Rachel Townrow has worked at Buller District Council since 2007. In this time she has experienced a wide variety of roles, including community services, regulatory, policy, planning, and leadership positions. She's passionate about her region, its people, and stunning natural environment, and is currently working as the Council's Deputy Chief Executive. In this profile she talks about what she loves about the Buller District, the projects which excite her most, as well as the huge effort her Council is making to help the community recover following the July 2021 flood.

Tell us about your role at Buller District Council

I’m currently seconded to the role of Deputy Chief Executive, with a particular focus on recovery following our July 2021 flood event. Day to day I support our recovery team as they work hard to support our community and deliver our Flood Recovery Action Programme. My role also involves keeping an eye on the broader picture of how recovery fits with our Council’s other activities, how we transition back to business as usual post-recovery, and how we plan for our future.

In my ‘normal’ role I’m the Group Manager Community Services. This is a varied role that includes leadership and oversight of our community and economic development, communications and engagement, customer services, policy, property and reserves activities, and the operation of our libraries and theatres.

In both roles no two days are the same, and each day I get to deal with a wide range of people on a wide variety of matters which keeps things interesting. They are rewarding roles because in both cases the team and I get to work alongside members of our community on activities and projects that really matter to them and contribute to making Buller a great place to live.

Can you tell us about some of your current projects which you are particularly excited about?

Over the past two years Buller District Council has delivered, and continues to deliver, a number of projects with funding support from the Provincial Growth Fund. While I’ve not had a lot of direct involvement with Westport Waterfront’s The Riverbank project (full credit to our Group Manager Infrastructure Services Mike Duff and his team for this project) I am very much looking forward to the Toki Poutangata bridge being in place soon – this will connect Westport’s town centre to the Buller River. 

A project I’ve had more direct involvement with, and which I’m enjoying seeing the results of, is the restoration planting project at North Beach, Carters Beach, Tauranga Bay and Charleston. This project created eight jobs and has seen 10 hectares of land planted with locally harvested flax and over 34,000 native seedlings (with another 40,000 sourced for future use). It targeted areas at risk from coastal erosion or that have been degraded over the years due to poor land management practices, with the aim of rehabilitation and providing riparian protection and some erosion mitigation. 

For the past year our economic development focus as a council has been based around our Environmental Improvement and Prosperity Strategy, working in partnership with other organisations and community groups to develop and deliver projects that will provide environmental benefits for Buller, create employment opportunities and contribute to our economy.

Buller District Council is part of the Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance alongside iwi and councils from the top of the South Island and the Department of Conservation. The mission of the Alliance is “To create a connected and aligned region that understands, protects, enhances, and future proofs the values of nature critical to the Top of the South that this flourishing nature in turn enriches its communities.” In my community services role I represented our council at the Alliance as we worked through development of a strategy and then had the ability to start turning this into action and creating jobs. Seeing both council’s Environmental Improvement and Prosperity Strategy and the Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance Strategy come to life and deliver tangible benefits for communities has been incredibly rewarding.

I’m also fortunate to represent our council on the governance group for the Dolomite Point Redevelopment Project being led by the Department of Conservation (Dolomite Point is the limestone promontory at Punakaiki, home to the Pancake Rocks). The project’s anchor piece is a sustainable, new experience centre, comprising a largely timber structure with a green/living roof. The experience centre will be run in partnership with Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae, with the Department of Conservation continuing to provide its visitor information service from the facility. The centre will celebrate and tell the stories of the area’s people, striking geology, unique wildlife and cultural heritage. The redevelopment will also address connectivity and pedestrian safety issues at Dolomite Point. This is a major project for Punakaiki and looks set to deliver a world-class development.

As part of the recovery team, it has been a privilege to work in the background to support development of the Community Hub. A ‘one-stop shop’ for people impacted by the flood to connect with support agencies, the Community Hub is operated by local NGOs which were already doing great work in our community, and have now come together to provide the Hub service alongside their normal business. The working model is proving successful so far and it is hoped this collaborative approach can become part of how these organisations work in future.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

We established our recovery team soon after the flood, and many of us had been involved in the civil defence response so we launched into recovery at the same pace you operate at during the response. A further motivating factor for the pace was knowing that there are many in our community who have been displaced from their homes and lost their possessions, and our desire to make sure there is adequate support in place for them. Talking to those who have been involved in natural disaster recovery before, I’m frequently reminded that recovery is a marathon not a sprint, and we know that our recovery will be measured in years not months. Settling a pace that meets both the immediate and long-term needs of our community, and is sustainable for our team, is one of the key challenges I currently work on each day.

Like many communities around New Zealand we have towns vulnerable to natural hazards. From a strategic perspective the need to ensure our towns are safe and fit for future is an important conversation for our Council and community, and the July 2021 flood has brought the need for this into stark relief. These are not quick or easy conversations, but they are worth having.

Why did you decide to work in local government?

The thing that drew me to local government initially was the potential to give something back to the community through my work, and I have certainly found that to be the case. Not long into my first role at Buller District Council I realised that local government also has the potential for professional development and a strong career path if you are willing to look out for opportunities and take them when they arise. In doing so I’ve had the opportunity to work across a range of disciplines and develop skills in community services, regulatory, policy and planning before moving into leadership roles.

In what ways have you been involved with Taituarā so far?

During my 14 years in local government I’ve participated in a number of Taituarā events and trainings (too many to list them all here!). I’ve always found them beneficial because they are tailored specifically to what we are dealing with in local government. Similarly the reports and guidance relevant to our industry, and in particular I've found the LGSectorGoodToolkit to be a great source of information. It provides practical guidance and assistance that can be accessed quickly, and easily, all in one place.

It’s great knowing that there is a professional network out there to support people in local government leadership roles, and that provides an opportunity to connect with peers around the country.

When you are not working, what do you enjoy about living in the Buller District?

I’m at my happiest on the beach, in the bush or on a mountain, so Buller is the perfect place for me. When heading out for a walk on the beach with my husband and our dog, it’s not unusual to find that we have the whole beach to ourselves. A few years ago I started trail running as a personal challenge and it quickly grew into a hobby and then a passion. Living where I do I’m lucky enough to have two amazing trails within five minutes of my front door – the Cape Foulwind/Seal Colony walkway and the Kawatiri Coastal Trail. Buller has so many fantastic trails to choose from – all just a short drive from home. Particular favourites of mine are among the history and heritage at Denniston, the Buckland Peaks Track for the spectacular views of Westport and the Buller River, and the magnificent Old Ghost Road. Denniston holds a particularly special place as it’s where my great-grandparents settled when they first came to Buller and has been home to three generations of my family.

Theatre is another passion, be it as an audience member, on stage, or behind the scenes. We have a great live theatre and cinema venue in Westport at the NBS Theatre which plays host to a wide range of local and touring shows throughout the year and which offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy live performances.