Queenstown’s Iron Lady mayor talks tough

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I can be ‘belligerent and difficult’ when getting the best for Queenstown, mayor Vanessa van Uden tells Celia Williams almost six months into her first term

Queenstown’s Iron Lady has an agenda that packs a punch. 

Vanessa van Uden is determined to slash council spending, eliminate unnecessary bur-eaucracy and create a better relationship between local government and the community it serves during the next three years. 

Almost six months into her term, the 44-year-old mum-of two reveals she’s been steadily chipping away at her priorities for Queenstown Lakes District Council. 

As a councillor, Van Uden was vociferous about the council’s growing debt mountain – estimated to reach $400 million by 2019 – and now she’s instigated some key spending changes. 

“There is very definitely a focus within the council now on responsible spending, a focus on cutting costs,” she says. 

For the first time, the operating expenditure budget – which handles council departments and other core services – is under the microscope through a new council workshop. 

The 2010-11 budget is $79m, which includes $17m depreciation and $8m interest. 

Cost-cutting details will be unveiled in this year’s annual plan. 

“Operating expenditure is mostly what rates pay for so if you want to look at your rates, don’t you take a good, hard look at your operating expenditure? We’ve never looked at departmental budgets in any detail,” she says. 

She won’t be drawn on whether jobs could be cut, but – “I will say staffing levels need to be reviewed”. 

Van Uden’s also got it in for the capital works panel – a select few contractors who get given all the major council projects, worth $40m, instead of going out for open tender. 

“I don’t like the concept and I never have. 

“For me, their number’s up and I’ve been quite clear about that – but I’m only one vote. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have the work, I’m saying that it needs to be open to the market.” 

Another bugbear is red tape, and Van Uden’s not afraid to kick it into touch. 

“I’ll be straight up. As far as I’m concerned, councils for whatever period of time have taken a completely risk-averse approach to everything. We have completely covered our butt so there is no risk, but life isn’t like that.” 

Some council procedures have been simplified by enlisting fewer people to committees, plus day-to-day business like permitted road closures is now kept away from the council table. 

“I would honest-to-God rather have 95 per cent of everything go through a-okay in a much faster time at less cost and at less frustration and accept a certain element will turn pear-shaped no matter what we do. Then you’ve got 95 per cent of people who are happy and feel their interaction with council has been good.” 

She’s also keen on instilling a “culture change” between council and ratepayers so “people don’t leave the council building and other enterprises feeling like the council’s the enemy.” 

But one thing’s certain – the Lumsden-born, former St Hilda’s Collegiate pupil will always be outspoken. 

“That’s not going to change,” she laughs. 

“The important thing in this game is that I can’t be anybody else except me. That is reasonably straight up and down. But I like to get it right.”

Mayor van Uden off-the-cuff

How life’s changed 

She kept her contract and project management business – but it’s “about 10 per cent of what it was”, and limited to book-keeping. Starting each day at 5.30am with exercise before heading to council’s offices at 8.30am, she attends meetings and functions, hosts delegations and opens conferences most days. “I didn’t sign up to say I’d be mayor for 16 hours a week.”

On public speaking 

“I felt very acutely that [former mayor Clive Geddes] was very good. Then I had a little conversation with myself that went, ‘You’re not Clive, you’re Vanessa, and people didn’t elect me because I’m the second coming of Clive – they elected me because I’m me and my principles’. As long as I’m sticking true to those things, that’s fine.”

On using the Lakes Leisure’s Alpine gym 

Once staunchly opposed to Lakes Leisure setting up a gym to compete with other private operators, Van Uden admits she’s now a paid-up member. “Morally I don’t think council should be going into business in opposition to its ratepayers. However, in all honesty, my trainer’s moved out there. It’s more economical for me to become a member or else I paid more each week.”

On her “think-tanks” 

She’s got a group of 30 residents working out how best to coordinate individual forums, which will then be open to the public. “The group of people we’ve got together is just amazing.”

On council boss Debra Lawson 

“We think alike on a lot. She’s probably more structured than I am but you need differences to make a strength. We get on well.”

On a bed tax 

“I think what we need to do is review rating differentials and explain that to people. Accommodation and commercial are already paying more than residential. And then we’ll look at a bed tax and whatever option there may be.”

Toughest job so far 

“Definitely the airport – a baptism of fire for myself and the councillors. There’s been an extraordinary amount of pressure and there’s no simple answer. There are numerous points of view in the community and it’s about navigating your way through. I’m still against it, but that’s my personal position.”

On “pet projects” 

“You won’t see a Remarkables Centre or new council offices get my vote at this point in time.”

On rates predictions 

“You won’t get me committing to that because that’s the most dangerous thing you can do. There are so many things that are outside your control. I’m driving for the smallest rates increase there can possibly be.”

On life within QLDC 

“I certainly think as a team, councillors all get on well together. We don’t always agree but we do get on and that’s really important…The senior management team and all the staff have been incredibly welcoming of all the councillors. They want to be part of a new way of doing things. I’ve not seen any resistance from them.”