New plans for transport and housing, sure, but the government’s coalition and support deals promise much more for Auckland than that. As Simon Wilson reports, there’s even a big win for Metiria Turei.
Arise the other Phil: we have a new Mr Auckland
Rumours the new government is going to change the name of Auckland to Philtown may not be exaggerated. Till yesterday the title “Mr Auckland” belonged to Phil Goff, the mayor. But Auckland’s new more powerful Phil is Te Atatu MP Phil Twyford, number five in the cabinet pecking order (which is as high as you can get without actually being PM, deputy PM, party deputy or minister of finance). Twyford is the new minister of housing and urban development, and new minister of transport, and that makes him, in effect, the minister for Auckland.
The Greens’ Julie-Anne Genter wanted that transport job but it’s no accident Twyford has claimed both portfolios. Genter has had to settle for associate minister. Twyford’s got both because the planning of housing and transport is going to be integrated. As he has already declared, they’re going to move fast to fulfil their election pledge to create “10-15 new communities” in Auckland. That’s new suburbs, effectively, each of several thousand homes, with good public transport, active transport (cycling and walking) – yes, and roads.
Twyford has said the model will be Hobsonville, where the Housing NZ subsidiary HLC is deep into the process of building 4500 new homes (HLC used to mean Hobsonville Land Company and now stands for Homes. Land. Community.). Hobsonville doesn’t have many of the affordable houses that new projects desperately need, but HLC is on top of that in the new projects it’s developing in other parts of Auckland, including Northcote and Mt Roskill.
There are other models of good housing, too, and Twyford has signalled there are things to learn from them. In several parts of the country, the papakāinga programme is re-establishing community housing on communally owned land. Ngāti Whātua has a housing programme at Ōrākei underpinned by strong environmental principles. In Manukau, another big new development is underway.
It’s not as if Labour will build houses where National was letting nothing happen. But right now, far too few homes are being built and it’s far too easy for developers to make money building large houses on large sections that sprawl away from the city. That’s a waste of scarce resources and it undermines all the principles of Auckland’s urban growth plans.
Twyford’s job isn’t just to say yes, the state will pay for more houses. In order to scale up construction and focus it on compact affordable developments, the government needs to reform the planning processes, the construction rules, the building supplies industry, the financial services sector, the trades training sector, the immigration rules, and what’s inside the developers’ heads.
What about the other Auckland ministers?
One of the more interesting cabinet appointments is Jenny Salesa as minister of building and construction, as well as associate minister to Twyford in housing and urban development. The choice of the Tongan-born Salesa, MP for Manukau East, seems to signal a commitment to a new focus on affordable and social housing.
As for Genter, she’s expected to take charge of the cycling and walking programme: Labour and the Greens have agreed to “make safe cycling and walking, especially around schools, a transport priority”. As it happens, they’ve got a major opportunity to make good on that in Auckland waiting for their attention right now. Auckland Transport (AT) and the Transport Agency (NZTA) have recently agreed on a massive $600 million active transport programme for the city over the next 10 years. But words are free – the plan isn’t funded and it forms part of AT’s submission to the council in its current task of updating the city’s 10-year budget.
The council will expect the government to pay for a lot of it. Genter is likely to be the minister who decides how much should be centrally funded and then has to advocate for her decision to Twyford, finance minister Grant Robertson and the rest of cabinet. Big test, right there.
The Greens have also won a commitment that “work will begin on light rail to the city to the airport in Auckland”, and Twyford has committed to that work starting “immediately“. Genter has argued the whole thing could be done by the time of the America’s Cup in 2021, but Twyford has never publicly gone that far.
However, it is clear the first long section could be built by then: that’s Wynyard Quarter, Queen St, Dominion Rd down to Mt Roskill. If the new government is going to choose any one project to symbolise a change of direction for Auckland, that’s the one. Twyford has also committed to running light rail further west as well as south, which picks up a proposal from the Congestion Free Network, which was supported by both Labour and the Greens before the election.
Twyford, Salesa and Genter are all Aucklanders. So is Jacinda Ardern, of course, and Winston Peters, and social development minister Carmel Sepuloni. In all, 15 members of the executive – half the 31 – are Aucklanders. The city is solidly represented among the decision-makers.
It’s not just the what, it’s also the how
Signature projects allow governments to show they’re doing something, but in many ways the biggest changes coming for Auckland will be less what than how. This government will change the way a lot of things happen.
