Coromandel Heritage Region - The Truth Emerges!
Monday, November 30, 2015 at 3:16PM
Bill Barclay

For all those who have been awaiting the emergence of the truth surrounding the CHR that has so far been kept well hidden to avoid the universal embarrassment engulfing the proposal, here are the facts.

This information has been provided by Geoffrey Robinson who in the manner of the professional journalist that he is, and unlike so many of those who decorate the benches of our MSM, set about using the OIA to obtain the entire files of material that detail ever step of the way in which this drama evolved.

The information has been sorted, and produced in a manner that is very readable, and makes the full extent of the debacle clear from the day that Chris Adams was given the go-ahead to produce the glossy document that has now ended up on the rubbish heap.

Hardly Chris's fault, but he cannot escape a level of responsibility for the manner in which he set about having it accepted and promoted by our extremely naive Council, led by the nose by its dopey Economic  Development Committee.

Geoffrey's findings will be appended to to this post shortly. Read carefully and well, and try not to be too shocked. Watch carefully the roles played by the various staff members, and the marvel at the denouement that signaled the culmination of what must constitute Leach's most embarrassing initiative. And that says a great deal! 


   Your comments on the Coromandel Heritage Region (CHR) Project are timely and to the point.  The project has gone very quiet after stumbling immediately out of the starting gate, and district residents might rightly be wondering what is going on.

    Several weeks ago, in response to an OIA request, I received copies from TCDC of all notes and communication regarding the project from January to mid-September of this year.  The documents reveal why the CHR undertaking imploded shortly after liftoff – a faulty process from the start, featuring personal relationships over process, failure to heed obvious warnings, and a surprising lapse of political awareness.

    First off and of particular interest, the public will be interested to learn that the centerpiece feature of the CHR plan was categorically shattered like a clay pigeon by Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry in a meeting on September 17 in Wellington.  The mayor’s pet project had called for the Coromandel to be designated an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Protected Landscape” after special enabling legislation.  But just one day after narrowly securing limited support from his own council to further investigate the idea (and jumping on a plane to the capital), Leach was told by Barry that “the IUCN classification should be parked”, according to internal TCDC notes of the meeting. 

   In addition to killing the IUCN plan, according to the TCDC memo, the minister indicated one of the project’s proposed “signature conservation projects” ­– a network of new marine reserves in all communities – should be “put aside”.  Another DOC official present at the meeting, Acting Deputy Director General Carl McGuinness, reportedly questioned “if the Heritage Region concept was the best vehicle to achieve the outcome sought.”  Essentially no backing from DOC for the core project.  It was less than two weeks later, after serious community opposition also had surfaced, that the mayor’s plan failed in a vote on September 30 to gain support from Waikato Regional Council.

    TCDC and the mayor now appear to be disowning the 54-page Miles Destinations proposal.  When asked about the derailed CHR project recently, CEO David Hammond told me the controversial “feasibility study” that pushed the IUCN plan – but bombed – was “an independent report” and “not a council document”.  As evidenced by numerous emails, however, nothing could be further from the truth. 

   Mayor Leach and his friend Brent Page (chair of TCDC’s Economic Development Committee) reviewed multiple drafts of the plan throughout its development (including red-line versions), making specific revision requests from late May through late July.  Emails confirm that Miles report author Chris Adams repeatedly deferred to Leach and Page on content and strategy throughout the supposedly “independent” process, apparently making every change requested. Adams also supplied, on request, separate tailored versions of documents for presentation to different audiences, including Minister Barry.

   The IUCN plan was definitely “owned” by the mayor.  An email from TCDC’s economic development manager to Adams on May 23 referred to a seven-page “Introductory Discussion Document”, based around the IUCN concept, that would be the basis for what he called Leach’s “sales pitch” to Barry way back on June 5.

   And if there were any lingering doubts that the CHR Feasibility Study was far from an “independent” outside report, Adams emailed Leach and Page a final draft version on July 30, with eight more substantial changes from the previous draft as discussed and asking once again “if there are any final tweaks which we can make.”

