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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 27, 2022

Defund Ponsonby (and give the money to suburbs that actually accept new housing)

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A call to stop a ‘gold-standard’ cycleway programme in inner-city Auckland may be misguided, but the objections contain a kernel of truth.

In a shocking and unprecedented turn of events, a recent edition of the Herald has carried a negative story about a proposed cycleway. You’re probably fainting and vomiting from surprise, but it’s true. Under the headline “$100m cycling project in doubt under Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown”, famously objective, even-handed straight news reporter Bernard Orsman writes that three upgrades are “seemingly on the skids”, as Brown directs AT to focus on less costly cycleways.

As is traditional for the Herald’s reporting on Auckland issues, the story is riddled with distortions. Some of the cycleways in question aren’t just cycleways at all, but road upgrades. As Russell Brown notes, the real scandal is that AT is raiding its cycling budget to rebuild a road its predecessors built over a load of subsiding trash.

Wayne Brown doesn’t have the authority to put anything on the skids without the approval of the council’s governing body, but even if he did, cancelling the projects would be a bad idea. They’ll link several town centres to each other and the northwestern motorway cycle path, creating a network effect which should take pressure off our clogged roading system. Though congestion advocates like Lee may want to keep the streets jammed for tradies, taxi drivers, and people hauling entire kids’ weekend netball teams, they deserve to be able to move around without having to compete for scarce road space with a Ponsonby lawyer driving 400 metres to pick up fine cheeses in an overspecced Ford Ranger.

Having said that, the story does contain a kernel of truth. In his quotes to Orsman, Lee says AT’s plans are “horrendously expensive”. That may or may not be accurate when it comes to these projects, but it’s definitely true our authorities are spending far too much on gold-standard infrastructure in his ward, Waitematā, which includes the rich central suburbs of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay, Westmere and Parnell. Many of those areas are refusing to accept much new housing, citing the “special character” of their renovated villas.

Though the council often delusionally whimpers about creating a “compact city”, it has forbidden dense development on roughly 40% of the land within 5km of the city centre. Waitematā’s population actually dropped 9.7% last year. Fewer housing consents are issued there than anywhere else. The suburbs closest to the city centre are not just growing slower than anywhere else; they’re shrinking.

Despite that, these suburbs are also some of the biggest beneficiaries of the council’s infrastructure investment. Lee’s loathed cycleways are just the tip of the iceberg. Three new City Rail Link stations are being built within walking distance of Tāmaki Makaurau’s so-called character suburbs, which already have rapid transit. The parks are pristine. The pools are plentiful. The roads are sealed.

Meanwhile, it takes Amanda Kennedy three hours to get to work using public transit. She’s no longer legally allowed to drive after recently being diagnosed with adult-onset epilepsy following a bout of Covid. Her commute from Henderson Valley now involves a snaking bus journey through west Auckland, if the bus shows up at all. In an effort to find a more reliable alternative, she recently bought an e-scooter to get to Sunnyvale train station, only for train frequencies to be reduced as Kiwirail works to address decades of underinvestment in track maintenance.

“People with epilepsy, with other disabilities, or without cars for whatever reason still need to exist and get around,” she says. “We pay tax, we pay rates, and we subsidise actual functioning public transport for people in fancier suburbs, while our normal transport needs are ignored.”

The latest statistics from Auckland Council show it’s consenting more houses in the Henderson-Massey area than anywhere else. The influx of housing is bringing opportunity, but it hasn’t been matched by necessary large-scale infrastructure investment. Kennedy’s journey is so long because the west has almost no dedicated bus lanes, no rapid transit like the Northern Busway, and few cycleways to take pressure off the roads.

“The density of housing in West Auckland continues to increase, with no apparent plans to improve transport or town infrastructure, while people in sparsely-populated inner-city suburbs enjoy their frequent buses and thriving town centres,” she says. “The plan for how all these extra people are going to get in and out of west Auckland seems to consist of planners covering their eyes and going LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

In general, the richer the area, and the closer it is to existing infrastructure, the less likely it is that the council will allow people to build housing (Graph: Greater Auckland)

Waitakere councillor Shane Henderson says the west’s unrivalled hospitality isn’t being reciprocated with extra council funding. In a recent council meeting, he implored his colleagues from richer, better-serviced and connected suburbs to “do your bit”. He says poorer communities on Auckland’s fringe often don’t get heard at the council table, while residents of rich inner suburbs complain until they get their way. That may be their right in a democracy, but he believes it should come at a cost – literally. “If communities don’t want to take growth, that’s fine. But I think they should also not take so much funding. That’s a quid pro quo situation, surely.”

The same goes for the south. Until Henderson-Massey took over, Papakura was routinely topping the council’s list for consents issued. Its local councillor Angela Dalton says that growth hasn’t come with enough extra money for community facilities and transport upgrades. “I think it’s dire, honestly.  Especially when I look at what other areas get. Look at Ōrākei: it’s beautiful. When you look at how the suburbs are getting these beautiful projects, and we are not getting what we need to support a growing community, it’s inequitable. It’s unfair. It’s absolutely unfair.”

To add insult to injury, suburbs like Ponsonby are economic parasites on the poorer suburbs that actually accept their share of growth. Research done on Lafayette, Louisiana and Eugene, Oregon shows dense housing makes a positive return for councils, while sprawl and low density developments like those common on Auckland’s city fringe are a negative for a city’s finances.

How much low density residential costs cities, from research on Eugene, Oregon.

Many of Auckland’s richer character suburb residents are likely the type to grouse about so-called benefit bludgers, even as economists go on TV to command politicians and bankers to generate more unemployed people to help the economy. In reality our city’s villa dwellers are the biggest bludgers of all. They selfishly refuse to welcome new people into their area, then ask the people living in the dense housing blocks they’ve rejected to subsidise their lifestyles.

But the residents of Ponsonby can’t sit back, do nothing, and expect a free handout from the government and taxpayers. Bernard Orsman and Mike Lee are right: Grey Lynn, Westmere and Herne Bay should get less gold-standard infrastructure. Instead, Te Atatu Peninsula needs new playgrounds. Papakura needs protected bike lanes. Kennedy needs a bus that doesn’t get stuck in traffic or trains that turn up more than once a day. If you won’t accept more people, you can’t ask for more money. It’s time to defund Ponsonby and give it to the suburbs doing their bit.

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