10 things Auckland desperately needs from the new government

Is Auckland in crisis over transport, housing, schools, you name it, or are we heading in the right direction? The answer, says Simon Wilson, is yes. The city voted both ways. Here’s what it really needs from the new government.

We are two cities living as one, and each of those cities sees the place very differently. This election, that didn’t change. Auckland has 9 of the 13 bluest seats in the country, clustered on the North Shore, in the east and in the rural hinterland. They swung even more blue than they were already. It also has 5 of the 9 reddest general seats, especially but not exclusively in the south. There’s a great visual breakdown here.

That dichotomy mirrors the social dichotomy. Auckland has many high-decile schools and many low-decile schools but few in the middle. Most citizens living north of the harbour bridge are white; most living around and south of the Manukau harbour are brown.

But that’s not all of Auckland. On the isthmus we are mixed, and that’s reflected in its diverse political representation. The isthmus contains the marginal seats, the seats where the party vote last time was blue but this time shifted red. It also contains the Act seat and the seats with the biggest Green Party vote. And it contains the suburbs with the greatest ethnic diversity – if you want to see good evidence of that just take a look in almost any of its schools.

In truth, we are not two cities, but three. Two are the cities of extremes, and one is where we mix it all up. Not just geographically, but politically, culturally and socially, the isthmus is right in the middle.

As has been the case for several elections, Auckland votes National more than the rest of the country. In fact, one of the common assumptions of this election was that an urban/rural divide would see provincial and rural New Zealand swing to the right. That didn’t happen. Labour’s biggest party-vote gains were in provincial cities and throughout the South Island. Remarkably, the three seats that would be most affected by Labour’s proposed water tax (the Canterbury seats of Waimakariri, Selwyn and Rangitata) all swung strongly to Labour. More on that here and here.

Voters queue to vote early at the booth in Britomart, Auckland, one of the biggest in the city. At this downtown booth, 49% voted National, 30% Labour and 12% Green. Photo: Simon Wilson

Labour also did well in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, but its smallest gains, and National’s largest, were in Auckland. In the 22 general Auckland seats, the party vote for National grew in 12 of them.

Auckland did still record an overall trend to Labour, and that had the effect of turning Mt Albert back into a party-vote stronghold and almost turning the party vote in Auckland Central red as well. It looks like many of the “John Key Labourites” flowed back to Labour.

In the south and west of the city, however, the party managed a very small rise. It might be tempting for Labour to think there aren’t many more votes it could win in those seats, except that turnout was, as usual, lower than in other parts of the city. If they grew the voter base they’d get more votes. There’s more on all that here.

What it all means is that half the city likes the current stewardship of the country and half of it wants change. If you’re in the latter half, take heart that your numbers have grown. The trend, although not the obvious majority, is on your side. (Bryce Edwards has a good summary with links of various electoral analyses here, and you can study the results right down to each voting booth here.)

But remember this. In the 2017 election, National won 44.4% of the popular vote and Labour and the Greens 43.2% combined. One way of looking at the outcome is that National secured its slight advantage right here. Auckland gave National its edge.

So what does Auckland need from the new government coalition, which may or may not be announced later today? Here’s a list of 10 things that really would help. And no, they are not all about transport and housing…

1. Establish teaching as a premium profession.

Mayor Phil Goff received a delegation of Auckland principals and senior teachers recently – all of them fearful for the future of education in this city. They weren’t who you might think of as the usual suspects. Tim O’Connor was there: he’s the headmaster of Auckland Grammar. Byron Bentley was there: he’s principal of Macleans College, the suburban coed that aspires to outperform Grammar.

Their message was: teaching is not attracting nearly enough people, and those it does attract can’t afford to live in Auckland. You can put in all the standards and programmes you like, but if there aren’t enough teachers, the schools will fail.

Goff isn’t going to advocate to central government that Auckland teachers should receive a salary top-up. He says that would be unfair to nurses, police officers and everyone else on the government payroll who lives here. OK. But he does need to advocate for better status for teachers.