New funding models for infrastructure will be introduced and supercharged. This has been a real problem for Auckland: half of all consented projects don’t get built because the developers can’t raise the money, while the council itself can’t borrow because it’s reached its debt ceiling. The new government openly accepts that its role is to “derisk” construction projects: to give banks and other lenders more confidence to lend. National was tiptoeing towards this but as Fran O’Sullivan has reported in the Herald, Labour will now set up a “pipeline of debt finance”.
Infrastructure bonds and the like will provide funding for new housing communities, say, to be paid back through targeted rates and other measures. But there are some risks for the government itself. One relates to the way it marries the reluctance of banks to lend with ANZ’s just-reported 15% increase in profit: now up to $1.78 billion. On the face of it, lenders like ANZ don’t need help from the government so much as a swift kick up the backside.
Another risk is highlighted by the case of Fletcher Building, which has the lion’s share of all construction work in New Zealand and owns vertically integrated supply lines, and yet somehow contrives to lose money on some of its biggest projects. Fletchers needs to sort out its own mess, but if the government “derisks” elements of its business, it could remove the incentive for Fletchers to do that.
Other shakeups the new government is visiting on Auckland include a new focus for the National Land Transport Fund, which is money from road user charges and is currently spent on roads. Labour and the Greens have agreed to “reprioritise” spending to include rail, cycling and walking. The beauty of this is not just in the use of the money: it will also lead to more integrated transport planning. No longer will NZTA ask itself, “What roads do we spend the fund on?” Instead, they will have to become better at asking, “What is the best way to resolve this transport issue?”
Ken Shirley, CEO of the Road Transport Forum, a lobby group for trucking companies, has expressed some outrage at this. His argument is that rail and cycling users should contribute to their own fund. Despite years of debate, Shirley has managed to remain ignorant of the idea that road users benefit the most when good alternatives to roads exist. Incentivising commuters to use public transport and cycling, and making it easier for freight to use rail, is the key to relieving congestion on the roads. The new government will demonstrate this for him in Auckland.
The government has also announced the return of a regional fuel tax. That, immediately, will help fund non-roading transport projects. The same principle applies.
More ways to rethink the how
Most of the charter schools are in Auckland and they’ll be reconsidered, although the outcome is far from clear. Education minister Chris Hipkins is staunchly opposed; employment minister Willie Jackson remains in favour. Watch for a subtle compromise. Charter schools won’t keep operating outside ministry rules, but it will be a surprise if the successful ones are closed down. It will also be a disappointment if the government does not learn and apply the lessons of those schools’ success more widely.
The happiest man in Auckland right now might just be the mayor. Relations between the government and Auckland Council will improve quickly and deeply: Phil Goff was a member of the Labour caucus until just over a year ago, and both he and some key members of his staff have strong personal relationships with many of the new ministers. When Andrew Little was Labour leader the mayor was even going to be invited to sit on a special cabinet committee, but there’s no word about that yet from the new PM.
The relationship may not remain cosy, though. The list of expensive projects is very long and on both sides, despite the rewriting of investment rules and the creation of new revenue streams, there simply will not be enough money to pay for everything. On top of that, the government can’t focus just on Auckland: it’s got to be seen by the rest of the country to be even-handed, and that’s fair enough. All of which means there will be smiles out front and tough talking behind closed doors. Managing expectations will become a growing task for Twyford and for Ardern herself.
One change to the way things are done that has not been mentioned, but might happen, is a reduction in the overlord status of engineers. In best-practice urban planning, you don’t leave it to the engineers to work out what to do, but that’s what happens all over Auckland. Designers, able to create more people-focused versions of things, need a greater role. And so do marketers, the people who know how to generate popular support for projects, even when they are at their most disruptive.
Two Auckland examples. One is the City Rail Link, which has been treated essentially as little more than a construction project whose disruption needs to be managed. Very little thought has gone into how the disruption itself might be used to enhance the way we live, work and play in the city.
To do this will require a massive culture shift in all the relevant agencies, central and local. The new government won’t manage it in a hurry, but over time it should try.
The second example is the “artist’s impressions” we keep seeing for light rail on Dominion Rd. They’re not artist’s impressions at all, but an engineer’s concept of what a couple of light rail units and some tracks would look like if you just plonked them on the street.
An artist’s impression – that is, a good urban designer’s concept – would show a reconfigured roadway, perhaps with the tracks set in grass down the middle, and with a range of other features that humanised the whole thing.
