Image: Tina Tiller

The Wellington syndrome

What’s gone wrong for the capital city? How much time do you have? Danyl McLauchlan goes hunting for solutions to the city’s lengthening list of problems.

“The reality is even Wellington is dying and we don’t know how to turn it around.” – John Key in 2013.

“I should have said ‘under sustained pressure’, which would have been a better terminology. I’m not suggesting that it’s dying in the slightest.” – John Key a few days later.

Wellington is not quite dead. In fact, the city is expected to keep growing (making its already dire accommodation crisis even worse). But “under sustained pressure” feels downright prophetic given that geysers of water and sewerage have become routine features of the Wellington skyline.

First there’s the housing affordability crisis. That’s a nationwide problem but it’s particularly acute in Wellington with building consents declining dramatically last year, even as prices soar. There’s an infrastructure crisis: the city’s drinking water, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure have been underfunded for decades, which has led to the nation’s capital discharging sewage into its harbour, while Wellingtonians routinely livestream the fountains of mains water that explode up through their streets. Last month an inner city intersection collapsed into a sinkhole. Wellington Water records about 40 pipe bursts a week. Many of the capital’s buildings are closed because of earthquake safety concerns.

And then there’s the crime. Police have noticed an increase in serious violence in the inner city. A council report released last September found that a staggering number incidents of assault and “antisocial behaviour” were happening in Te Aro Park, a very small park in between Dixon Street, Manners Street and Courtney Place, which represented “65.5% of the whole Te Aro suburb of police attendances requested by ambulance [staff], and 23% of the mental health related calls for service”.

There’s a fiscal crisis: the council has budgeted $2.7 billion for upgrading the city’s water infrastructure, an eye-watering amount which still won’t come close to meeting the cost of 30 years of underinvestment. It’s also got terrible transport problems. Two years ago the Wellington Regional Council dismantled huge components of the city’s much loved bus network – for reasons that were never made clear, and which the councilors themselves didn’t seem to comprehend, even as they were voted out of office for their crimes. Let’s Get Wellington Moving, the city’s $6.4 billion transportation project, is being reorganised after years of non-achievement and paralysis.

Workers install Wellington Airport’s “Wellington Blown Away” sign on July 27, 2012. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

And, in an especially devastating blow to the city’s self-congratulatory self-image, an international brand expert criticised Wellington’s slogan, “The coolest little capital in the world”. It’s not actually cool to call yourself cool, marketing consultant Brian Sweeney told WellingtonNZ, the regional economic development and promotion agency (who paid Sweeney $12,000 for this advice).

On top of all this there’s a political crisis. In the midst of these problems the city council is at war with itself. In 2019 Justin Lester, a Labour aligned candidate who served as deputy mayor for one term, then mayor for another, ran for re-election but – bafflingly – failed to mount a coherent election campaign. He was defeated by Andy Foster, a long term councillor who won the endorsement and financial support of Sir Peter Jackson after Foster indicated he supported Jackson’s views on Shelly Bay, a housing development on the Miramar peninsula which Jackson vehemently opposes. Since then Foster has been in a state of bitter and open conflict with at least half of his council. Particularly the Labour councillors.

Tamatha Paul is an independent councillor for Wellington’s Lambton ward, part of a wave of young candidates who won office in the 2019 local body elections. When I meet her for coffee she’s sitting outside on Lambton Quay, dressed in track pants and a hoodie, scrolling through the terms of reference for the enquiry into the council that the mayor had announced a day earlier (at a cost of $75,000). “Of course these problems are linked,” she tells me, when I ask her what’s gone wrong with Wellington.

“It’s the model of local government and it’s failing all over the country. It’s just failing worse here.”

The council is mostly funded by ratepayers, Paul explains, “who are property owners, and they’re who vote in the elections to make sure their interests are represented. That means there’s an incentive to keep rates low, and property values and rents high. A lot of what local government does is not newsworthy until it fails. And it can take a long time to fail. So the council underinvests in infrastructure for 30 years and prevents new housing from being built, because the whole time there was a short term political win there.

