Bill Cashmore, deputy mayor of Auckland, tells Simon Wilson why he loves working with the government and why he has such high hopes our problems will all be fixed.
Bill Cashmore gets up at 4am so you don’t have to. It takes him an hour to drive to work and he’s there before six. Cashmore is the deputy mayor and he lives at Orere Point, which is way out east, about as far away as you can get from Auckland while still being in Auckland. By way of contrast, that lazybones of a mayor, Phil Goff, who lives in Clevedon, doesn’t get up till 5am.
Cashmore gets up early because he’s excited about Auckland. He’s the city’s lead representative in many of its dealings with central government and he thinks – he’s the first and only politician I’ve met who thinks this and can talk convincingly about it – that the relationship is going brilliantly.
We sat in his office, the 26th floor of the council building on Albert St, sun streaming in, Sky Tower looming right outside the window, and he enthused his way through 40 minutes of jovial wonderfulness. He’s not usually like this – in meetings he sits unsmiling, seeming barely to tolerate the lesser beings around him who insist on sharing their thoughts, at length, on every item on the agenda. But everyone says he’s a lot of fun really and here he was, auditioning to be the most relentlessly positive politician in the universe, as if he hadn’t heard that the job has already been filled. Come to think of it, he could give that Jacinda Ardern a very good run for her money.
And he was a lot of fun. A charming and quick-witted conversationalist and, did I mention, a startling optimist.
He told me he’s got a four-step plan for funding transport in Auckland and everyone’s going to love it. And that the council-government relationship is close, constructive and based largely on the council’s own analysis of population growth. That new funding mechanisms will change everything, because the key ministers in Wellington now understand Auckland and will do what’s needed to make it work. He even said they know how to fix the housing crisis.
You can take all this in various ways. One is to accept that because the problems facing Auckland should be and must be fixable, perhaps they really are going to be fixed. Because it’s not credible for council and government to be at arm’s length from each other, when it’s in the interests of both that critical problems get resolved.
Or, we’re going to have an election in a few weeks and the government has not been inspiring confidence that it knows what to do about Auckland. Because Bill Cashmore is a member of the National Party, so right now he would talk up the government, wouldn’t he?
Or both. Cashmore clearly does want the National-led government to be thought well of. But it is also perfectly feasible, in fact likely, that council and government have a functional and productive working relationship.
On transport, Bill Cashmore told me that step one was to remove the interim transport levy. This is a levy added to our rates by the previous council as an emergency measure, to cover some of the costs of transport infrastructure. That levy was Cashmore’s idea. “Me and Calum,” he said, meaning former councillor Calum Penrose, “we took it up to Len Brown and convinced him to support it.”
Its value wasn’t just as a revenue earner: critically, it showed the cabinet that the council would do its bit to fund transport. Previously, the council had actually been reducing Auckland Transport’s capital expenditure.
But it’s only a temporary levy and besides, it covers only a quarter of what’s needed. It will come off “next year or possibly the year after”.
Step two, if needed, is a regional fuel tax, which would also be an interim measure. He clearly doesn’t think it’s a problem that the government has refused to countenance such a thing. Step three is congestion charging, done with machines in vehicles that are counted electronically at key points on the motorways.
Step four, the aim of the exercise, is variable pricing to manage traffic, done with GPS. The technology is plagued with problems; Singapore is the world leader and won’t have it ready until 2021 or probably later. But eventually, GPS will allow the council to charge you for driving on the busiest roads at the busiest times, and in the fast lanes, and to vary the pricing depending on the conditions at the time.
Bill Cashmore is very confident government and council will work together to this goal.
On funding, Cashmore told me the new “special purpose vehicles” (SPVs), announced recently by the government as a way to get around borrowing limits, are the key to the future. Essentially, they operate like infrastructure bonds, allowing the council to raise money and repay it through prescribed mechanisms like a targeted rate.
