Absolutely super Auckland

PAUL GORMAN
Last updated 10:29 01/12/2012
Chris Darby
NORTHERN MAN: Devonport-Takapuna local board chairman Chris Darby.

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How long can it possibly take the grinding wheels of local government to approve a single town-centre bus stop?

Five years it seems in the case of Auckland's Browns Bay, where bureaucratic bickering required eight reports to the community board and former North Shore City Council before a decision was finally made.

Devonport-Takapuna local board chairman Chris Darby, a former North Shore City councillor, says that was typical of the old Auckland and the ways of its fragmented fiefdoms.

"That example is one I almost always recite. That's a lot of waiting time for bus passengers in a city desperate for public transport.

"In the old North Shore city, we had a lot of political interference with management. It wasn't true governance. You can't build an integrated transport system for a city of 1.4 million people when you have these multiple layers of councils. That decision would now be done and dusted within two months."

The radical restructuring of the City of Sails recommended by a royal commission in April 2009 was implemented in changed form by the Government on November 1 two years ago. It was a bold initiative to draw the city together and improve community involvement.

Seven territorial authorities - Auckland, Manukau, North Shore and Waitakere cities, and Franklin, Papakura and Rodney districts - their community boards and the Auckland Regional Council (ARC) were scrapped and rolled into one super-city, overseen by a "super" mayor and 20 councillors.

At the same time, 21 local boards, supercharged versions of community boards and seven new council-controlled organisations (CCOs), including Auckland Transport and Watercare Services, were set up.

The "super" mayor - currently Len Brown - was given extra responsibilities, including providing a vision for the new city and engaging with all Aucklanders. That has been delivered through the 30-year, 380-page, glossy Auckland Plan, approved by the council in March. It considers the issues and how to plan for improved transport links, better environmental management, housing expansion and accelerating economic development.

Auckland lobby groups say the plan is already paying dividends, providing confidence to potential investors and attracting new ventures into the city.

There's also a general feeling the super-city is off to a good start after just two years, with the Rugby World Cup the magic moment when the fractured city galvanised into one.

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However, there are concerns, including from Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse, about how communities are managing to retain their individual identities, about the ability of local boards to function properly and who is now overseeing regional environmental issues.

Nobody seems to be missing the regional council, which some blame as the culprit responsible for years of court action with city and district councils.

That may not bode well for Environment Canterbury.

So is it a super-city, as in grand, or "super" as in quality? Most people seem to think the former but the latter is the dream of city leaders.

"Truth is," Darby says, if it is the second, "Auckland has a very long way to go to reach the status to match the throwaway phrase."

Rodney Hide, local government minister and leader of the ACT Party at the time of the restructure, says he is "not a fan of amalgamation for the sake of it".

But in a speech in August on Auckland's reforms, he said, if he were "looking at the rest of the country I would start with having five new councils in total to replace what we have now, and ask to be persuaded why it is that we need more".

New Zealand only had the number of councils it now had because of history, he said.

Hide did not provide any more detail of that when asked by The Press.

"I haven't thought boundaries, but I reckon the key is to build new councils, not merge existing ones."

Of five initial new councils, Hide says at least two would be in the South Island. But he resisted conjecturing further.

Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor believes regions will have to cut their cloth to fit their identities and issues.

"From Canterbury's point of view, timing is critical. Do you wait until the metaphorical dust has settled around the rebuilding, or do you take the opportunity of ECan's transitional arrangements to do it now or soon?

"I think you have got to do it at some point, but the local community will have to decide exactly what it wants. If you think about it, one-third of the country population-wise is now being administered by one council, and the other two-thirds by 77 other councils.

"A key difference between Auckland and Canterbury is spatial scale. Auckland is [physically] relatively small, stuck on this narrow isthmus at the top of the North Island. Canterbury has this huge hinterland, and relatively low population."

Taylor thinks ECan's commissioners are doing a "bloody good job".

"There's ups and downs but what I can see is quite coherent and rapid progress around water management in Canterbury."

But Darby says he is "baffled at the Government's intransigence" on reinstating democracy, "when there is such a dire need for leadership in Canterbury".

Any change to Canterbury's council structure has to take account of the region's quakes. "Whoever is coming up with these local governance models, it needs to be built out of those communities. If you get it top-down from the minister, it'll fall apart."

Despite the largely favourable response to the super-city, a spokeswoman for Local Government Minister David Carter said he did not want to comment on possible new governance models for Canterbury. Pressed further, she would not say why.

In some ways, the Government must wonder if it has created a super-monster. While Auckland's rolling, volcanic topography helps contain suburbs and creates a sense of "villages" in the more upmarket areas, that apparent subtropical serenity belies its powerhouse nature.

