News | 29 September 2021

20 Twenty One: Bill Stevens

Meet Bill Stevens – biker, rocker, and Wellington City Council's Resource Consents Team Leader.

A man with short hair and a white goatee and moustache, siting in a V-neck navy blue jumper with a white shit collar poking out, in front of a computer, with glass windows and city scape behind, pictured in a polaroid-shaped frame.

Where were you born and bred?

I was born in Dunedin – dad ran a sheep and pig farm for the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. He then trained as a pharmacist – which brought us to Eastbourne while he trained at Petone. I started school in Eastbourne, then moved to Timaru, then to Waimate where I finished secondary school then moved to Wellington where I’ve been for 41 years.

 

When did you start at the Council – and what brought you here?

I was never a planner – I’ve never done anything tertiary in planning at all – I trained as a draftsman for the Post Office and then Telecom. As part of my training I did survey practise – I learned to use theodolites, dumpy levels – that kind of stuff. That’s how I knew about surveying and subdivisions.

 

I managed to land a job at the MED doing data entry. Then there was an internal advert for a job in the City Council Drawing Office – and because I’d been using the CAD system at the MED that the Drawing Office also used, I got the job. I started in December 1990.

 

The Drawing Office was part of the Council’s Survey Branch, which did all subdivision applications and of course all the Council’s survey work. Jeff Loo – who’s still here too - and I were doing all the maps for the new District Plan under the new 1991 Resource Management Act, using CAD. Part of the Drawing Office job was advising people on district plan requirements.

 

Then the Council had a massive restructure. A lot of people jumped ship – so they needed planners to take over consent processing work. It was either start doing that or clear off and get another job so I thought blow it – I’ll have a go at doing that.

 

I pretty much learned on the job – in those days we had really good legal advice from externals like Phillips Fox so I learnt heaps off the lawyers, and heaps off surveyors and other planners inside and outside the Council. Since then I’ve helped a lot of other planners with their consent work, including quite a few graduate planners – that’s one of the biggest and best things about the job.

Thirteen men in ties and women standing in a row and five sitting in front on a bench posing in a black and white photograph for work, outside a building with white corrugated concrete façade and large reflective glass windows.
The Council's Resource Consent Team, featuring Bill, back in about 1995.

Do you remember your first consent?

The first notified consent I worked on involved a developer who used to cause a lot of dramas around town with earthworks and the like. He’d done earthworks on this knoll out in Island Bay without consent and wanted to build a couple of houses. All the neighbours were up in arms. We had to retrospectively-notify it.

 

I go and look at the site now and the houses sit nicely into the knoll – I reckon it’s a good outcome and the developer did a pretty good job. I bet you if you went and spoke to the neighbours in Island Bay now – and they were honest – they would admit they’d overreacted. People don’t like change – it freaks them out and that’s what we have to deal with a lot.

 

One of the big things I’ve learnt out of this job is if your neighbour is respectful of you then be very thankful. I’ve seen some things where you think ‘that’s so mean – you don’t care about anybody – you only want what you want’. Equally, I’ve seen a lot of projects where developers and neighbours have had good communication. We get neighbour written approval for some surprising things sometimes.

 

What big projects have you been involved in?

The Mill Creek wind farm, various waterfront projects, Shelly Bay, airport expansion, Johnsonville Mall expansion, and quite a few CBD buildings, either as lead planner, or supporting the lead planner. I have processed a lot of subdivision consents, both large greenfield and tricky infill developments.

 

I’ve worked a bit on Transmission Gully - it’s not well known but the Linden interchange and the big Cannons Creek viaduct – up the top of Takapu Road - are on our patch.

 

A blue ocean to the left, blue sky with white fluffy cloud above, and a vast green hilly landscape dotted with windmills into the distance.
Mill Creek wind farm.

You learn heaps about heaps

There’s two things about being a planner – know the legislation and the framework you’re working under – but it really helps to understand the mechanics of what you’re dealing with.

 

I’ve enjoyed having to deal with mass earthworks and infrastructure relating to subdivisions and big infrastructure projects – I like doing them because I like that stuff. If you’re into it then it’s fascinating – soil compaction and bench cuts, geotech, ground contamination, and all sorts of civil engineering stuff. It’s great seeing houses get built and even watching landscapes change when I think they are a good outcome for the City.

 

Describe your job these days…

Hamish Dean and I allocate the consent applications to our team of 18 planners . We work hard to understand what the skillsets are in the office.

 

Apart from dealing with the workload, our objective is to give them opportunities and challenges for personal development. They can just as much end up processing a big, complex application for a high-rise or a similar multi-million-dollar project as they will a consent for a suburban deck or house extension or the many different types of subdivisions.

 

Hamish and I and the other more experienced planners help less experienced planners learn how to deal with tricky applications. Sometimes we do it the other way too where we’ll have a senior planner doing the processing and a less experienced planner review it. It’s a good way to learn and keep people challenged and interested.

 

In Wellington we have an extremely wide delegation – some councils only make decisions at a senior level. How they manage that workload I have no idea – there’s no way I’d be able to do my team leader role, look after my staff – and keep on top of reviewing 900 consents per year. Not even half that – nor could Hamish. So we’re proud of our delegation system – it works really well.

 

Some people don’t like the fact we only notify only a small percent of applications every year. That is how the law is meant to be though and we’re very similar to other big councils. What people don’t know is what often happens behind the scenes to get to that point. Quite a few applications come to us with all sorts of problems so where possible we talk turkey with the developer to come up with solutions that won’t require notification. After all – no developer wants their projects notified and they all want their consent granted.

