Waitemata & Gulf under threat…from Auckland Council

Under the Local Electoral Act Auckland Council must undertake a representation review every 6 years to ensure there is a ‘fair’ balance between the population sizes of the wards and ‘effective representation’ of communities of interest. In Auckland the review only relates to council wards. After months of deliberation, (I was never consulted), a council working party chaired by Waitematā local board member Richard Northey found the only ward significantly out of alignment in terms of population was Waitematā & Gulf which the working party declared was ‘under represented’. That is the ratio of population to councillor within this ward is 33% above the recommended ±10% difference with that of other wards. To lower the population it recommended significant parts of Grey Lynn and Grafton and all of Westmere, Parnell and Newmarket be chopped off (‘sliced and diced’ as one submitter put it) and transferred to the neighbouring Orakei and Albert-Eden wards. Bizarrely the Waitematā Local Board Area boundary would remain untouched. To me this just didn’t make sense so I undertook my own investigation.

My first question was: is there really ‘under representation’ in this ward? The Auckland Council ‘Super City’ is markedly different from all the other 77 councils across New Zealand. In terms of representation not only are there 20 councillors and a mayor – but because of the council’s unique ‘co-governance’ there are also 140 elected local board members. In Waitematā & Gulf while I am the only elected councillor, there are seven local board members for Waitematā, five for Great Barrier and five for Waiheke – 17 in all. So rather than just 20 councillors the council has 160 elected members, plus the mayor, plus 9 unelected Independent Maori Statutory Board members, plus 25 unelected CCO directors – all having an active role in the ‘functions, responsibilities and duties and executing the powers’ of the council.

My next stop was Electoral Services, the agency charged with running our local elections. In order to do so 130 different voting paper combinations must be produced to ensure voters receive the correct papers for their wards, Local Board Areas, District Health Boards, and Licensing Trusts. The proposed changes to the Waitematā & Gulf ward (but not the local board) boundaries and consequent changes to other ward boundaries across the isthmus, and dislocation from their Local Board areas which cannot be changed, will significantly increase the number and complexity of voting paper combinations and their cost. Election Services predict the resulting confusion is likely to generate significant complaints. I suspect it will also act as a turn-off for voter participation. Then I researched the legislation. The Local Electoral Act requires ‘fair representation’. Representation presupposes ‘electors’, a category referred to frequently throughout the Act, which also refers in one key instance, (the ±‘10% rule’), to ‘population.’ Normally this is not a problem. Across New Zealand about 70% of the population are ‘electors’ (the rest are mainly those too young to vote).   Across Auckland the ratio is similar – 67%. But here in Waitematā, I discovered a remarkable difference – a ratio of only 51% of electors to population. This is due to the CBD having the highest concentration of non-elector residents in the country. Many are students and not surprisingly for the ‘CBD of New Zealand’ many are ex-pat workers on temporary work permits. Most I understand are actually eligible to vote – but in their hometowns: Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, or in the UK, Ireland, USA, China, India and so on. So Waitematā & Gulf has a population of 119,100 but only 69,700 electors. Orakei, where the council wants to shift the high voting areas of Parnell and Grafton, has a population of 91,500 with 65,339 electors – 72%. Actually the ratio of councillor to electors here is much lower than in Orakei.

Unfortunately the Council has focused rigidly on population but (typically) has overlooked the equally important legal requirement for ‘effective representation of communities of interest’. Not surprisingly the proposed changes are deeply unpopular. Of 145 written submissions from Waitematā residents, a remarkable 88% were opposed. I attended the hearing where community leaders from Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Parnell, Grafton and the City Centre made compelling arguments to keep the ward and local board boundaries aligned. These, they argue define a historical and geographical community of interest which should not be divided. There is a remedy and it lies within the Local Electoral Act s19V 3 (a) (ii) which allows the council to retain the status quo if complying with the 10% rule would ‘divide communities of interest’. If Waitematā is a ‘community of interest’, as 88% submitters attest, and the Local Government Commission in 2010 deemed it to be – then the answer is obvious. The hearing panel only half-listened, sparing Grey Lynn and Westmere but shifting Parnell, Newmarket and the eastern side of Grafton to the Orakei Ward and the western side of Grafton to Albert Eden Ward but confusingly, at the same time, keeping all within the Waitemata Local Board area. The whole messy proposal will now to go to the Local Government Commission where it can be appealed. I will continue to fight to keep Waitematā & Gulf together. It’s one of the few good things to come out of the Super City.

 

 

This article features in the October 2018 issue of Ponsonby News

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How ego, technical ignorance and group-think sabotaged two sensible rail plans for Auckland

People may have noticed a subtle change in the wording of the latest official publicity about the proposed $3.5b light rail to Auckland International Airport project. Mysteriously the word airport’ has been airbrushed out. ‘City to Airport’ has been replaced with ‘City to Māngere’. What can this mean?

It would appear that the idea of trams providing a feasible ‘rapid transit’? (average speed 23.3 km per hour) solution to and from Auckland airport has been grudgingly accepted by officialdom as unrealistic. Not that officialdom would ever admit this. It’s just the latest twist in Auckland’s light rail saga, which tragically has become dominated by political egos, technical ignorance and group-think instead of being about Aucklanders’ needs and reducing traffic congestion.