“But now we’ve got these massive costs from those short term decisions. We’ve got an infrastructure crisis and a housing crisis. And we’re making the same mistake with climate infrastructure. There’s a strong incentive to make the short term decision not to fund it, and leave someone else with much larger costs in a few decades’ time.”

Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul (Photo: RNZ)

Would changing the mayor help? Paul pauses, thinks this through. “A mayor has to have people skills. And some emotional intelligence. And some of the conflict in the council is just politics.” She makes a dismissive motion with her hand. “But some of the conflict is good, I think. Or necessary. Because it represents the conflict within society. It represents that the times are changing, more people seeing that this way of doing things just doesn’t work. And others on the council are saying ‘No, let’s just keep making these short term, expedient decisions because that’s good for us politically.’ It can be hard to reach a middle ground when these ideologies are so different.”

I talk to a few inner city shopkeepers and retail staff, trying to get them to say something apocalyptic; to tell me that law and order has broken down, that the rule of the jungle prevails, that the inner city is dead. But they’re all frustratingly optimistic. Yes, business was slow last year, when the public service were all working from home. But it’s picking up. Yes, there’s more crime in the city, and more rough sleepers and more gang members about. But homelessness and gangs are complex socio-economic problems, y’know?

Then a barista at a cafe asks me if I’ve been down to Civic Square recently.

“No. Why?”

“It’s bad man.” He shakes his head. “Like a ghost town. Graffiti everywhere. Filled with junkies. You need to check it out.”

The Civic Square entrance to Wellington Central Library. (Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski)

This sounds exciting so I hurry to Civic Square, a large plaza in the centre of the city surrounded by local government buildings: the library, town hall, art gallery. When I arrive I find no graffiti, zero junkies; the space is full of office workers eating lunch. I’ve been conned.

The area is a little depressing, though. The council offices have been closed since last year “to prevent the spread of Covid” (How? Why?). The town hall has been shuttered for renovations since 2013, and the cost of rebuilding it has gone from $46 million to $112 million. The library has been closed for a year: the windows look in on empty floors littered with dismantled shelves. The cost of strengthening it has been estimated at about $180 million, and everyone expects it to cost at least twice that.

To offset the cost Andy Foster suggested privatising some of the office space in the library building and cutting the book buying budget by 40%, ideas he sprang on his council during its long term planning meeting, seemingly without warning. They were immediately leaked to the media as “the mayor wants to privatise the library”, prompting a massive public outcry. His council approved the idea then changed its mind two weeks later.

While I’m wandering around the square I run into a council staffer eating takeaway sushi. I ask him why Wellington’s local politics seem so dysfunctional. He thinks about it while eating then replies, “Wellington is a bit weird. Most local body politicians around New Zealand run as independents. Even if they’re ex-ministers. Look at Goff in Auckland and Dalziel in Christchurch. But Wellington is such a left-wing town, so you’ve got all these Labour and Green councillors. The last mayor was a ‘Labour’ mayor. Having overt ideological blocs on council does seem to make everything a bit more partisan. Although most of the Green councilors are constructive.”

How much of the current conflict is motivated by Labour’s desire to see Andy Foster fail so they can win back the mayoralty?

“Maybe..” he screws his face up. “Seventy-five percent? But it’s not just the mayoralty. If you’re a councillor it’s good politics to attack this mayor if you want to get on the Labour list, or contest one of the local seats.” (Wellington’s electorate seats are safe Labour seats). “That’s not the whole problem though. Every mayor has rivals and opponents on their council. This stuff always goes on. These tactics are more effective against Andy because he’s not very good at being mayor.”

Later that day I reach out to the political commentator Ben Thomas, a former Wellington resident and high profile Wellington-hater, and ask him what’s gone wrong with the city. “I’m not sure,” he admits. “But almost everyone in Wellington has an MA in politics, and thinks that they should run the country, if not the planet. Asking themselves why their own city is flooding with sewage and run by morons might be a healthy exercise for the coolest little capital in the world.”

