Niamh Shaw: community dynamo
Posted at 6:00am Thursday 24 Dec, 2020 | By Pat Deavoll firstname.lastname@example.org
Niamh Shaw comes from Ireland and through a convoluted route has ended up a councillor on the Queenstown Lakes District Council.
The Wānaka Sun talks to her on how she ended up in Wānaka and what drives her as a councillor.
I met my Kiwi husband in Dubai 22 years ago. We relocated to NZ in 2008 and lived in Auckland for a while then moved to Port Underwood (Blenheim) for another couple of years. I thought I'd love the remoteness of Port Underwood, but it turns out I'm more intensely social than I thought. When I was expecting our first child, we moved to Oamaru to be close to my inlaws, where we lived for five and a half years.
My career has been pretty varied. My qualification is Applied Maths and Computing, and my primary career is project management. I worked for Price Waterhouse London for a couple of years before moving to the Middle East where I was an IT Training and Support Manager, a journalist for an IT weekly magazine, and a project manager in the telecoms industry. When we were living in Oamaru, I was offered a role as a consultant for the Waitaki District Council in fundraising for a significant capital project they were working on.
I've found the diverse range of skills useful in council. It's the sort of role where you can choose what issues interest you, how invested you want to be and how much time to put in. It also suits me that I'm answerable to nobody but the community.
Arriving in Wānaka
We knew Oamaru was not where we wanted to settle down, and wanted to put down roots not too far away from the kids grandparents (Oamaru). Because my husband had business in the Middle East we could have located ourselves almost anywhere.
We chose Wanaka because it seemed like a really family-friendly place, and although it had a population less than Oamaru and felt vibrant and energetic – these were the main reasons we chose it. We fully invested in Wanaka by buying a section and building a house, which we finished at the end of 2018.
Any regrets- none! When I first arrived, I volunteered for the Wanaka Toy Library for about nine months. And while my husband was involved heavily in building our house, I kept the home front.
The Northlake battle
Then I got involved in the Northlake hotel resource consent application. That was a full-time job for awhile- providing the community response for that.
I got an email from a neighbour asking what the community thought about building a hotel in the middle of Northlake and I thought, “Well that's not ideal”. I put up a couple of Facebook posts, essentially saying: “Does anyone else have problems with this because it doesn't feel moral or ethical to me.” One of the main issues for this resource consent was the no objection clauses on resident land covenants – residents were not legally permitted to object to any proposal put by the developer and furthermore were required to give approval upon request.
There was an overwhelming response, and I spent some time thinking: “Why isn't someone doing something about this?”, before I realised that if anyone was going to do something about it, it might as well be me.
So I did! I was asked to meet the residents in Northlake, and they wanted to form an incorporated society to represent themselves in fighting this particular resource consent application – but were unable to because of confidentiality.
So the wider community set up the incorporated society, with a constitution that specified additional members could remain anonymous. The Society put in a submission and raised funds to hire legal representation for the resource consent hearing. After the consent was granted, we filed a case with the Environment Court challenging the resource consent and a lawsuit in the High Court querying the legality of the no objection clauses.
We were turned down for financial assistance by the Environmental Legal Fund for both cases, and I was looking at three years of raising funds and fighting legal battles and it was increasingly clear that the odds were stacked against us.
I was particularly interested in challenging the legality of the no objection clauses in the High Court, which could have changed NZ case law – and that's what I think the wider community was so outraged about: how unfair it was that those directly affected under the RMA were not allowed to voice their opinion about what was happening in their neighbourhood. No objection clauses are relatively standard for new developments around Wanaka and further afield.
When I took on the case I fully thought the great scales of justice would tilt in our favour, but in the end we were flogging a dead horse.
Standing for Council
Was it this process that got me interested in standing for Council? – yes, most definitely. With Northlake, there was so much stacked against the residents of that community: the process itself, the RMA, and the Council, which is going into these hearings with developers who have far greater resources and financing. I thought I could achieve more if I was actually sitting at the council table.
The Northlake experience has given me a pretty clear mandate of what's expected of me.
Process to get onto Council
I didn't stand for the Community Board – perhaps that might have been a more logical progression, but I had an interest in governance at Council level.
Local elections come around every three years. You fill in a registration form and pay $200.
What are you interested in?
I think the biggest local issue remains the governance and process around the Queenstown Airport Corporation and the district's airport infrastructure. I've never been backwards in saying that I don't believe we, the Council, have adequately managed or directed our CCTO (Council Controlled Trading Organisation) over the last 18 months. To some extent, council is damned if we do and damned if we don't; but I believe the way we have handled this particular situation has resulted in a loss of collective ‘benefit of doubt' and continues to damage our relationship with the communities we serve.
I am hopeful this is better understood within Council now.
Another issue that was prevalent during the election was growth – primarily how to control and manage the ever increasing numbers of visitors. Covid has illustrated how precarious our reliance on tourism is for well, all of us, residents and businesses alike. I'm really keen to feed into and support council's initiatives around economic diversification, in addition to lobbying Central Government to reconsider and reshape what tourism looks like for New Zealand as a whole. We're never going to have a better opportunity to do so.
There are other projects I'm keen to progress, but I'm not particularly interested in legacy-building; there is so much going on at council and I make the best decisions I can based on whatever information I can get my hands on.
Read edition 1006 of the Wānaka Sun here.