We're all regional developers now

“Regional development” has come a long way from the 1970s. Then it resembled aid to the third world: money from Wellington to make work in depressed regions. Now it is smart work, anywhere, which the government “coaches”.

What makes that “regional”, as distinct from national? According to advocates of this revived practice, the distinctiveness of the region. So you don’t have a steel mill or wearable art or gumboot-throwing in every town.

On the other hand, what is distinctive about a bakery? Visiting Australian regional development guru Peter Kenyon waxed eloquent to Jim Anderton’s two-day conference of central and local government officials, local development agencies and consultants in Rotorua on Wednesday-Thursday about a baker who had gone turned a town round.

That is certainly development. But it is hardly distinctive. The same inventive “hero” (to use a conference buzzword), clearly a brilliant marketer and not a bad baker to boot, could have set up in Temuka or Tirau. All the policymakers in the local town halls or Wellington would need to do would be to make sure they weren’t getting in the way of this unstoppable entrepreneur.

Local development agencies might also see what they could do to encourage others on to the “hero’s” coattails, though this seems to happen anyway once a hero gets in full flight. Putting ratepayers’ or taxpayers’ dollars into something that is going like a bomb doesn’t seem good business.

And thereby hung one of the questions over Mr Anderton’s good-humoured and enthusiastic conference: what is the role of policymakers in Wellington and local authorities and other agencies?

Mr Anderton described Wellington’s role as that of a “coach”. “Where we need to help the team get together, we will, and when the team is together we can encourage and support it. If the team needs some particular skills we might help provide those. If the team is in dispute we might help mediate. We can find out and share what other teams are doing. If the rules aren’t working, we might try and change them.

“If the team is doing brilliantly and is self-supporting, then we might just step back and watch for a while, our involvement being cheering from the sideline.”

That doesn’t sound like heavy-handed intervention, or like pouring taxpayers’ money into lemons like Matai Industries, the high-profile “third-world” aid from the Norman Kirk government to the West Coast in the early 1970s.

“The key point is that central government should help you achieve what you want, which is strong, self-directed communities and economies,” Mr Anderton said.

He has got the message. Indeed, only the deaf could have missed it. From the opening guru slot — romped through by story-teller Ernesto Sirolli (now operating in Canada) — there was heavy emphasis on listening to what the grassroots say, including the young, and responding to that, not what looks good in Wellington or in some council chamber.

It is, as Mr Kenyon made clear by his own experience in turning round a dying Western Australian locality, finding the right seeding assistance, often not money but a person, to turn some private commercial idea into money-making action.

Then Mr Anderton added, curiously: “Don’t vote for anything less.”

That reflects a strong current at the conference, captured by Rotorua mayor Grahame Hall in his opening welcome — that elected and appointed officials up and down the country have been struggling to work out how to develop their “communities” and are hugely delighted to have an ally in the Beehive after a decade and a-half of the level playing field.

Note the word “communities”. There was at the conference a tendency to slide back and forth permeably between social and economic policy. Some of the presenters were fresh from presenting at Steve Maharey’s social entrepreneurs conference last week (in Wellington, of course).

Yet when you hunt down regional development in the Wellington bureaucracy, it is firmly in the bailiwick of Mr Anderton’s Ministry of Economic Development (MED). Christchurch’s inspirational ex-mayor Vicki Buck also kept referring to “regional economic development” in her presentation.

This presents a policy difficulty.

One approach has ringing clarity. Neil Taylor of Napier City Council — a city that has distinguished itself above all provincial civic enterprises with the resurrection and celebration of its world-unique art deco architecture, inspired by a former museum director, Robert McGregor, and is now jazzing a defunct industrial area into a promenade of cafe’s and outdoor living — was adamant that the city would do only infrastructure and all commercial development must be by business.

But the Moerewa revival, showcased at both Mr Maharey’s and Mr Anderton’s conferences, clearly needed oodles of government money — though it also wouldn’t have worked unless the initiative and hard work had come from locals. And it is now generating income and jobs.

Which provides lessons one and two from the conference.

The first is that successful regional development will not work unless it is by local self-starters — governments at all levels are at most partners in something generated from outside government. One of the sharpest messages came from a Ngati Porou presenter: the realisation in that iwi that “if we don’t pick ourselves up, who will?” — and a parallel resentment at “dependency”.

The second lesson is that government involvement should be judged by whether it adds value. If it doesn’t, it is crowding out other things that could be done or, worse, destroying value.

It follows from that that policymakers should logically regard any funds they commit to projects as investments, not grants. That is, there should be a measurable return.

This does seem to have been grasped by MED officials They have also been developing a framework, still under wraps, for their own and local councils’ use in assessing whether to get in behind a project.

But that brings any assessment of the “new” regional development back to the highly porous boundary between social and economic. There was some talk from visiting gurus about “social capital”. And the Moerewa example — funded social development, leading to commercial job-creation — seems to lend weight to the notion.

But there was no clarity at the conference as to whether social capital — a notion popularised in the early 1990s by American Robert Putnam’s study of regional differences in Italy and briefly taken up by former Prime Minister Jim Bolger shortly before his ousting in 1997 — is a stock, on which a measurable return might be expected, or a flow, a feel-good excuse for social spending on do-good projects.

There were other lessons from the conference.

* cultural integrity, to make the developmental most out of the unique Maori dimension;

* the multiplier effect from clusters, which in turn requires building trust among competitors to develop the complementarity that gives clusters their economic benefit; Mr Anderton announced more budget funds next year to facilitate clusters;

* sustainability, not as environmental sustainability, though that was a subtext, but in terms of projects that don’t fade out when the government “coaching” moves on to other nascent initiatives;

* and better coordination among the now-myriad agencies in or on the periphery of regional development and between national development and regional strategies, both also promised by Mr Anderton.

And there was perhaps one other lesson. The conference was principally a talkfest, bringing together activitists atomised during the Rogernomics years and maybe giving them some ideas to take back to their boxes.

This is a tiny country, hardly a region in Putnam’s Italy. If regions are in competition for investment and resources, it seems lilliputian. A word pushed heavily by the MED at the end of the conference was “collaboration”, regions learning from each other and sharing ideas and initiatives.

A tall order. I come from south of the Waitaki and the idea that Otago and Southland will be able to work with the Sassenachs in Canterbury is preposterous.