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Hey Bill English, it’s time to champion Auckland!

Prime Minister Bill English made his big pre-Budget speech in Wellington yesterday. He mentioned Auckland exactly zero times. Is this a deliberate election-year strategy, asks Simon Wilson.

It’s three weeks till Budget Day. Three weeks until the government sets out the financial framework for the programme it will take into the election in September, now less than five months away. How important is Auckland to that programme?

Prime minister Bill English gave us a clue yesterday in a big pre-Budget speech to a lunch hosted by BusinessNZ. In the 2650 words of that speech, not one of them was “Auckland”. Is that bad? You bet it is.

It doesn’t mean Auckland is being ignored. Of course not. The speech was long on social policy, particularly in relation to “social investment” programmes, which I’ve written about previously here. Social investment uses statistical analysis to identify risk factors and the people most exposed to them, so that welfare programmes and other support can be targeted to those most in need. The social investment approach is now central to the government’s approach to welfare, particularly for children and families, and it should be obvious to everyone that quite a bit of that money will be spent in Auckland.

It’s a similar story with road and rail infrastructure and other big-spend areas. Auckland will get slices of all the pies.

So does that mean we should all just zip it, sweetie? English didn’t need to mention Auckland because he really is looking after us – it’s just that he didn’t want to say so for fear of alarming everyone else?

Two things about that. One is this: Auckland needs champions, not supporters too shy to declare their interest. The other is that it isn’t even true: the government does not have a plan for Auckland.

On the first, Auckland needs public advocacy. We need national political leadership that works with local leadership to build a narrative of the city’s importance to the country – if it can be done for dairy it can certainly be done for Auckland. But it can’t be done overnight. It requires a consistent across-the-board approach and it can’t be delayed.

Nine of the 20 cabinet ministers come from Auckland, including Paula Bennett (2nd ranked), Steven Joyce (3rd), Jonathan Coleman (7th), Nikki Kaye (12th) and Judith Collins (15TH). None of them has a specific Auckland role, and most of them do almost nothing to publicly advocate for the city. We lack a champion in the cabinet and we suffer for it.

Perhaps they’ve decided it will cost them votes in September, in the rest of the country, if they talk about the city. If that’s true it’s a bit tragic, isn’t it? Are we ever going to stop with the idea New Zealanders are just country kids at heart?

This is important. The issue is confidence. The reason the government consistently talks up the economic strength of the country as a whole is that it builds confidence. Which, in turn, encourages businesses to expand, people to take risks, communities to engage. Confidence in Auckland, among its own citizens and among other New Zealanders, is a key to progress.

But this is not merely a problem with messaging. Oh no. Auckland needs a sustained, focused, concerted plan. Because let’s call it straight: this city is on the edge of crisis.

We all know this. In transport, housing, health, education, crime, the drains when it rains – wherever you look – supply of services has been outstripped by demand, costs have risen beyond the reach of ordinary citizens and existing systems are failing to cope with their workloads. It’s as true for stormwater as it is for school counselling; congestion on the roads mirrors congestion in the health services dealing with diabetes.

A city in crisis is a city that can’t deliver to its potential – for its own citizens or for the country.

Bill English poses with a copy of his budget speech during the printing of the budget on May 24, 2016. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

What do we need? It’s great the government has spending plans for programmes that will benefit Auckland. But we need more than that. We need long-term planning, not just short-term crisis management. Not “Let’s put another motorway lane there” but “How do we restructure the transport systems of the city?” Not “Let’s give that kid a scholarship” but “How do get great teachers into all the schools so obviously most in need of them?”

And we need a special focus. From central and local government, the private sector and NGOs, and from citizens, we need creative, inclusive, new ideas. We could think of it like this: Auckland is a project.

Here are 10 areas desperate for a rethink and 10 ways they could start. It’s not everything.

  1. Māori students at kura kaupapa have achieved some remarkable improvements, and students at most Catholic schools, especially in the lower deciles, also do remarkably well. Why? What are the things these schools do right that can be applied in other lower decile schools and right across the state school system?
  2. We’ve known for a long time that primary health care and public health are the keys to addressing most of the illnesses people turn up to hospital with. So how do we make primary health care more effective?
  3. It used to be said – by members of the current cabinet – that Aucklanders will never get out of their cars. We now know from passenger numbers on the electric trains and Northern Busway that this is simply not true. Yet transport planning is still based on building more roads. Let’s put the focus squarely on public transport, especially rail (trams and trains), and cycling and walking. Not because everyone has to stop driving, but because cities geared to PT have less congestion on the roads than cities geared for cars. Strange, but true.
  4. There’s a mayoral taskforce that has no central political input; there are skilled private sector advocates like Leonie Freeman whose services are somehow not required. Let’s take the current attempts to coordinate an approach to building affordable housing and social housing, and supercharge them. Everybody on board.
  5. The uncomfortable truth: if dairy and bottle store owners were mainly Pakeha there is no way we would put up with their being attacked so often. Yes, we need all the social programmes we can get to steer at-risk kids away from crime, and we also need more police in the community engaged in prevention, and we need a priority alert system to deal with dairy robberies when they occur. Let’s make the armed robbery of dairies a crime that’s very hard to get away with.
  6. When it rains hard in Auckland – which is often, especially in autumn and spring – the stormwater drains can’t cope. The cost is measured in the misery of people repeatedly flooded out of their homes and workplaces; it’s also measured in the pollution of our waterways. Let’s have Watercare come out from whichever underground bunker it’s hiding in and front-foot a programme to get the drains working properly.
  7. In the first city of Māoridom, Māori are at the bottom of almost all the statistics for achievement and the top for the statistics of risk. Māori are not institutionally celebrated as they should be – there’s no cultural centre on the waterfront, for example – and not properly represented on council either. Why? Because not enough of us understand or value our unique bicultural character? How about a citywide programme to teach te reo in schools? With outreach for parents too?
  8. At this point, it doesn’t matter if you think we should have 10 million people here or slam the doors entirely and not let another person in. The fact is, 90,000 immigrants arrived in the country last year and half of them settled in Auckland, but nobody planned for that to happen. Let’s have the public debate, and the political policies on the table, and make decisions as a community.
  9. Auckland the super-city has achieved a lot of things, but it costs more than it was supposed to, it’s not allowed to run enough of its own affairs and the relationship of council to the “council-controlled” organisations is way less functional than it should be. Seven years into the new city governance setup, it’s time for a review.
  10. Back to the start. Auckland champions please. Forward-looking, inclusive, engaged. Not afraid to say, Auckland is important, here’s why, and here’s how we’re going to help it function well for the good of the entire country.

Not a lot to ask, is it?


The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.