There’s nearly $2 billion worth of spending needed to replace three of the city’s major water and sewage systems: in Ponsonby/Herne Bay, downtown and in the eastern suburbs. SPVs could pay for that and a targeted rate could recoup the money.
“It can be done with transport, too,” said Cashmore.
I asked him if the government saw it the same way. “I would say so,” he said, and told me a heart-warming story about how, earlier this month, when they officially opened the Kirkbride Rd trench on the way to the airport, transport minister Simon Bridges and prime minister Bill English invited him to cut the ribbon with them. “They didn’t have to do that. It’s a Transport Agency project, we didn’t pay for any of it.” But they did, because they’re all working together now. (The trench will be open for public use on 27 August.)
I asked him why, if that was the case, English has consistently said that Auckland’s problems have been created by Auckland Council, which still isn’t doing enough to solve them? Cashmore said he didn’t think they were saying that so much now.
I asked if this was a case of there being one story for public consumption (it’s easy populism to blame a poorly regarded council) and another for what really happens? Or have things really changed?
So he said, “It’s a bit of both.” But he added, “The level of understanding has changed. They know we need to do this together. Simon Bridges really does get that. So does Bill English.”
What about finance minister Steven Joyce? I’ve lost count of the number of speeches and interviews in which he’s claimed the council is not pulling its weight. Cashmore produced a smile that some might call a smirk. “He’s getting it too.”
On Auckland population growth, Bill Cashmore said the PM has decided the council’s data is better than that of Treasury and other government departments – because over time it has proved to be more accurate.
I asked him, has the gap been large?
“Put it this way. At Beachlands/Maraetai, where I live, the predictions of the Ministry of Education were 40% undercooked and 20 years too late.”
Population growth since the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) was drawn up last year has been “three times faster than expected”. That’s why the government has been announcing new transport projects like rapid transit to Mt Roskill.
Cashmore calls it ATAP 1.1, and says it was developed in a month. “Unfortunately, the announcement got botched.” That would be true: it was leaked to The Spinoff.
In fact, what’s been revealed about ATAP 1.1 does not point to the government and council seeing eye to eye. For example, mayor Phil Goff has been calling for light rail to the airport ever since he stood for office last year, but minister Bridges has steadfastly refused to confirm that his plan for rapid transit to Mt Roskill is stage one of light rail to the airport.
Are they really going to fix the housing crisis? Bill Cashmore didn’t say it would be easy. “There is no such thing as affordable housing,” he said, and gave me the hard stare he favours when he’s not being relentlessly positive. He meant even if you do build a cheap house, it will get too expensive very quickly.
So what has to happen?
“First, you’ve got to stop the price escalation and you do that by building a lot more houses.”
But the construction industry is at capacity. True, he said. There were 23,000 sections enabled last year, but only 10,000 have been built on. (And in 2015, he told The Spinoff last year, 13,000 sections were enabled and only half of them were built on.)
“That’s why you need factory-style construction.” Prefabrication, at great scale. “And more terraced houses and apartment blocks.”
And more very large developments, hundreds, sometimes thousands of homes at a time? “Yes, that’s right, and that comes back to the SPVs.” There’s a funding mechanism in place now to make this happen, and it’s starting to bite. They’ve got 22,000 more dwellings coming on stream in Drury.
It all fits together and it’s all going to happen. Cashmore had his big grin back. He said a few other things:
On being a politician: “You can’t run from every scared cat. You’ve got to take the odd scratch.”
On other unnamed city councillors: “Nothing annoys me more than a politician who wants to throw a litre of petrol on a smouldering fire.”
On the prospects of the mayor, Phil Goff: “I didn’t know him, not really, not until he got elected. Before the election I said to him, ‘If you get in things are aligned for the stars.’”
On trading on Easter Sunday, which will be the hot topic at today’s meeting of the governing body of council: “I think the status quo will prevail.”
Really, in this secular age, with retailers all aclamour for change? “It’s another day’s shopping,” he said. “Is that a big thing? Do we need another day’s shopping?”
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.