Editorial: History made at Pukenui?

By Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson.
Peter Jackson.

Something extraordinary happened at Pukenui on Thursday night.

History might even have been made when representatives of a government agency admitted that they were wrong and the locals were right. And they undertook to rectify what they had done.

This is not the way it works. Government officials are the experts, and the locals, whatever the issue, are wrong.

Last week's meeting began by following that pattern, but, in response to compelling local knowledge, principal traffic and safety engineer Brian Rainford capitulated, to his great credit.

He said later that this was not a fait accompli. The issue of speed limits through Pukenui was not necessarily resolved, but he should prove to be a strong advocate for the local people.

And quite frankly it is difficult to see how anyone, expert or otherwise, could disagree with them.

The crux of the matter is the extension of an 80km/h speed limit from north of the transfer station (which used to be, and reasonably still could be, open road) to the southern approach to Lamb's bridge.

The locals say traffic heading south, over the brow of the hill and down to the bridge, at 80km/h will be extremely dangerous, and Mr Rainford agreed.

The critics were also correct in saying that while they knew the road, and the danger, visitors recognised neither, and would travel at the permitted speed. Some will go even faster.

The meeting heard that 15 per cent of drivers had been exceeding the old 50km/h speed limit by 20km/h. How that might justify increasing the limit is not immediately apparent.

Surely it is not standard NZTA practice to increase speed limits because some drivers aren't complying with them, particularly in a situation where the danger, especially to pedestrians, is as obvious as it is at Pukenui.

Meanwhile, of all those who had their say on Thursday night, it was Mayor John Carter who forced the NZTA into a corner.

He pointed out that the guidelines that had been followed in reviewing the speed limits were just that, guidelines, rather than rules.

And he persisted in asking why the decision could not be reviewed and reversed "tomorrow," rather than via a process that Mr Rainford said would take months.

In the end there was no real answer, and Mr Rainford conceded. He might not have had much choice, but that is not the way government agencies behave.

They are supposed to stick to their guns come hell or high water, rejecting local views as irrelevant, misguided or unsupported by data, the first defence generally being not to recognise that there is an issue at all.

Thursday night's venue, the Araiawa Hall, was the scene of a superb display of that technique some years ago when the government's then chief entomologist addressed a meeting for which she was woefully unprepared following the arrival of the tussock grass web worm from Australia.

The species, which was attacking pasture on the Aupouri Peninsula, was showing signs of settling in permanently, and farmers were alarmed.

They were effectively told that the government didn't know what these creatures were, and had no plans to do anything about eradicating them.

It was interested, and asked the farmers to keep an eye on the invaders and report their progress, both in establishing a permanent population and extending their range.

Next day the Northland Age contacted the agriculture authorities in New South Wales, which confirmed that the species was the tussock grass web worm, which would likely survive a Far North winter.

If that meeting was a contender for the worst government response of all time to a potential crisis, last week's is a contender for the best.

We've yet to see what finally comes of it, but the signs that Pukenui has been listened to on this occasion are encouraging. And Mr Carter made a very powerful contribution.

It might all become irrelevant, but there should be some concern, however, that the new speed limits, so grossly inadequate according to the people who live there, were, according to the NZTA, signed off by the police and the Far North District Council.

It is difficult to imagine that police approval had any local input, which begs the question as to how meaningful their approval was, while the council's support was apparently given without the knowledge of Te Hiku Community Board.

Far from approving, board chair Adele Gardner professed to have had no prior knowledge of what was to be done, the NZTA's response to that being that council staff had approved the changes, and that Ms Gardner should talk to them.

If it really is the case that council staff thought the new speed limits were a good idea, and approved them on Pukenui's behalf, then someone needs disabusing.

It would seem fair to assume that any council employee who thinks the new configuration is a good idea has no knowledge of Pukenui, and needs a lesson in consulting those who do.

The community board was elected last year to represent the community, and it was the board that asked, apparently, for the speed limits to be reviewed.

It should at least have been kept in the loop, rather than being bypassed altogether.

Hopefully the speed limits will be restored to something much safer without delay, although with the best will in the world the NZTA cannot do that overnight.

It has undertaken to erect signs warning of the need to reduce speed, but they will only be advisory, as opposed to legally requiring compliance.

And whatever the speed limit approaching the bridge, some will exceed it. But if there is an accident now, there will be repercussions that the NZTA, the police and the Far North District Council would probably rather not contemplate.

One resident said last week that if there was an accident on the approach to Lamb's bridge he would see the NZTA "in the appropriate place".

That can only be interpreted as a threat, or a promise, to seek legal redress for what is widely regarded in Pukenui as a nonsensical decision.

And if legal action was to be taken, it would be reasonable to expect the police and council to be in the firing line too.

They, no doubt, will be hoping now that the speed limits are changed post haste, before, God forbid, someone pays for this ridiculous situation with their life.

And there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. When it comes to issues like traffic and safe speeds, data, however expertly and comprehensively gathered, are not the be all and end all.

Data might show that SH1 through Pukenui is statistically safe, but cannot paint an accurate picture without the addition of local knowledge. It might be old-fashioned and unscientific, but asking the locals what they think, and would like, is rarely a bad idea.

And consultation is meaningless unless it involves the local people. The police and the FNDC, particularly the latter, should have had a much better idea of what Pukenui thought before declaring the new speed limits to be acceptable.

The NZTA was obliged to consult with the council, presumably on the basis that it would know what it was talking about, but whoever signed the new limits off clearly didn't have a clue.

The community board could have told them, and should have been asked.

- Northland Age

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