Andy Foster and Sir Peter Jackson at Foster’s campaign launch in 2019 (via Facebook)

Te Aro Park is the epicentre of the capital’s problem with crime and antisocial behaviour. Wellington is a mostly placid middle-class city, filled with public servants and university students. It’s unusual to see lots of rough sleepers and patched gang guys yelling at each other, which is what I see when I pass through Te Aro Park at 9am on a weekday. A Wellington City Council report on the park published in 2020 found that it was a locus of “intimidation, violence, defecation in the area, graffiti, fear of harassment or physical harm, exposure to aggressive behaviour, loud music, drug dealing, sexual violence and other forms of anti-social and dangerous behaviour”.

There’s a network of alleys just north of the park, and if you walk down one of them you come to a sunless courtyard surrounded by office towers and multi-storey carparks. A blocky yellow and orange concrete building squats in the gloom. This is DCM – it used to be called the Downtown Community Mission – a social services hub for rough sleepers and other vulnerable people in the inner city. It functions as a soup kitchen, medical centre and welfare office. DCM calls the people it works with taumai, meaning “to settle”. Getting them into stable housing is the organisation’s priority.

Every morning a group of taumai congregate in the courtyard, most of them regulars, some pushing their trolleys or carrying their sleeping bundles. Normally they do a karakia with the staff but the morning I visit Wellington is in level two lockdown for Covid, so the space is socially distanced and the crowd is staggered.

A lot of Wellington’s political and economic dysfunction seems to run downhill, flowing quietly down through the socioeconomic strata before bursting out again at the bottom where places like DCM deal with them. Paula Lloyd, who works at Housing First, one of the DCM services, is waiting to meet me in the courtyard. She leads me through the building to one of the side rooms, so I’m not getting in everyone’s way, and we watch as the doors open and the taumai enter. She predicts they’ll work with between 70 to 80 people that morning. I ask her what’s going on in central Wellington.

One of the big changes happened in 2020, when the country went into lockdown and the Ministry of Social Development moved hundreds of people into temporary emergency accommodation in central Wellington, Lloyd explains. The MSD housed all these people in the inner city backpackers and motels, which were suddenly vacant because the tourist industry had just collapsed. This was a pragmatic short term solution which is becoming an interesting long term situation, Lloyd says. She has a Liverpool accent and that odd mixture of brisk, bleak cheerfulness you sometimes find in career social workers.

The DCM building in St Lukes Lane, central Wellington (Photo: supplied)

There are pros and cons to the concentration of emergency housing occupants into the inner city. Firstly and most importantly: it means they have shelter. Being homeless makes people extremely vulnerable and aggravates almost every other problem they might have. And situating them in the inner city makes them more accessible to social services. On the other hand: the motels and backpackers aren’t designed to be social housing. Many people in emergency housing have histories of trauma, or acute physical and mental health issues, or drug or alcohol dependencies, or histories of violent offending, or some combination of the above. They’re a complex and challenging cohort, and accommodation workers are in no way trained to support them.

There’s also a huge number of bars and bottle shops in the area, and Te Aro Park, in the approximate centre of the improvised emergency housing, turns out to be a good place to sell drugs. “We’re definitely seeing more drugs,” Lloyd tells me. “More synthetics. More meth.”

What about gangs?

“Yeah. There’s four different gangs we know of in different clusters in the inner city. We get them in here but we ask them to cover their patches, which they’re fine with. Some of our staff are former gang members doing peer support; drug rehabilitation.” Lloyd shrugs; she’s not overly interested in gangs. She’s more worried about the housing shortage. Housing First’s welfare model is – no surprise – “housing first”, so an acute scarcity of housing is a huge problem. It’s difficult to help the victims of the crisis when the crisis itself is intensifying.

National MP Nicola Willis at Parliament on October 20, 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“It’s hard to find out about what’s happening with the emergency accommodation,” Nicola Willis says. “If you ask the housing minister they’ll usually refer you to the social development minister, and if you ask them they refer you to the housing minister. There’s a strategic vacuum.”