One council now oversees a city generating a bit over one-third of the country's total gross domestic product. Auckland is still growing and by 2040 is projected to have another 1 million citizens and a need for 400,000 new homes.

The Auckland Plan estimates the city will need 13,000 new dwellings every year for at least the next 30 years. Yet only 3000 dwellings are being built annually.

Some talk about how government departments used to take advantage of territorial authorities, to play them off against each other to get what the department wanted. But now the new Auckland is a force to be reckoned with that can stand up to the Government.

Business groups say, despite all that, Auckland is still not pulling its weight and should be generating more GDP and forging the way for the country.

Despite occupying such high office in the new Auckland, Hulse, former Waitakere City Council deputy mayor and a proud "Westie", admits she was a late convert to the super-city.

"When Len [Brown] asked me to be deputy, I thought, ‘will this make me a poster girl for the super-city, someone that's jumped the fence?' But Len has always understood that I will always be direct about the flaws I see in it."

She remains somewhat sceptical about it, especially suggestions everything is coming up roses, when local boards have to struggle to ensure their communities retain their character and get the most from their money.

"I'm glad everyone thinks everything is going well," she says rather facetiously.

"I was absolutely opposed to the development of the authority. I marched with the community - there was no love lost there. At Waitakere, where I was 18 years as a councillor, we were proud about everything we did. I still grieve for some of the ways we did things there.

"I was tempted to throw shoes at Rodney Hide, for my absolute conviction that for a city this size, how would you retain that cohesion and sense of difference between the areas. But I do agree that it has gone smoothly, it's worked surprisingly well. We have 21 local boards that are up and running, but we have some

fascinating politics ahead as we work out who is doing what. There's a high expectation for boards but, in reality, there isn't a lot of discretion in what we can and can't do.

"There's still quite a lot of suspicion [of the council] that we are spending money regionally but not a lot is coming out to the boards.

"The boards have the same amount of funding that the old territorial authorities had. So financially, they are not worse off but, and this is where real pressure is coming on, how do we get it so the local board is still able to make decisions for itself while juggling with regional initiatives?"

The first job for the new councillors was to develop the Auckland Plan - "a real coming together of all the disparate tribes". Now a 10-year unitary plan is being put together from all the legacy councils' policy statements and land, air and water plans. This will be the set of documents that makes the bigger strategy work and will, in Taylor's words, reduce a stack "seven-feet high into a plan no bigger than a phone book".

Taylor says it is still unclear how the environmental work of the defunct ARC will be taken on by the new council.

"The regional council did a good job of holding some district and city councils to account on environmental issues. There was frequent litigation in the Environment Court around plan-making - cities and districts wanted weaker environmental safeguards, the regional council wanted them stronger.

"There's a need for more checks and balances in the resource management system. We used to have the regional council watching districts and vice-versa - now it is the environment NGOs (non-governmental organisations) who are basically the sole remaining environmental watchdogs in Auckland. That's a lot of pressure."

Hulse does not miss the regional council.

"Regional councils are very good at controlling and acting as an environmental protection agency. But I think the ARC got a bit too controlling and didn't engage with TLAs (territorial local authorities) on the key issues of growth.

"The work of the regional council hasn't been lost and is part of the unitary plan discussions. We need to make sure that the role the council took is reflected in that plan.

"On a personal level, do I miss the added complexity of having a regional council? Probably not."

Peter Salmon QC, who chaired the royal commission, is circumspect about the new Auckland council and how lessons might be applied to Canterbury or Christchurch.

Interestingly for the Government, if it does decide to make changes to the Canterbury governance model, it has Dame Margaret Bazley handy. Not only is she chairwoman of ECan's commissioner council, but she was also one of the Auckland royal commissioners with Salmon and David Shand.

Salmon says the four former Auckland urban councils had a dysfunctional relationship, while the regional council "didn't really have enough power to impose its will on regional issues".

"We knew that we had to do something that made a clear distinction between regional and local issues. When we looked at the alternatives, they really were along the lines of a very strong regional council taking powers away from the territorial councils, but that would have required major amendments to the Local Government Act.

"So we decided that the two-tier model of governance, which is the only one [of its kind] in the world really, was the answer for Auckland."

The commission specifically recommended that the powers and duties of the local boards be included in the legislation. The Government dropped that but instead added a clause in the act saying that if the spirit of the legislation was followed it should have the same result for boards.