That means: a better salary structure; a hearts and minds programme in schools and universities to attract the best and brightest young students; more flexible pathways into teaching; more help for teachers in schools. It also means incentives targeting the areas of greatest need: low-decile schools, and STEM teaching (science, tech, engineering and maths).

Everybody knows we can’t build a better, more inclusive, future-focused society without good teachers. Almost everybody touched by schooling in Auckland knows it’s in trouble, and surely everybody knows that trouble is extreme in the areas of greatest deprivation. This should be very high on the new government’s agenda.

New housing in Tamaki. Photo: Tamaki Regeneration Company

2. Ramp up the urban development authorities

Right now in Glen Innes, Pt England and Panmure, the Tāmaki Regeneration Company (TRC), owned by crown and council, is “creating a thriving, attractive, sustainable and self-reliant community where the future looks brighter for residents of today and tomorrow”. TRC is “the largest urban transformation project in New Zealand”, with a plan to build 7500 new homes over the next 15 years, along with “schools, amenities, playgrounds – an entirely new community”.  TRC is the model for other such projects.

The Tāmaki project had a disastrous start, just a few years ago, when state-house tenants were evicted and their homes carted away on trucks in the middle of the night. It’s hard to think of a worse way to do urban regeneration. Now, though, the developers say they’ve learned their lesson, they’re doing things very differently and there is indeed much to admire about the work currently planned and underway.

But it also has weaknesses. One is that for a mass construction project, taking 15 years to build only 7500 homes is pathetically slow. The city needs double that number every year.

Another weakness is the lack of coordination. TRC styles itself unofficially as the “lead agency” in Tāmaki, helping to coordinate a range of community services and infrastructure (residents in Glen Innes said they needed more daycare, so TRC built a new early childhood centre). But in reality there is no lead agency. TRC, fundamentally, builds houses. Auckland Transport, separately, plans the transport. Oranga Tamariki (the Ministry for Vulnerable Children), the schools, the district health board and various council agencies all do their own thing.

The National government enabled the creation of high-powered urban development authorities, able to lead from the front, get all the other agencies to work together to a common goal, and streamline both planning and delivery. It’s not happening yet, and the new government needs to ensure that it does. At scale.

Auckland needs 15 Tāmaki Regeneration Companies, all with more powers than TRC currently has. The aim is not to build houses. It’s to build communities (more on this in a forthcoming article).

3. Fast-track the construction process.

There are many reasons construction is so slow in Auckland. There aren’t enough construction workers and not enough new ones are being trained (scandalously, only 15% or less of construction companies employ any apprentices). Building regulations have not kept up with technology, so there are barriers to off-site prefabrication and the like. The consenting processes need to be faster and easier. Banks and other lenders lack confidence (only half the consented building projects in any one year are actually built and the main reason is lack of finance). Tax rules allow land bankers to sit on land designated for growth. Residents all over the city do their best to block housing projects in their neighbourhoods. The planning regulations favour expensive large houses when the need is for cheaper smaller homes.

In all these areas, progress is being made. But some of it is very slow. The new government needs a hands-on minister of construction who understands the urgency, is inspired by the possibilities and is determined to crack together enough heads to get construction happening much faster and at a much bigger scale.

Visualation showing the proposed new road dipping into a trench around where the Onehunga port is with the current Onehunga Harbour Rd going over the top, and a walking and cycling bridge above. Image: nzta.govt.nz

4. Cancel the East-West Link.

The proposed new highway from Penrose to Onehunga will cost nearly $2 billion. It has no business case and NZTA admits it may never have one. It is supposed to fix trucking congestion on the existing road, but that can be done with better intersection planning at the Onehunga end (already happening), better use of traffic lights and logistical control of truck movements (which, incredibly, doesn’t happen even though it’s possible).

Cancelling the East-West Link is the key to a rational rethink of transport in Auckland, because it will free up $2 billion for transport projects that have far greater need. They don’t include, by the way, a four-lane highway all the way to Whangarei. There’s absolutely no business case for that and it would be a terrible outcome.

