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Is Auckland Council making itself Redundant? The paradox of retrenchment in the face of growth

Published
February 13, 2021
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AUCKLAND Council, New Zealand’s so-called Super City administration, has become known for at least four areas of failure in its short ten years of existence:

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Auckland Light Rail, official image via Greater Auckland (2018). Crown copyright reserved.

A fifth area of failure is now being added, in the form of redundancies in the planning and building sections of Auckland Council.

Friends of mine, planners, and developers cannot build or work due to consent processing delays caused by Auckland Council staff layoffs.

I myself had a Land Information Memorandum altered in twenty-four hours, before the latest round ofcuts.

But a similar application has now been sitting in a communal in-tray for three months, because the person who handled the last one had been made redundant and there’s nobody left who’s up to speed.

I’ve heard that the most experienced staff have been let go, perhaps because they command the highest salaries.

It’s time to question the approach of chief executives such as Jim Stabback and his predecessor Stephen Town, and their sub-chiefs in Auckland TransportPorts of Auckland and Watercare, which all too often focuses on short-term savings and cuts.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of individuals. It’s also due to the wider incentive-culture of the public service today, which focuses on savings.

It’s also due to an older and more chronic weakness of New Zealand local government, in that those who want to put a stop to expenditure are always vocal in ratepayer circles.

I was on the Auckland City Council from 1992 to 1995 with the Alliance team. But I now have fewer illusions about what local government can achieve by itself. In the 2019 Mayoral contest, I voted for Wayne Young of the Virtual Homeless Community. I figured that the best a candidate could do was raise the profile of an issue, at least!

Auckland at Full Stretch

The weaknesses of local government didn’t matter that much when New Zealand was a nation of farmers and slow-growing towns.

But it does matter now that Auckland has a population of more than 1.6 million.

In the forty-odd years that our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been alive, New Zealand has gone from 3.1 million to 5.1 million. Over the same period Auckland went from 770,000 to more than 1.6 million. By 2050, Auckland's population may approach 2.5 million.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, at the swearing in of the Executive Council, at Government House, Wellington, on 6 November 2020. New Zealand Government (Office of the Governor-General), CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The title of a book published in 1977, Auckland at Full Stretch, now seems ironic. For today’s Auckland is more than twice as stretched as the city was in 1977. And Auckland will be three times as stretched in 2050, it now seems.

Pretty soon, central government is going to have to step into Auckland to help with the city’s growing pains.

As others have suggested, central government might have to pay Auckland local government a bonus to build more infrastructure and consent more dwellings and businesses.The centre might have to take over some of the Council’s regulatory functions through agencies like MBIE, as well.

But if the New Zealand Government is to step in like this, it will first have to address a similar failing of its own political culture.

Which is, essentially, a culture of managing for the status quo and cutting costs in the here and now. An approach not too different to that of Auckland Council itself.

When Kiwis were doers

The funny thing is that New Zealand wasn’t always this paralytic in the face of growth and change.

As far back as the 1950s, when Auckland only had a third of a million people and New Zealand itself only two million (all drastically outnumbered by sheep), the chief planner of New Zealand’s Ministry of Works was urging us to think of “the next million.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rob Muldoon’s National Party government preached a philosophy of “think big.”

And Norman Kirk’s preceding Labour Government responded to a housing shortage by ramping up construction to 34,400 new dwellings a year in 1975.

After allowing for population growth, that’s as if Ms Ardern’s flagship first-term Kiwibuild scheme had contributed to the production of nearly 60,000 homes a year by 2020.

The older generation of Kirk and Muldoon knew how to get things done. After all, they’d been in the War, or lived through it at any rate.

The Great Acceleration

And yet life forty years ago was slow-paced, compared to today. Overseas, people talk about something called the Great Acceleration. A great increase in all kinds of human activities and impacts in just the last few decades.

For example, the fact that humanity has emitted more carbon dioxide since 1988 than in all the history of modern industrial society before that date.

