Denise Henigan


Nelson City Councillor 2001 - 2010

Recycling, or Nelson's lack thereof, was a key motivator in running for Council. Getting elected was incredible! It propelled me into a political whirlwind that I had no prior experience of. Unusually it was nearly proportional, with five woman councillors out of the twelve. I immediately loved the opportunity to influence big and small decisions that affected the quality of our lives.

denise henigan
Denise Henigan

One of the first big issues was how to respond to the problems and opportunities of young people around New Years Eve. Another was developing a solution to erosion on Tahunanui beach. Debate over these two issues was surprisingly fierce and Council was pretty evenly split. Once a grumpy elderly male councillor asked me "Who did I think I was?" He complained "You've been here five minutes and think you can change the world".

I saw it as a compliment rather than the intended insult! However overall it was definitely challenging getting to grips with things like standing orders as well as the unspoken rules.

In the instance above, as strongly as I believed in the need to NOT have hard infrastructure on Tahunanui beach, there were others who were equally adamant that nothing less than hard infrastructure would succeed in stopping erosion. Thankfully on this issue I was in the majority and to this day I get a kick out of seeing a pipe free beach and marram grass-covered dunes. Interestingly this is probably one of the least visible decisions I contributed to in what was the most prolonged and tortuous decision and is now probably one that very few people would even remember!

For the first decade of this millennium I think we were well guided by the 2002 Local Government Act. It provided clear guidance for everyone (public and councillors alike) for Council to address the four "well beings" of social, environment, culture and economy. This was a broader mandate than the old three 'r's (roads, rates and rubbish) and enabled the public to better define what they wanted from their council. It also enabled councillors to be much stronger advocates for these things. Examples include the push for more recycling, the Theatre Royal, more cycle ways and support of things such as the Victory Community Health Centre. I was disappointed to see this wording lost from 2013 amendments to the Act: 'in the public interest' just doesn't have the same focus!

Being a councillor was hard in that we were all collectively a 'team' of sorts, but we all had different mandates, experiences and rivalries that resulted in shifting alliances on different decisions. There was also lots of humour, copious quantities of biscuits and good days and bad. It was a privilege to be active in shaping Nelson for that short period in time. And yes, I did get to influence an improved, but not perfect recycling scheme. Hopefully this will continue to improve over time, and maybe, we will see the reinstatement of explicit bottom lines that include the environment.

 This was published in: Women Decision-Makers Nelson and Tasman 1944 -2018, p. 54. Compiled by Dr Shelley Richardson, Elaine Henry, Gail Collingwood, Hilary Mitchell.

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Further sources - Denise Henigan


  • Richardson, S., Henry, E., Collingwood, G. Mitchell, H. (2018). Women decision-makers Nelson and Tasman 1944-2018. Nelson, New Zealand