"That still left it open to the Auckland Council to make the delegations. I think that is part of the trouble now with the local boards. They feel they are not given the powers and wherewithal to do their job properly. But it's still early days - hopefully this will work its way through. Some of the local boards are very happy with the council. Others aren't so happy."

Salmon believes each area of the country has its own particular governance problems to solve.

"What's happened in Auckland won't naturally fit other parts of New Zealand; that's the first important point.

"Secondly, from my time in Christchurch, I'm aware that the rural-urban issues have assumed much greater prominence than those in the Auckland area. Any solution down there would have to take that into account. It may not be possible to have one body like we have in Auckland dealing with both urban and rural areas.

"I'm also inclined to think at this stage, with Christchurch as it is, the effort in that part of that area has to go into rebuilding Christchurch in an exciting, 21st-century way. There's a marvellous opportunity there. It could be the most sustainable city in the world - what a wonderful thing that would be."

After 18 years as Waitakere mayor, Bob Harvey is now chairman of the CCO Waterfront Auckland, charged with developing the city's all-important waterfront. Initially strongly against the super-city, he admits he is now a "huge fan".

"I'm the poster boy for Auckland now," the effusive "Westie" says. "I thought it would take 20 years to fall into place. Then, holy hell, we had the Rugby World Cup.

"That was the device, the one single moment when the super-city became a reality. We became Aucklanders and not suburbanites. Queen St came alive again after 40 years. Recently it had never felt like Auckland - it had been overtaken by students, new migrants and $2 shops. But there's a feeling that Auckland is young again.

"The waterfront just blossomed too. Before then it had been red fencing stretching four kilometres, gates which were never opened to the public, threats that you'd go to jail if you dared breach them. It was never what you'd call user-friendly."

Hulse, his deputy for three years, agrees.

"The Rugby World Cup came along and we all fell in love with Auckland - people from the west going to the waterfront, people from the city going to the Otara Market, saying, ‘this is part of us'."

Harvey remains proud of what was achieved environmentally in Waitakere, based on the dreams which led to him becoming mayor in 1992.

"Personally, I had a terrible grief period at the loss of Waitakere City. We had achieved so much environmentally. Two years down the track, that city is still alive and well, people are still planting trees for their babies, cleaning up streams, looking after each other. Have they lost their spirit? No. Have they lost their way? No, they haven't.

"The councils made an art form of suing each other. The ARC would always be suing some poor council. I don't miss the ARC."

He says he "toyed" with the idea of putting himself forward to be mayor of the new Auckland.

"I was urged to stand but, after 18 years in my soul-city, Waitakere, I just felt I didn't understand the North Shore, or care. I think Len Brown has been an exceptional first-time super-city mayor."

Heather Shotter, executive director of the independent think-tank Committee for Auckland, says the city should become an example to others.

"In this region, Auckland will be, as first cab off the rank, looked to as a model. That's a good thing. We are no longer looking inwardly, but outwardly. That is why everyone is so positive - it changes the way you think about issues."

Retaining a sense of community is one of the challenges of the super-city, she believes.

"That was a fear that we would lose that. Would Grey Lynn still be Grey Lynn; Remuera, Remuera? But I think there's still a strong sense of local community. You've still got the Otara Market - it hasn't rebranded. West Aucklanders still call themselves ‘Westies'.

"Our members are waiting to see a working, collegial relationship between the council and the Government. If Auckland thrives and continues to grow and be successful, it will have a flow-on to the rest of the country.

" ‘Super-city' gives us an opportunity to brand ourselves so we can attract more economic activity and that is something that we have never done in the past successfully as a region. We should be a great place to do business.

"Auckland has got room to become an even bigger player. I think we need to, for the sake of the country and its economy. We do have some major public transport issues and infrastructure issues, and as a result we are playing catch up, but we will get there."

Darby agrees: "Auckland has GDP of 34 to 35 per cent. It should be driving way more than that. It's underperforming.

"Auckland was not going ahead because the government was tired of coming to Auckland and grappling with varying opinions. There was no community voice, but now there is. The Government is intimidated by that - it's proving to be something of a threat to Wellington."

Harvey offers an interesting vision of New Zealand in 10 or 20 years' time. "I went to Hamilton recently and said, ‘I'm going to frighten you. Auckland is on a steam-roll and will crush you unless you get your act together and become a satellite of Auckland and buy into the future. If you don't get on-side, your future may be less than it could be'.

"I am a huge fan of how successful Auckland looks and feels so I have been touring around urging dysfunctional and fractured councils to smarten up and work together, otherwise the might of Auckland will skew the country.

"The loser will be Wellington. It is now. Auckland and the New Christchurch will book-end New Zealand."

- Canterbury

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