 

There’s a lot of discussion and give-and-take – I’ve had architects and surveyors say to me, when the client’s not around, that they actually have no trouble with what we’re doing – they had to do the design because the client insisted on it but they knew that we’d probably push back.

 

A low-angle shot looking up at two young men with long hair on stage performing, with the man on the left wearing a yellow t-shirt and grey jacket holding a microphone singing, and the man on right in blue jeans and grey t-shirt playing electric guitar.
Bill Stevens rocking out with his band back in the day. And he's still got the Stratocaster.

Town and Country Planning Act vs RMA vs what’s next?

There’s been a lot of talk about how the RMA has been so bad at holding up development – but I’m not entirely convinced. In the end it’s all about the effects of a development and whether people really want bad outcomes. Good projects usually get through the process quite quickly.

 

I didn’t do anything under the Town and Country Planning Act as the RMA was already out when I stared processing consents, but looking at the old decisions they also thought about effects and outcomes as we do under the RMA. Regarding the reforms that are coming up – the new legislation to replace the RMA - I’m really interested to see how much difference it’s really going to make. Hopefully it will make it easier for good outcomes, but also not make it easier for bad.

 

When the first version of the District Plan came out in ’94, it was a lot more permissive than it is now – and the reason that changed is you couldn’t trust people to do the right thing. We used to make it actually quite easy to mess with heritage buildings and build high-rises for instance, but we then had to make it harder because people were just taking advantage of it and sometimes doing really bad things.

 

We’ve been lucky enough to have a bit of an input into District Plan changes – it adds variety to our work plus we’re the ones who have to implement it and make it work. We highlight when we think there are things that aren’t working and where we think there can be improvements. I personally think some stuff came into the District Plan in the past to make development harder which probably shouldn’t have looking at housing supply problems now – things like infill-height restrictions and less permissive multi-unit development rules. Housing supply at the moment is a really big issue – so some of those things will need to change.

 

On being in the dock

I’ve had to give evidence in Court over really problematic cases such as the Roseneath ‘play structure’ – they’re not enjoyable experiences. Thankfully there haven’t been a lot of those experiences. Most of my Court cases sorted themselves out through mediation without getting to Court at all.

 

But there are far more positive cases like the Mill Creek wind farm that followed all the noise problems associated with Project West Wind just down the road in Makara. In the end the Court decision on Mill Creek was great – Meridian had to drop a few turbines and make sure they did a better job getting it up and running - relatively speaking there were hardly any noise complaints. Those wind farms deliver a lot of renewable energy to the grid so are a good thing.

 

Bill Stevens dressed in black t-shirt, leather jacket and dark sunglasses, standing behind his maroon motorcycle with one hand on the handle and one hand on the seat, in front of a tall fence.
Cool dude.

Speaking of noise…

I like old British motorcycles – but Triumph is the one I’ve gone for. My own bike is a mid-70s 750 Trident. It’s basically a 1950s twin with an extra cylinder shoved on the side.

 

It’s nothing like the modern Triumphs – no overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. It’s all push-rods, the rocker boxes move round, it leaks oil. I strip it down and build it back and it behaves itself for 1000 miles of me thrashing it and then it starts leaking oil again – just the way it is.

 

I’ve ridden quite a few higher-performing bikes but mine’s really comfortable to ride. I’ve had it for more than 30 years – I bought it with really low mileage and I’ve done most of the 80,000 ks on the clock.

 

It’s a labour of love – a hands-on bike. My partner’s got a late-model Triumph – and I do nothing much to that – it doesn’t leak a drop of oil. But I really like my old bike for all the extra attention it needs.

 

I’ve never raced bikes but I’ve pottered around Manfeild a couple of times – I do like to watch the MotoGP and Superbikes on Sky, though.

 

I live in Newlands so we often just get on the motorway, head on up to the Waikanae interchange and come back again - a nice ride up the Kapiti coast - or find a café somewhere for brunch. I like doing the Haywards – and heading over the hill – it’s a really nice ride out to Lake Ferry – great little pub out there. Haven’t been over for ages. Plenty of good rides to be had around here.

 

I’m really into music – I like recording, I’ve been in rock and metal bands. I play guitar and bass, a bit of vocals. I haven’t been in a band for years – when my son was born it all became too much of a pain – including that as soon as you get a good band together someone would clear off and you’d have to start again from scratch. We used to play at places like the Terminus and the Clyde Quay back in the day, venues that have mostly gone now. We used to play anything from blues to heavy rock.

 

I like a wide range of music but rock and metal is my favourite. I’m a fan of all sorts of bands – with metal I don’t really like bands that do all deathgrowl with no melodic singing, but I do like metalcore that mixes the two – the American band Killswitch Engage are great for instance – they play so fast and their musicianship is just amazing - I don’t know how they do it. There are a lot of musos I’d like to jam with from the blues/rock genre of music – too many to name, and not all still with us sadly.

 

When I’ve finished some of my latest songs and I’m happy with them they’ll be on Spotify. They won’t go on vinyl, though - it’s rubbish – why would you do that? I like digital music – who wants vinyl – it just ruins a good song. I don’t believe anyone who tells me vinyl’s click, crackle and pop is better. I do have a ton of very good music on vinyl though and it’s cool to give the turntable a spin sometimes – click, crackle, pop and all.

It’s 2021, so we’re sharing stories about 21 of our people who have worked at Council for 20 years or more. Find out more about the series in this story.