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Shaw’s Bird Park, the road, and the Council: A bureaucratic nightmare in Hamilton

Shaw Bird Park news
Murray and Margaret Shaw. Photo credit – © Benjamin Wilson Photography.

The Americans say “You can’t fight City Hall”. When you take on your council, Big Bureaucracy always wins because it is not a fair game.

Not only do they set the rules, they are the referee as well.

In central governments, the average worker is a nobody. Managers might have influence in their own departments, but not in others. In local government, people are more interconnected. This makes the problem worse. You could appeal to your elected representatives, but they are more likely to know the key people, work with them regularly, and need them in the future. You will be sacrificed for the ongoing relationship.

It is a world-wide issue. Here is a typical example from New Zealand, that has all the hallmarks of a classic battle with incompetence, cover-ups, outright lies and legal bullying funded by the deep pockets of unsuspecting taxpayers. “David” is Murray and Margaret Shaw, while “Goliath” is the Hamilton City Council.

The Shaws are retired, and have devoted a couple of decades to creating a beautiful nature sanctuary on the outskirts of the city. There are ponds, trees and an abundance of native birds, safe from the city where pet cats often kill chicks, and street lights dazzle the owls at night.

The council has spent the same couple of decades planning suburban growth to devour the surrounding land. Thousands of pages of reports and studies gathered dust on shelves as the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. But a sudden offer in 2017 of $280m in government funding changed that. The politicians needed target dates for each stage (unsurprisingly connected to election timetables), so City Hall was under time pressure to deliver.

Despite the narrative of carefully planned operations, this is how governments really operate – long periods of stagnation followed by frantic and chaotic lurches as political momentum shifts. It is no surprise that shortcuts get taken.

Out came the old reports. A scoping document showed a few red lines linking up theoretical future shopping zones, drawn by an office junior who had never visited the site. A decision was quickly made, and it became the masterplan for the road layout.

Nobody noticed the large gully and swamp in the way.

Haste meant the process was completely backwards. Forced acquisition of the land began immediately, but three years later, when engineers realised a 200m long viaduct was needed, official information stated: “Engineering reports based on the geotechnical (ground) testing are anticipated to be completed towards the end of the design phase”. This is truly astonishing – geotechnical testing should be the starting point. It didn’t start until 2022.

A mere 600 metres of empty farmland away, the ground was flat and easy with solid foundations.

Shaw Bird Park news
New Road layout finalised in 2017, five years before any ground testing for foundations was carried out.

New Zealand law requires public consultation for major projects like this. It is a long and tedious process of feedback, interviews, public hearings and potential legal challenges. The council sidestepped all of that by going back to documents from 2007. Murray and Margaret had written a letter in support of the new road, so council managers decided this was all the consultation they needed.

There were two major problems with this. Firstly, the 2007 document was for a different site, part of ‘Variation 14’ for the new suburb’s Stage One, and the council’s own District Plan at the time stated: “The remainder of the [suburb] does not have a staged infrastructure development plan”. In other words, there were no roads that the Shaws were consulted on.

The second problem is even more serious. The Shaws never wrote the letter. The council has not been able to produce an original, only versions that appear to have a photocopied signature. The text is technical planning jargon, which the Shaws don’t even understand, and is mostly cut and pasted from other council files. This exposes a history of short cuts, as the letter was used to get Stage One approved.

The new masterplan was soon ready to be presented to the wider community for their adulation. Money was splashed on events and engagements. Glossy brochures were printed and web pages updated. Positive support was garnered from people who lived on the other side of the city, and the numbers were topped up by council employees who were told to put their names down. The PR gurus did their job well.

Murray and Margaret were rather surprised to discover the road through their property, and even more shocked when they were told they had already approved it.

There was also the offer of cash to neighbouring landowners affected by the new roads. The law allows for government departments to offer fair value as compensation, and most of them didn’t want to stand in the way of progress. This changed later on, when the compensation packages were announced.

The council eventually registered that the cost of building a road across a swamp was going to have an impact. The money left over for the ‘fair value’ of the land was nearly zero. The Shaw’s neighbours were very upset. Faced with mounting opposition, the council raided other budgets and a series of confidential settlements were reached in a classic divide-and-conquer maneuver. The Shaws were left on their own, or so the council thought.

After beating their heads against a bureaucratic brick wall, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, Murray and Margaret realised they needed to change the game. They opened their land to the public as a park. Thousands thronged to it, enjoying picnics and strolling through the bush walkways. They flagged every tree that the council planned to cut down and people could sign up to protect individual trees. The roadway became a camp ground so visitors from across the country could stay there. A petition of 55,000 signatures was delivered to the council, equal to one third of the city’s population.

