We interviewed SOLGM Life Member, Malcolm Douglass, who had a very long and successful career in local government. Malcolm’s 60 year career focussed on long-term planning – he worked as a Civil Engineer and Town Planner specialising in transportation network and resource management planning. Malcolm worked for regional government for 18 years which included seven years as a Chief Executive and city councils for 17 years with eight of those years as Director of Planning. In contrast with these salaried Council positions Malcolm was, for a total of 20 years a consultant servicing local government. From 1975-83 he was a partner with Gabites Porter Consultants. From 1998 he was a sole consultant serving councils, some not for profit organisations and undertaking part time university lecturing.

How did you get started in local government?

My LG career began in Whanganui in 1954 where I was introduced to the full range of municipal engineering. This led me to specialise in transportation engineering. In 1960-61 I had the opportunity to undertake a postgraduate MSc in Transportation Planning at Birmingham University (UK). This experience inspired me to train later and become a qualified town planner. I gained a Dip TP. from Auckland University in 1971. This range of qualification suited me well to undertake regional planning, transportation, resource management, urban form and environmental studies on behalf of New Zealand local government.

Tell us more about your career – planning for a long term horizon…

My focus was on long-term planning including reporting and forecasting for public projects, regional and district plans. There was, and still is, a need for quality advice and evidence to support long-term planning. My reports demonstrated to both the councils and the Environment Court ‘why’ facilities were justified and ‘where’ such facilities might be placed when constructed in 20 or 50 years in the future. The detail of ‘what’ is finally built rests, of course, with the professionals in the next generation.

Many of these studies, undertaken in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, related to strategic urban development and associated major traffic corridors. They included a consideration of future urban form, the future boundaries of urban areas for the regions of Christchurch, Nelson, Porirua, Taupo and Hamilton. Some of the major traffic corridors I was involved with included the proposed St Albans and Southern Motorways in Christchurch, Transmission Gully in Wellington, the Sand Hills Expressway in Kapiti, the Eastern Bypass in Taupo, and Hamilton’s Waikato Expressway motorway corridors. This work enabled early protection of the corridors in District Plans by designations and corridor zoning.

My ‘forte’ was in reconciling the issues and conflicts of urban and rural environments, resource management, catchment management and transportation planning at an early stage in a region’s development planning.

The three professions…

I have three ‘life membership’ professions - Planning, Engineering and Local Government Management and this included membership of the respective institute’s boards and committees and a raft of useful papers for annual conferences. The NZIE supported two of my significant research publications. Firstly the ‘Trips Database’, recording travel to individual land uses (1972 with ongoing annual revisions), and secondly the 160 page ‘A Wheel on Each Corner’, a history of 50 years of transportation engineering in New Zealand (1965-2006).

Parallel with my deep involvement in these professional and technical matters I have also been committed to saving heritage buildings including the Christchurch Arts Centre (Old University Buildings) and the Christchurch Theatre Royal. I also promoted the extension of conservation areas along the Summit Road and the Port Hills recreation networks. Meantime my wife, Judie, was busy pursuing her professional acting career in particular as an Associate of the Christchurch’s Court Theatre. These activities all interlock and further extended our own long-term community horizons.

What are the biggest challenges facing Local Government today?

Local Government has always been over ridden by central government’s impatience to ‘mould’ the councils to achieve the central government ends.

I believe that there are three key challenges facing local government:

Firstly, planning. This is the most important function undertaken by local government. The challenge is to undertake strategic planning and the planning functions for all activities, (including environment, future urban form, transportation, infrastructure, planning under RMA, council services, community liaison) with enthusiasm and excellence.

Secondly, the partnership between local and central government. This will be different in different regions. The list of functions undertaken and their priority must be agreed between the city/district councils, the regional councils and the central government partners.

Thirdly local government confidence will be greatly strengthened if all the councils in a region have a clear definition of their responsibilities and any shared functions especially those required to be supported by formal regional plans. The regional plans must be prepared with the active participation and support of the constituent city/district councils.

What was your greatest achievement?

The hectic and exciting times of local government reform in the 1980s were a highlight for me. During this time I was involved in submissions and reports to government and Sir Brian Elwood’s Local Government Commission. The 1989 reforms included a clearer recognition of the vital future role for regional councils. These recommendations were supported, in part, by the success of the Canterbury Regional Council’s ongoing programme of regional planning studies undertaken between 1956 and 1989.

Also, in this period the Canterbury United Council successfully reviewed its three operative regional plans including North Canterbury’s Urban Settlement (1985), the Regional Transportation Plan (1986) and the draft Regional Land and Water Plan (1988). As Chief Executive of the United and Regional Council at that time I considered the preparation, review and adoption of these Canterbury Regional Plans, coinciding with the local government reforms and the establishment of the new regional councils, was a great achievement.

What did you enjoy about working in local government?

Working for local government is fascinating and rewarding through its contact with colleagues and the community. I believe both town and regional planning are local government’s most important function. This is what attracted me to the vocation originally. In 60 years, through the tides of success and failure, my faith in the importance of planning in local government has not been shaken. I thank SOLGM for the Long Service Award made to me in 2012. This award occasion was also a special moment