Alex Parmley is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead for local government in New Zealand.
But the new Waitaki District Council chief executive believes he is equipped with the right skills and experience to lead the district through them and into the future.
Mr Parmley (49) has moved to Oamaru with his wife Elizabeth and four children – Mabel (8), Harlen (6), Rory (4) and Aalish (2) – from the UK, where he was chief executive of South Somerset District Council.
He started in his new role on Monday.
Mr Parmley grew up in Blackpool, in the northwest of England. After graduating from university with a degree in history and politics, he “stumbled” into a career in local government, working in tourism and events.
“The idea was, I was going to work for this council, earn a bit of money, do a bit of travelling and then work out where I was going to develop my career.”
After the closure of Portland’s naval base, which had a massive impact on the local community and economy, he helped manage a regeneration programme for the Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.
“That was a great grounding for me in local government, because I was given the freedom to try what, at the time, were new and different approaches,” he said.
“Whilst we’d been given a big bucket of money by the Government and told to get on with some things, actually what I did was work with local communities who were most impacted to get them to reshape the programme, reshape the interventions . to regenerate the area.”
The tourism offering was redefined and a lot of new business were established, “breathing new life into the area”.
In 2007, he spent a year at Paramatta City Council in Sydney, leading the implementation of a new city strategy and working on initiatives to support businesses to reduce their carbon footprint.
“The environment is something I’ve been very passionate about, all my life. I’ve always been seen as a bit of a greenie.”
When he returned to the UK, he took on a corporate director role at Eastleigh Borough Council, in Hampshire.
After the government implemented an austerity programme, a lot of councils were cutting services but Eastleigh did things differently, he said. The council invested “quite heavily” in commercial property, to help the local economy grow and generate a return for the council.
Mr Parmley also led a project to develop a new $50 million indoor leisure centre – which included an eight-lane pool, gym and the second-largest sports hall in the country – at no cost to ratepayers.
“Most people thought it couldn’t be done – and we achieved it.
“We built a facility that effectively paid for itself. We were borrowing to build it and the cost of running it, and the cost of borrowing, the interest and the capital, were paid down as a result of the income generated.”
He started as the chief executive of South Somerset District Council in 2016. The council had underinvested in several areas – and there was a real appetite for change, he said.
“My role was to help shape that change.”
His approach was to engage with councillors, staff and communities to create a more modern council, with a more commercial focus.
“Part of what I’ve always been about is looking at how we can do things better for communities. I’ve never thought good enough’.
“I’ve always been about change, but positive change. Not change for the sake of change.”
The biggest test of all came with Covid-19.
“Not just the biggest test to the organisation, but it was probably the biggest test I’ve had to undergo in my working career.”
It was always Mr and Mrs Parmley’s intention to move to New Zealand. Mrs Parmley is originally from Lower Hutt. They met in the UK, when she was on her OE.
“We wanted to look for somewhere we thought would be good for our family to settle.
“I’m a great believer in working hard, but you work to live, not live to work.”
He wanted to find an interesting and challenging role at a council that had “a good degree of ambition” and an openness to do things differently.
“I think that’s what I found here on both those counts in Oamaru and in Waitaki.”
As chief executive, Mr Parmley said his motivation was “to do good and interesting things with and for communities that help make people’s lives better”.
He was a great believer in localism.
“That doesn’t just mean from Wellington to councils – that means councils thinking about how they do that with their communities as well.
“There’s a long way to go on that. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity.”
His immediate plans as chief executive were to “get out, talk to people, learn about the place, its communities, learn about the organisation and help assess where we’re placed to deal with the challenges that lie ahead”.
“So that at the end of the Three Waters process, the review of the RMA, the review of local government, we do get that council that is modern, flexible and really well-equipped to serve its communities well into the future.”
Mr Parmley has replaced Fergus Power, who was instrumental in launching the district’s bid to become a Unesco global geopark. Mr Parmley said the geopark bid seemed like “an interesting ambition”, but he had a lot to learn about it.
“I’ve done my research, but you can read so much – actually you only learn by being here and talking to people about it and really finding out about it.
“I think there’s a lot of assets here that we should be rightly proud of and think about how we both protect them but also use them to community and economic benefit as well.”