City Hall did not take kindly to the opposition. They doubled down with their own media campaign, including pamphlets and a website criticising the Shaws. An independent review of the criticism debunked every one of the 14 points, yet the council continued with it. They enlisted help from other government organisations. Tellingly, the head of the regional council publicly refused, but the Department of Conservation obliged – bizarrely threatening to euthanise the Shaws’ rescued birds. Murray always had a special affinity with birds, and friends bought him injured native species. He was able to nurse many back to health, yet now the government wanted to kill them ‘in order to protect them’.

It was getting nasty, so the Shaws stepped it up too. Some research into the land’s history turned up significant Maori connections. There is now a tribal protest site because the road will destroy archaeological areas. Diggers and bulldozers that Murray used to make the ponds were now used to block off gates, preventing council staff from access. Police were called, but when supporters showed up with video cameras, the boys in blue backed down.

Five years in, and the council is way behind on its deadlines. The Mayor who started it all is long gone. The council chief executive (the real power behind the throne) who rushed ahead with decisions has resigned into obscurity. But replacements are stuck in a system that is already over-committed. Throughout, the Shaws have suffered terrible stress.

Had the council taken the obvious solution of relocating the road, it could have done so by now, saving millions on construction, yet battle lines are still drawn.

There is an unlikely saviour, if politicians have the vision to see it. The coming global recession will slow the city’s growth. Further infrastructure spending will need to be delayed. The council is being handed a second opportunity to relocate the road. There will be time to change the land acquisition and redesign it, preferably after proper geotechnical investigations are carried out, without any political cost.

Maybe City Hall can settle for a draw.

By Andrew Bydder

Photo of Murray and Margaret Shaw: © Benjamin Wilson Photography.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Council in NZ and for that matter, AU, are often too self important to compromise, even when its in everyone’s best interests. Let see if Hamilton can buck the trend, they certainly should….

  2. Councils are full of system pigs, who must be fed and they will nbever be satisfied. The arrogance of some these pigs is appalling. They will spend rate payers money on lawyers and it does not hurt them but only boos their fat ego. They do it because they can.

  3. Here they build something beautiful for the sharing and some incompetents want to stomp on it. Good on the Shaws for making a stand and applying the pressure when needed. There have been too many examples of councils riding roughshod over its ratepayers around the country. Time here for an apology and some form of compensation. They deserve it.!

  4. The clear problem with Hamilton City Council is that they think we work for them. Once we pass over our rates, they think the money is theirs! They are obviously delusional and there is a variety of good treatments for that! Three cheers for the Shaws!

    • I completely agree. I stood for the Council but would abstain from voting on this issue, having frequented the Shaws’ hospitality, if I had not been “excluded” by Council.
      Cr. Andrew should abstain likewise from voting in Chamber, however should contribute to the debate. But it won’t come to that, as “the powers” (City Hall) are determined to impose their sustainability by driving this motorway through the endangered bird park, in conflict with the overwhelming wishes of Hamilton residents.

  5. Councillor Andrew Bydder should resign after expressing these views in this forum, as it constitutes a breach of trust with Council. His claims of “outright lies” directed at Hamilton City Council management staff are the strongest claim for a code of conduct complaint against him, by bringing the elected body into disrepute; to avoid this embarrassment, he now needs to instigate a by-election for the East Ward.
    Were a by-election to be called for February 2023, the most opportune time, I would re-stand for Council on a platform of patriotism, family and utilitarianism.

    • Those are very strong words Roger, and you were fully aware of why Andrew Bydder and others which made up the Team Integrity group were standing; mainly to try to stop the out of control spending on costly items not needed like painted roads, heavily investing in cycle needs and not motorists’, ignoring core services just to mention a few.. You do not mention any of those issues. Perhaps Andrew Bydder had spent some time on doing OIA’s and had evidence to back up his claims – why have you not asked him? I got the impression that this team was standing because of their concern at the debt the Council has, not because they wanted to be councillors. The article about Shaws Bird Park clearly shows Andrew had a great deal of knowledge of what had been going on – he should be acknowledged for that, not criticized. I am disappointed you did not recognise that. None of the things you stand for help the Hamilton ratepayers in the looming debt crises and the steady increase in rates which they are expected to pay for.

      • Andrew Bydder is a prime example of how STV does indeed produce duds, when there were better qualified candidates in his ward that missed out. A narrow voter pool of property aficionados panicked when their mortgages increased and got behind their clone candidate. For instance, fellow Team Integrity candidate Russelle Knapp deserved better; loyalty to the overall team was not demonstrated.
        My election policies precisely addressed the quandary of irresponsible spending by my faithfulness to the electorate’s minimal expectation of personal willingness to serve.
        If elected, I would have joined Geoff Taylor by insisting on being sworn in to duty inside Council Chambers instead of the Kirikiriroa Marae.

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