy, he concedes there are some worrying statistics which disproportionately affect Maori households. There are “twin challenges” of talent being pulled away to bigger cities and a focus on commodities rather than more diverse or value-added areas.

In that light, he welcomes all political parties’ focus on regional development, such as Labour’s proposal to help fund a wood processing plant in Gisborne.

“Anything that unlocks opportunities from the Auckland economy to the rest of New Zealand is a really good idea and a really good thing.”

More funding needed

Kiri Allan, the Labour candidate taking on Tolley for the East Coast seat, says there are “some excellent characters involved” in Manaaki Tairawhiti.

While central government provides the values, vision and the cash, Allan says it has to work closely with local councils and those who actually understand what is happening on the ground.

“There’s a particular culture here and people from this town know best, it’s government’s job to work with the doers to make sure they’re adequately resourced.”

However, while she praises the work the group has done, she says pulling all the players together doesn’t address the key issue of funding, with a number of social services “overworked and underresourced”.

“My personal view is it’s good bringing people together under the same roof, but that needs to be coupled with the actual resources - give the doers the ability to do.”

For his part, Foon has welcomed Manaaki Tairawhiti's focus on bringing local organisations into the spotlight.

“They've started their work in terms of bottom-up, [saying to] government and other organisations and business sector, we need your support and this is what we’re doing, rather than a top-down solution from government which hasn’t worked in the past.”

However, he says it’s only a start rather than the solution, and still rues the Government’s decision to reject the idea of a special zone.

“If you really want to make a big difference that’s the sort of experiment that one should actually take a chance on, because all our other experiments have actually failed.”

Te Koha says Manaaki Tairawhiti’s work is still at a nascent stage: so far it has developed a number of action plans to address areas like family violence, youth and community safety incorporating some of the work that has already taken place.

“It’s important not to say we’re a new shiny thing and everything else that's been going on by this space by communities is reset to zero - that’s not an approach that would work anywhere.”

There is no doubt in his mind however about the scale of change that is needed - not only for this generation but those to come.

“We’ve got too many kids who aren’t getting the start in life they need to go on, to stay in school and to be living well lives...

“We literally need that first 1000 days to count in the lives of our kids here: we don’t need them showing up at the school gate ill-equipped and traumatised.”