Q and A interview with SMBA chair, David Abbott

David Abbott with wife Bronwyn and cat Ulysses.

Retired judge and former barrister David Abbott took on the role of chair of the St Mary’s Bay Association almost a year ago, following long-term chair Tony Skelton’s departure. He is keen to foster a very inclusive approach with members on local issues, via more frequent newsletters, the new website and other communications.

David and his wife Bronwen have lived in St Mary’s Bay since 1985 and raised their two children here. Over the years David has had various local community involvements: as a supporter of the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Centre in its formative years, as convenor of legal rosters in the Ponsonby and Grey Lynn Citizens Advice Bureaus for many years, and as a member of the Western Bays Community Committee for a short time in 1980s.

He has wide interests – in the arts, sport, food and wine, and travel. He spent some years working with a youth opera group (including being one of its trustees), and was president of the University of Auckland’s alumni organisation for several years.

David is keen to hear SMBA members’ views on issues and hopes to meet as many members as possible at the AGM on Wednesday, November 9. In the meantime, if you feel strongly on an issue, do tell us. Contact details are on this website.

To help members get to know David better, we asked him for his ideas on the SMBA, the changing role of community groups and their relationship with Auckland Council.

1 Why did you take on the role of chair?

After many years of a busy professional life, retirement meant I had some spare time, and I approached SMBA to see if I could contribute in any way. Initially I was asked to review the SMBA rules. Then, as Tony Skelton was about to stand down after many years as chair and none of the executive committee had the time to commit to the role, Tony asked me if I was willing to take it on. I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about my neighbourhood and to take an active part in preserving and enhancing it as a great place to live.

2 What, if anything, has surprised you about the work of the St Mary’s Bay Association?

I have been surprised by the breadth of issues affecting the St Mary’s Bay area. As I see it, many of the big issues affecting Auckland’s development (for example, housing, transport and infrastructure) directly affect us as a heritage area close to the rapidly developing and changing city centre, at the hub of the Auckland isthmus.

3 Why should residents join?

Because we want your input. Residents share an interest in how we, and visitors to the area, use our neighbourhood. We should be looking to encourage uses which add to vitality and enjoyment, at the same time as protecting the heritage character that helps to make it such a great place to live. By joining SMBA, residents get to have a say in its direction, and to support its work in making St Mary’s Bay a place where we will continue to want to live.

4 Do you believe that the role of community groups is changing?

Yes. Community groups such as SMBA are being recognised, increasingly, as a way for our politicians (local probably more than national at this time) to hear what matters in the community.

5 What are the biggest challenges for community groups?

To ensure that politicians continue to recognise them. To persuade members of their community that that even the smallest participation matters, and will provide some reward personally as well as for the community.

6 Since the formation of the Super City, Aucklanders have been asked to respond to an almost overwhelming number of proposals, including the Unitary Plan and new transport initiatives. These are highly complex issues. Do you feel that the council’s online response forms are too simplistic to create meaningful consultation?

I believe the online questions have to be relatively simple, or they will become too off-putting. They usually allow for additional comment – which is where anyone wanting to go beyond the simple answer can do so. The important thing in my mind is for council to provide informative reports back to the community on the more elaborate answers as well as the simple ones – demonstrating that it is taking all the feedback on board.

7 Have we reached a stage where community groups need to pay for the advice of lawyers, town planners and other professionals?

I do not want it to become the norm that community groups need to engage professionals in order to get their voices heard, and issues addressed fully. We should feel confident that issues raised in good faith will be addressed in the same way by council staff, and elected representatives. However, that will not always give an outcome that satisfies all – for example, what is best for a local community may not always be best for the wider community (or vice versa) – and in those cases it may be necessary for a community to seek professional assistance to present its view persuasively.

8 There is a view that local boards have been left with the “rats and mice” and have very little power to influence Auckland Council decisions. What is your view on the role of the many local boards spread throughout Auckland?

I do not (yet) have sufficient knowledge of the working interface between local boards and council to say whether or not the present arrangements are having the effect of getting ratepayers’ wishes considered properly. However, in principle I would like to see local boards having greater say in the expenditure of ratepayers’ money within the local board’s area.

9 What advice would you give to the incoming Mayor of Auckland?

Work hard on ensuring that councillors listen to ratepayers, evaluate their views fairly for all, and make decisions, even on the hardest issues, for the future good of the city rather than political expediency.