5. Fast track rail to the airport.

NZ First favours heavy rail to the airport. Running a spur from the southern line at Puhunui near Manukau would help with freight and there are some other good arguments, too. But the light rail option, down Dominion Rd and then past Onehunga, would establish an invaluable new mass-transit commuter route from Wynyard Quarter all the way up Queen St. (There’s more on the relative merits of both here.)

Either way, new government, just get it done already. You can use the money from cancelling the EWL and if you’re really determined, with fast-tracked legislation and a 24/7 construction schedule, you could get the light rail option done in time for the America’s Cup. How amazing would that be?

Artist’s impression of light rail on Dominion Rd. Image: Auckland Council

6. Integrate land transport planning and funding.

Transferring money earmarked for a road like the EWL to a rail project is not easy, because in Wellington they do land transport planning in silos. The National Land Transport Fund is used for roads projects, while rail is funded separately.

Making the Land Transport Fund available to all forms of land transport is an essential precondition to creating a more sensible transport strategy for Auckland.

7. Allow Auckland Council to use new funding mechanisms for transport.

The current government wants Auckland Council to pay for more of the new transport infrastructure. The council says there’s no spare rates cash but the government won’t let it establish new income streams.

Should there be a regional fuel tax? Congestion charging? Smart pricing on the roads? It’s all user pays, one way or another, and you’d think a government led by either National or Labour wouldn’t be terrified of that.

8. Establish a national port and freight strategy.

The Auckland Council has called, again, for the government to create an Upper North Island Regional Port Strategy, but the deeper need is for a national strategy, looking at ports, road, rail and shipping, population demands, carbon reduction and other climate change imperatives.

It has to be done because the current model – let the market do what it will – allows the shipping companies to play the ports off against each other, allows the road freight companies to dominate the debate for their own sectional interest, blocks attempts at regional strategic development and does nothing at all to address climate change.

And it has to be done by central government because if it’s left to local bodies, all they will do is continue to favour themselves at the expense of the wider public good.

Most importantly, having a centrally developed strategy is far more important than allowing political expediency (aka we’ll give Winston his port) to govern the decision-making. It might make sense to shift some of the Auckland port operation to Whangarei, but let’s find out before committing to it.

9. Change the punitive culture around beneficiaries.

Been out to Clendon? Henderson? Anywhere in Auckland, really, where desperate people queue up for benefit help, knowing they’ll have to battle to get it. Been to Bruce Pulman Park in Takanini, or anywhere else they live out of their cars?

The current government’s principal welfare objective is to move people off benefits and into work. It’s how they measure their own success and it’s how, with KPIs, they measure the success of their frontline staff. And it’s a good objective, no question.

But it’s not the only purpose of a benefits system and nor are the falling numbers of beneficiaries the best way to measure success. If staff make the process too intimidating, too confusing, too obstructive, too punishing, beneficiaries just give up. Every charity, community agency and other organisation that works in the area tells stories of this happening all the time. Too many people aren’t given a helping hand up, but are kicked down and out.

If we all want to be proud of ourselves as an enterprising and inclusive city, the practice of the state kicking the people who are down has to change. (Philippa Tolley’s very good RNZ Insight investigation on this is here.)

10. Allow for Māori seats on council.

It’s an easy little thing that means almost nothing to most people and a very great deal to the people it directly affects: having direct Māori representation on council. The government has to legislate or it will be at the mercy of a referendum that Māori are extremely unlikely to win.

Having Māori seats on council is a matter of taking the number of people represented by each councillor in a general ward, on average, and applying that statistic to the number of people on the Māori roll. It’s not a proposal to weight the votes in favour of Māori. A vote on the Māori roll would count the same as a vote on the general roll. It’s simply a way to guarantee that tangata whenua have a voice to represent them. Currently, the roll sizes would enable one Māori seat. (More on this here.)

This practical significance of this would be marked. The symbolism of it, in this great urban centre of Māoridom, would be immense.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson

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