Peter Tennent, former Mayor of New Plymouth

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Peter Tennent
Former Mayor of New Plymouth
By Brian Baker, Senior Correspondent

4 June 2010: Peter Tennent has been mayor of New Plymouth, New Zealand, since 2001. The district, located on the west coast mid-way between Wellington and Auckland on the North Island, was created by a merger of four smaller authorities. New Plymouth forms part of the Taranaki region. It has a population of around 70,000. The Council has a mayor and 14 Councillors and a staffing of 480 full time equivalent posts. The 2010/2011 budget is NZ$160 million. Its current credit rating is AA+ from Standard and Poor’s. Peter Tennent was awarded 9th place in World Mayor 2010.

Update October 2010: In October's local elections Harry Duynhoven was elected the new mayor of New Plymouth. Peter Tennent did not contest the election.

On Peter Tennent’s watch the authority has won several awards. At international level, it was named best city of its size in the world by the Liveable Communities Awards in 2008. Within New Zealand, New Plymouth was judged Top Town to live, work in and visit by North South Magazine, also in 2008, and in 2007 and 2009 was named most cycle friendly city in the country.

One of the major infrastructure schemes delivered during Mayor Tennent’s leadership has been the 7 kms Coastal Walkway which has opened up the sea-front for hundreds to use for daily exercise and linked the central business district to recreational areas.

The district is widely seen as an exemplar of landscape and recreational management and the Coastal Walkway joins the renowned Pukekura Park and numerous smaller spaces, parks and gardens in this portfolio which is widely utilised in promoting New Plymouth to inward investors.

In May 2010 New Plymouth came first amongst New Zealand Councils in a survey of customer satisfaction with regulatory building services. New Plymouth DC is regularly ranked at the top of performance tables now but it was not always like this. At the turn of the millennium the Taranaki region’s authorities were consistently rated towards the bottom of several national social and economic indicators.”

Peter Tennent says “I believe the best description of a mayor is as a ‘gatekeeper of opportunity.’ He and his wife both come from families with a record of community service. Tennent’s grandfather was mayor of Palmerston North and his wife’s grandfather was mayor of Manaia. He became mayor of New Plymouth after stints as a Councillor and as Deputy Mayor.

He says “When l became mayor we agreed three simple rules as a family. They were to never publicly criticise anyone or get into gutter politics regardless of provocation, to always do my best to answer the question asked and to have fun. The latter was easy. I am convinced l have the best job in the world.”

New Plymouth District Council is very web-friendly and emphasises community involvement. Peter Tennent says “We work really hard to get community input. I think we have become better at engaging with the community. We have won awards for our innovation in this respect but we are always looking for ways to do better.

As a new mayor in 2001 we conducted meetings up and down the community to try to let people know me and the people came out in numbers. As a Council we need to know people’s aspirations. What they want. What they don’t want. What they are prepared to pay.”

“I use every opportunity to get out and about. Meetings don’t always have to be structured or council organised though we need those to hear from the community but we also need to know the wacky, off the wall ideas and aspirations and we need to be able to connect to help make things happen.”

Peter Tennent responds to critical letters in local media by contacting the writers directly and makes all his phone numbers publicly available. The Mayor of New Plymouth believes it is important that local residents feel their concerns and their ideas are heard.

“A community needs to be able to connect however large or small. I make no secret of the fact that most of the best ideas are not mine or councillors or even from our great staff. They are ideas generated from our community and from those connected to this place.”

“I have only recently joined facebook and twitter and l think they are a fantastic tool. I use them to let people know about some of the things happening here and about opportunities to get involved. I don’t make posts about what l had for breakfast.”

“The Council has a strong web presence but it is treated as another tool,” he says. “ I have no doubt that technology will continue to increase our opportunities for engagement and helping good things to happen but it will always only be part of the mix. We can never rely on web solutions alone or some will be excluded and opportunities will be lost.”

He has worked with three chief executives – currently Barbara McKerrow. He emphasises the importance of good working partnerships.

“It is critical that there is mutual respect between chief executive and mayor, that there is open and frank communication and that debate and discussion occurs before public comment. There needs to be a unified voice or a community can be undermined.”

Referring to his short-listing for World Mayor 2010 Mayor Tennent says “to make the final 25 contenders is as much about the work of my Chief Executive and her fantastic team and the hard work and commitment of people of this community as it is about the mayor who has the privilege of leading the community.”  

He is measured in his comments about changes in local government in New Zealand notably the Auckland Supercity. “In Taranaki there are four councils. I think we are a good model for this country. We work together to provide many services but people still have access to their elected representatives.”

"I think change is inevitable. We need to find solutions together. Whether we do that by amalgamation or by sharing services change is needed. Local government has to look at the best model for delivering local democracy. In some cases that may mean breaking up councils into smaller units but it is more likely to mean amalgamations.

The most critical factor is that people remain connected and can have their input. That has been the single biggest factor in this community’s success.”

“As local government leaders we are in the unique position of being able to make a huge positive difference in the lives of all our citizens and those connected with our communities,” says Mayor Tennant. “More and more, solutions will be found through international partnerships, people to people, community to community.”

World Mayor 2023