   Adams, of course, had done previous consulting jobs on the Hauraki Rail trail and Walks projects, and was hand-picked for the CHR promo job as a trusted hand and mate. A September 10 email of his mentioning possible future work evidences an overly familiar relationship with council with a light reference to possibly not charging for some extra work “other than perhaps a beer/wine out on the deck next time I am visiting Kuaotunu.”

    A loose relationship is further emphasised by the absence of any contract for Adams’ services for TCDC until a query from the economic development manager at the close of the financial year in late June – after which Ben Day dutifully produced a $20,000 (plus GST) contract back-dated three months to be signed.

    Interestingly, not a single email or memo obtained under the OIA request includes even a “cc” to any economic development committee member other than Page. All others were in the dark as the project took form.  And only as the public release and closed-door rollout to invited “stakeholders” approached were any councillors advised of progress – and even then, not of substantive content.  EDC members and council were completely out of the loop.

    Initial responsibility for the IUCN fiasco appears to lie with Chris Adams, who originally suggested the scheme in an email to TCDC policy staff as an organising principle around which to structure the whole Heritage Region project.  No correspondence was released to show it was questioned at any point by either Leach or Page, who took up the idea and ran with it.

   As early as May 5, however, DOC manager of strategic partnerships Andrew Bignell warned Adams that the IUCN framework was probably inappropriate for the Coromandel, noting a “fundamental problem”.  Bignell queried “the motivations for going down the [IUCN] track you suggest the council wishes to go – is it to achieve conservation, achieve a tourism marketing point of difference, or what?”  Bignell appears to have been ignored.

   TCDC policy managers were also asked by Adams in early May for their views on the IUCN proposal.  Senior Policy Planner Andrew Wharton offered a warning about “bureaucrats” leading the IUCN idea.  Wharton summarised, “Politics and parochialism aside, I generally favour using the existing legal/politic/administrative framework to manage and area…rather than adding another layer of classification and administrative requirements that has little effect on the ground.” Wharton’s views were shared by Leigh Robcke, TCDC district plan manager.  Adams and Leach nevertheless pressed ahead with their IUCN classification proposal despite these senior staff reservations.

   When the Miles/Leach Heritage Region Project hit opposition shortly after its unveiling in August, the mayor claimed the document released to the public was just a starting point for discussion, not a done deal.  However, records indicate the public was not intended to have any input until well after the proposal was being implemented.

   Two days after the August 17 closed-door CHR stakeholder presentation and public press release announcing the project, Leach emailed attendees with thanks.  He explained, “The next stage is for a high level discussion with the [DOC] director general and Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry.  This will then give direction for TCDC to meet with Iwi/DOC and WRC and get an agreement in principle and take the concept to the next stage of consultation.”

   Cr Sandra Goudie replied by email on the same day, “I thought the next stage would be to seek a mandate from Council”.

   Exactly why good mates Glenn Leach, Brent Page, and Chris Adams were so out of touch with the public, DOC, and WRC is the question.  The chain of OIA documents suggests it was because the three musketeers, despite contact with a number of outsiders to push their plan ahead, mostly listened to each other, ignored outside advice, and engaged in what reads like a closed positive feedback loop.

   The so-called “Heritage” project has now gone back to staff for further definition.  A late September memo from TCDC Senior Policy Planner Kirsten Williamson to the mayor, even before the September 30 put-down by WRC, suggests backing off from his IUCN plan and going back to square one with a stocktake of the district’s “heritage” – cultural, historical, and environmental.  She suggests starting with broad community level discussions looking at what is already being done, what is valued, and what, if any, additional activities might be added.  Sounds pretty sensible – like putting the horse before the cart.

   As for the Coromandel Heritage Region project unveiled on August 17, the smart money will consider it dead for this council –  and unlikely to be resuscitated in the next.

 - Geoffrey Robinson


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