Willis is a National Party list MP, and National’s candidate for Wellington Central. A former Fonterra executive and then an adviser to John Key, she’s National’s housing spokesperson. When I visit her office Parliament has just risen after a three week session, and the building has an abandoned air: like a school playground during the holidays. But there are staff hurrying in and out of Willis’s offices. Housing is a target-rich environment for the opposition.

“The government is building and buying social housing,” Willis explains. “Building houses is a good thing. But, post-Kiwibuild, they seem to be handing the wider housing market as a political problem to manage in the media. You saw that with the PM’s housing announcement at the start of the year. They had all summer to think of policy solutions, and we mapped out what Labour might propose: extending the bright-line test, maybe, or scrapping the tax deductibility on interest payments for rentals were rumoured. But instead they just reannounced the houses they promised to build in last year’s budget along with where they were going.”


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Willis will not be drawn on the internal dynamics of Wellington City Council. “It’s just not helpful for me to comment on council politics. I will say that I don’t think there’s been a clarity of vision in Wellington. There’s no leadership in terms of what we’re moving towards, and what kind of city we want to be. And I will say that housing is a nationwide crisis, but it’s acute in Wellington, because it is very hard to build here. And that is a local government issue.

“If you knock on doors in some of the inner suburbs,” she elaborates, “a lot of these big family homes just have an elderly couple living in them. Or a widower. And they’d like to sell and move somewhere smaller. They want to live in the same area because their friends and family are there. But they can’t, because those smaller occupancy units aren’t being built, because it’s so hard to get consent. Almost everything is heritage listed. Anything new is litigated and contested. And that means that families can’t move into those homes, which means that entry level homes aren’t available for people who are renting. It cascades down through the whole market.”

But it means high house prices, which are good politics. Right?

Willis tilts her head and narrows her eyes. “Is it? Most homeowners just have one home. If it doubles in value and they sell it they’ve got to buy a new one in the same market. They haven’t gone anywhere, and a whole lot of people trying to get onto the property ladder are now locked out. And you see all these social problems that we’re now seeing in Wellington. You do see a small but influential elite taking advantage of the legal system to oppose new development, whether through RMA objections, heritage listing or whatever else it is.

“Our current law makes it too easy for people with vested interests to say no to growth. That has to change.’

Former Wellington mayor Justin Lester crosses the new rainbow crossing, Cuba Street in Wellington, October 2018. (Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King)

A few days after I meet with Tamatha Paul there’s more drama on the council. During the budget process Paul questioned a $76 million loan from the council to Wellington Airport – which is two thirds owned by Infratil, an infrastructure company with enormous influence in Wellington. The loan was supposed to “upgrade the sea wall”, but sounded suspiciously close to a $75 million application the airport made a few years earlier, to extend its runway. Why, Paul wondered, was a council in the middle of a fiscal crisis, in a country that had just declared a climate emergency, loaning money to a mostly privately owned business to increase its carbon footprint? The loan was removed from the budget. The mayor, Andy Foster occupies the council seat on the airport board.

A few days after that Nicola Willis revealed that MSD are spending a million dollars a day on emergency accommodation. The day after that, the Real Estate Institute revealed that the median Wellington house price increased by almost a third over the last year, and is now over a million dollars

After my visit to DCM I went to catch my bus. I walked up Cuba Street and passed over the rainbow crossing. This was opened by the previous mayor Justin Lester, to celebrate both the birthday of Carmen Rupe and Cuba Street’s association with the LGBTQ movement, and to “show that Wellington walked the talk in celebrating diversity”. Lester helped paint the crossing himself. But, like most of the council’s achievements, the rainbow street crossing is contentious. It is not actually a crossing: it’s public art that looks like one, so people walk across it directly into the traffic, which does not have to stop for them.

Then I walked through the mall, which used to be a nexus for Wellington’s alternative scene but now consists of retail stores like Cotton On, Hallensteins and Vodafone, because they’re the only operators that can afford to rent there. The spaces between the shops were filled with more rough sleepers bundled up; the walls behind them were decorated with rows of Covid posters urging me to social distance; cover up, scan in; be kind. When I reached the bus stop my bus had been cancelled.

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