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Tory Whanau’s 10-year budget containe little to celebrate. (Design: Archi Banal)
Tory Whanau’s 10-year budget containe little to celebrate. (Design: Archi Banal)

PoliticsNovember 8, 2023

Why we’re liveblogging a Wellington City Council meeting

Tory Whanau’s 10-year budget containe little to celebrate. (Design: Archi Banal)
Tory Whanau’s 10-year budget containe little to celebrate. (Design: Archi Banal)

Tory Whanau is presenting her proposed 10-year budget for Wellington on Thursday – and we’ll be bringing it to you live.

On Thursday, the Spinoff is launching into new territory: liveblogging a Wellington City Council meeting

Why are we doing this? Because this is the first big meeting to decide Wellington’s Long Term Plan. It’s a process which only happens once every three years, and it’s mayor Tory Whanau’s biggest opportunity to put her stamp on Wellington.

As a high-profile Green mayor with a left-majority council, Whanau has the votes to set a bold progressive vision for the city. The question is: will she take it? The council is in a tough financial position, especially with the costs of the town hall rebuild now blowing out to $330m. Whanau is facing pressure to keep rates and debt low, while costs in other areas are spiralling out of control. 

What does Tory Whanau’s budget look like? 

Whanau said her proposed budget, which was released last week, is “far from an austerity budget”, but it certainly looks like one. It is striking just how much is being cut, including many green priorities: cycleways, footpaths, pothole repairs, libraries, pools, sports fields and skateparks all face big slashes. 

Whanau’s big “win” is a fund to revitalise Courtenay Place, but that is dwarfed by massive budget lines elsewhere, including $240m for repairs to buildings in the Civic Square, and $25m for decarbonising the council swimming pools. 

It’s a proposal that neither the right nor the left of councillors are particularly happy with, so there should be plenty of pushback and changes throughout the day. Progressive councillors will be unhappy with the scale of cuts, while conservatives will no doubt push for more.

Councillors can amend any line of spending in the budget as long as they have the votes, so expect to see some big changes throughout the meeting. By the end of Thursday, Wellingtonians will have a clearer idea of what Whanau’s legacy as mayor will look like. 

What is a Long Term Plan? 

The Long Term Plan is the council equivalent of Budget Day, except you get to see all the negotiating play out live instead of hidden behind closed doors. It is a 10-year budget, but it gets reviewed every three years so new mayors can put their stamp on it. 

The mayor writes up a proposed budget and presents it to the council, which spend several hours arguing over it, trying to cut the stuff they don’t like and get more money for the stuff they do. Then, they take a few weeks for the public to have their say, and the council can make changes based on feedback before it signs off on the final document. 

Whanau has made the process even longer this time. On Thursday, the council is debating what’s called the Levels of Service; basically, they’re figuring out what stuff they want to spend more money on and what stuff will have its budget cut, but it’s all based on rough figures. There will be another meeting in December where they work out the exact numbers. 

What to watch for in Thursday’s meeting: 

New spending: 

  • What will happen to the Town Hall and Capital E? After already committing another $147m to the Town Hall repairs (bringing the total costs to $330m), the council is now being asked to spend another $240m on projects that have a “synergy with the Town Hall opening”, including the fixing the former Capital E building and the basement under Civic Square. This is a massive cost that has come as a surprise to many councillors. Expect to see a fiery debate about cancelling these repairs and demolishing the buildings – including the City to Sea Bridge. 
  • Decarbonising swimming pools: One of the biggest new spends is $25m to switch the heating of the council’s swimming pools from gas to electric. This will have an impact on emissions, but it will be harder to swallow if it comes at the cost of cycling and walking infrastructure. Councillors on the right will consider it a waste of money, and those on the left might have different priorities in mind. 
  • Centre city upgrade: An extra $4m for urban green spaces, starting with a new park on Frederick St, and an extra $40m for the open spaces and recreation budget. One of the few areas to avoid cuts was the City Growth fund, which will be used for a bunch of safety work on Courtenay Place. This is one project Whanau won’t want to negotiate on. 
  • Housing Upgrades: $130m increase for inflationary pressures on the city’s social housing. This seems like an unavoidable cost, but almost no details have been released about what this would involve.Bringing vibrancy back to Courtenay Place is a priority for Tory Whanau.

The big cuts: 

  • Cycleways: Whanau is proposing a huge slash in funding for cycleways, from $191m to $110m. It would still mean the full rollout of all the planned cycleways, but the lanes would be of lower quality, with less physical separation between bikes and cars. This is a huge turnaround for someone who ran on their green credentials and may spark a backlash among progressive councillors and cycling activists.
  • Walking improvements: Another weird one for green transport, the plan would mean huge cuts for upgrading existing footpaths and building new ones. Council spending would drop from $93m to $39m and would miss out on an extra $24m in subsidies from Waka Kotahi. Pedestrians are meant to be at the top of Wellington’s transport hierarchy, so this will be controversial. 
  • Potholes: The plan cuts $26m from road surface renewals, dropping from 55km of repairs to 40km. That will mean more potholes and low-quality roads. Councillors on the right, especially in some suburban areas won’t be happy about this. 
  • Free parking: The plan wants to squeeze out a bit more revenue from parking by adding more paid parking in the outer suburbs. This also won’t be popular. 
  • Suburban recreation cuts: There will be no skate park upgrades at Ian Galloway or Waitangi Park, and some planned new playgrounds will be scrapped. It will also mean no upgrades for Grenada North Park and Khandallah Pool – two important local facilities that could trigger a community backlash. 
  • Sports fields: The council wants to “sweat” non-critical recreation assets – meaning they will do less upkeep on sports fields and playgrounds, which could mean worse playing surfaces and frustration from sports clubs. 
  • Bits and pieces: A bunch of other minor stuff is being dropped, including an upgrade of the library computer system ($5m), repairs for the Karori Event Centre ($1.7m), works on Makara Cemetery ($2.8m) landscaping at Otari-Wilson’s Bush ($13m), dog park upgrades ($0.13m), coastal beautification ($0.84m), and renewals at Huetapara Park ($1.7m). These are all little things but every project has some passionate local supporters who will care deeply.
Wellington’s cycleways budget is set to take a big cut.

To be confirmed: 

  • Pipes: The overwhelming scale of repairs for the pipe network is the big elephant in the room, but it probably won’t be a key point of debate on Thursday. Wellington Water won’t report to the council with their cost estimates until later this month. Whanau’s preference seems to be to truck along with basic repairs but avoid doing any major spending, in the hopes the new National-led government will announce some version of water reforms. 
  • The Airport shares: Wellington city council holds a 34% share of Wellington Airport, valued at $278 million. Whanau has indicated she is open to selling these shares and some other ground leases to help balance the books.

What you need to know: 

The Wellington Long Term Plan meeting will start at 9.30am on Thursday.

It will be live streamed on YouTube and liveblogged here on The Spinoff.

Keep going!