And every other aspect of life seems to have sped up as well.

The Revolt against the City

And so, here’s the paradox. It seems that, just as New Zealand embarked on its Great Acceleration, planning for growth went out of fashion.

The older, World War II generation expected New Zealand to follow other countries in the sense of becoming more urban and more industrial.

Rural New Zealand has only ever supported about half a million people directly. Since 1910 or thereabouts, every additional New Zealander has been an urban dweller. It followed that, even in the 1950s, the next million would be urbanites.

Most politicians and officials also believed, in those days, that New Zealand’s continuing urbanisation had to be planned for in depth.

The government would have to make plans for new industries that might not be profitable at first, for new housing schemes like those pushed through by Norman Kirk, and for new transport schemes like the electric rapid rail proposed for greater Auckland by its charismatic city mayor, Dove-Myer Robinson.

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Proposed Auckland Rapid Rail at Middlemore, from 'Facts about the Public Passenger Transport System in Auckland', Auckland Regional Authority, 1967. Crown copyright reserved.

But in the 1970s, the post-War vision of a more urban and industrialised future started to be seen as a threat to the Kiwi way of life.

Ancient stalwarts of the soil like Kenneth Cumberland, presenter of the 1981 TVNZ series Landmarks, teamed up with baby boomers to question the city-focused vision of national development.

The revolt against the city was especially sharp when it came to Auckland, a city that was becoming the butt of resentment and jokes. The issue here was that New Zealand had traditionally had four main urban centres, namely, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. But Auckland was now pulling well ahead of the other three, and this stoked resentment south of the Bombay Hills.

The revolt against the city also helps to explain the rise of Rogernomics, the suite of free-market economic reforms introduced to New Zealand by the mid-1980s Finance Minister Roger Douglas and his supporters.

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According to the economist Simon Collins, the Rogernomes were skeptical of the value of new urban industries and saw the key to our future prosperity as lying, still, with rural industries that didn’t need as much government support.

Although their methods, including a massive shakeup of the public service and the planning laws, were revolutionary, the actual objective of the Rogernomes was quite traditional. Namely, to restore New Zealand to the condition of a big farm for England and other Northern Hemisphere consumers of our meat, milk, wool, timber, fish, wine, venison, kiwifruit, and also our scenery by way of the tourism and film industries. The city was now, once more, an aftertought.

Population Polemics

Many people also believed, in those days, that the post-World War II urban boom was grinding to a halt. They believed that the cities of the Western world were entering into what one UK-based expert termed "an age of stagnation":

The same opinions were held in New Zealand: if anything, even more strongly. On the nation’s TV screens, Professor Cumberland predicted that, in the 21st century, the main thoroughfares of Auckland and Wellington might well be “deserted canyons.” He would have been surprised by the amount of traffic congestion in Auckland today!

Until the 1980s, the planners had believed that we might have to cope with as many as five million people residing in New Zealand by 2020, and an Auckland of 1.5 million. Estimates that were fairly accurate as it turned out.

Cumberland disagreed, claiming that New Zealand’s population would not top 3.5 million for the foreseeable future. Over time, official estimates of future population also became more modest.

In the 1980s the Statistics Department was telling us that we would not hit four million until about 2020.

In 2004, by which time we’d already hit four million in New Zealand, the Statistics Department reassured us that we wouldn’t hit five million till 2050! It’s 5.1 million today, of course.

Denying the City

To pull the argument together, the problem we face in New Zealand is that since the 1980s we have had a do-nothing philosophy of government which is, at bottom, based on the denial of urban growth.

Among the many issues of the Great Acceleration era, it’s not just climate change that gets denied. In New Zealand, we have for decades denied the extraordinary, parallel acceleration of Auckland.

This background needs to be understood if we are to achieve the “government of transformation” that Ms Ardern promised back in 2017. Transformation that will largely be measured by the extent to which we get on top of Auckland issues.

By Mary Jane Walker, with Chris Harris, PhD

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