It’s a new environment now
The new government will bring many changes to the environment in Auckland. Obviously, in transport. But also in trees. Mayor Goff’s programme of planting a million trees in his first term looks parsimonious compared to the Greens-led project to plant a billion trees over 10 years. A hundred million a year. Expect rather more of them to go to Auckland than Goff had been planning.
Research and development spending is to increase from 1.3% to 2% of GDP, and because we have most of the head offices, many of the labs and quite a bit of the high-tech activity, there’ll be an Auckland focus to the R&D growth.
One of the biggest R&D opportunities for the city might lie with Fonterra. Its head office is one of the anchor tenants of the Wynyard Quarter, and with Fonterra already busy with research projects to make dairy more ecologically sustainable, the potential exists for the company to lead the Wynyard precinct as a whole in becoming a genuine hub for high-tech development. GridAKL, offering incubator-style support services for IT and related businesses, is now based in three buildings in Wynyard and is well poised to back that up.
Quiet reform or radical rethink?
Mental health, tax reform, the culture of welfare services, children in state care, the future of what had been planned as the East West Link, the future of the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway, the rollout of the Congestion Free Network… all are going back under the microscope. Some (like mental health) will have major inquiries into what’s gone wrong, others (like some of the roading projects) will more simply be stopped and refocused or canned.
Does it amount to quiet reform or radical rethink?
In some areas, the answer is very likely to be the former. Take Bill English’s social investment (targeted welfare and prevention programmes made possible by big data analysis). Jacinda Ardern has never been keen on it, but social investment is now deeply embedded in many parts of both the policy and service delivery arms of government. In many of the more deprived areas of Auckland there are community-level projects in health, education, housing, justice, employment and more, whose leaders and recipients are keen supporters of the social investment approach.
The new government is less likely to undo social investment programmes than to fine-tune them and to broaden their scope.
However, there is one very significant clause on welfare reform in the Labour-Greens agreement. It says, in full, that they agree to: “Overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions and review Working For Families so that everyone has a standard of living and income that enables them to live in dignity and participate in their communities, and lifts children and their families out of poverty.”
That overhaul of the welfare system, in a sentence, is exactly what former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei campaigned for and ultimately sacrificed her political life for – and its inclusion in the document suggests she won.
Provided that’s what it really means, and provided they carry it through. If they do, it will be the most significant change for Auckland introduced by this government. Time will tell.
Quiet reform or radical rethink is also a question still to be answered for transport. It’s not just about ramping up the spend on cycling and light rail. It’s about their approach to roads too. Take Warkworth, where state highway one and the access roads to it are absurdly inefficient, congested and dangerous. The government has allowed this situation to remain for years, which has helped build the case for an entire new highway from Puhoi, past Warkworth and on to Wellsford.
Will the new government continue to tolerate that approach, or will it insist that problem spots like the Warkworth intersections be fixed much more quickly and cheaply, without having to become part of massive new highway projects?
In part, it will depend on what the parliamentary opposition and the lobbyists lined up beside them do. Curiously, the Road Users’ Ken Shirley told RNZ this week that he wasn’t very fussed about losing the East-West Link. He said, correctly, that there are congestion issues at the Onehunga end of the existing road, and that they are being addressed already. More can and should be done there. But he didn’t seem to think the rest of the road was such an issue.
It was one of the most extraordinary statements of the whole post-election period. At a cost of close to $2 billion, the East-West Link was set to be the most expensive road ever built in this country. It has been opposed by many business and local groups. Its business case is not strong and is anyway out of date. It’s unlikely the last government would even have promoted it were it not for the determined support of lobby groups like the Road Users Forum. Was Shirley just having us on?
Adjusting to the new norms
The thing about the new government, for Auckland as for the whole of New Zealand, is that whatever the mix of quiet reform and radical rethink turns out to be, our economic, social and infrastructure settings are going to be redone. The new settings will establish new norms. The Ken Shirleys of this world, and more importantly the political parties that represent them – looking at you, National – will adjust, as they always do, to those new norms.
Will they do that quickly, or will they wrestle with the new government as if they’re wrestling with demons, before accepting it’s time to move on?
Auckland will not get more absurd new roading projects and we will have better public transport and much better active transport. We will have tens of thousands more people living in communities of safe, dry, warm homes. We will have less overcrowding in the emergency departments in our hospitals and a shorter tail of failure in schools, because warm, dry homes make a real difference to those things. We will have a more functionally helpful welfare system.
But none of these things will be quick and all of them will be subject to the skills and commitment of the ministers, in cabinet and outside it, to make it happen.
Are they good enough for this? That’s the next question. We’ll find out soon enough.
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.