It wasn’t always so. As recently as May 2015 I was able to write in ‘Ponsonby News’ and on my website:
Auckland Transport’s announcement in January that it was seriously investigating a Light Rail solution for Auckland as a part of the draft Regional Land Transport Plan, came as a surprise to a lot of people but it’s the best news on the transport front for Auckland since the go-ahead for rail electrification.
Auckland Transport (AT) has taken this remarkable step – leap more like it – because its modelling and number crunching in the City Centre Future Access Study kept pointing to the inescapable conclusion that by 2021, the recommended maximum of 130 buses per hour on key city corridors like Symonds Street will be seriously exceeded – even with the City Rail Link. This means chronic grid-lock.
AT is therefore scoping a modern Light Rail Transit (LRT) system comprising four lines, Dominion, Sandringham, Mt Eden and Manukau Roads, converging on Queen Street and Symonds Street, with the first stage a 7 km Wynyard Quarter, Queens Street, Dominion Road line. Much more modest than Auckland’s historic 72km electric tramway but, in our time, without doubt a bold and visionary concept
.”

Sadly that original sensible approach, phasing in modern trams to replace buses on congested arterials, well supported by Aucklanders at the time, was received with behind-the-scenes anger by the National government. In response Auckland Transport senior management ditched the previously agreed future heavy rail link to the airport, proposing instead a single tramline via Dominion Road. They also quietly dropped original plans for a Melbourne-style modern tram network for the Auckland isthmus and inner city. Excuse the pun, but things went off the rails from then on. In late 2015 Phil Goff, after briefings from AT, announced light rail to the airport as a key policy of his mayoral campaign. In June 2016 the Board of NZTA voted to exclude any future heavy rail connection to Auckland International Airport. A couple of weeks later the board of AT followed in lockstep with only one director voting against – me. A few months later, cheered on by the trucking lobby, AT demolished the Neilson Street overbridge replacing the road at grade, thus blocking the rail corridor from Onehunga to the airport. In 2017, taking the cue from his old political mentor, Labour’s Phil Twyford took up the policy of light rail to the airport – taking it over completely when Goff, after commissioning another secret report, this time from AT, and evidently being frightened by what he read, appeared to lose interest. Ironically, responsibilty for the light rail project has been taken off AT and placed in the hands of NZTA which has always been a roads agency.

No matter, NZTA appears to have the requisite enthusiasm. In a recent ‘Herald’ ‘Opinion’ piece its CEO Fergus Gammie extolled the “transformational”, “rapid” light rail plan as a “game changer” etc.

But our politicians and bureaucrats have been too clever by half and have got themselves into a strategic muddle. Servicing Auckland airport and reducing road congestion the original primary objectives are now being downplayed, the new reason for light rail as Mr Gammie enthusiastically announced is as a catalyst for more residential housing investment and ‘growth’. Graphically underscoring just how removed from the practical realities of public transport and the best use of light rail our decision makers are, they intend to replace 20 existing bus stops in the Dominion Road corridor (south of New North Road) with only 8 tram stops. As for residents and business owners in the Dominion Road area, after putting up with prolonged disruption from construction, they can look forward to a rather long walk to catch a tram. This can only mean more use of cars and so even more congestion.

This does not mean the powers-that-be are now open to a separate solution for the 25 million passengers predicted to use Auckland International Airport by 2028 – namely a 6.8km fast electric train connection from Puhinui. No. Long distance passengers with their baggage not willing to take the slow, crowded tram will have to take a bus (perhaps one day a tram) to and from Puhini train station. Researcher Paul Miller who is about to launch a new transport lobby group, START (Straight To Airport Rapid Trains), recently released data showing Twyford’s trams to the airport will be one of the slowest airport rail services in the world. “Transformational?”
$3.5b and counting is a huge amount of money just to sabotage two very sensible transport plans and turn them into a dysfunctional lash-up. Auckland deserves better than this.

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Rakitu rat eradication – message to my Great Barrier constituents

Rakitu Island from Awana, Great Barrier

Rakitu Island from Awana, Great Barrier

The following letter was sent to the Barrier Bulletin the local newspaper on Great Barrier Island and was published in April. I wrote it because a sort of moral panic, in part drummed-up by the newspaper, was building among the community against the proposed Department of Conservation project to eradicate rats from the island of Rakitu (328 ha) – and use of rodenticides in general. And as a result of this members of the Great Barrier Local Board were coming under intense pressure from local activists. Here is my letter:

“Dear Editor,

I have been following the present controversy about eradicating rats from Rakitu with some concern.   While I respect the feelings of those in the community who appear to be have genuine trepidation about the use of rat poison, I must respectfully disagree with them.   Just to make it clear to the community, I have long been an advocate for removing rats from Rakitu and indeed all our offshore islands, including Great Barrier.  Most of the neighbouring islands, Cuvier, Mokohinau, Hauturu are now free of rats thanks to the one-off use of the same rat poison which is routinely used on this island and has been long available from any general or hardware store.   In 2011, I reminded DOC of the commitment it had made back in 1993 to remove rats from Rakitu when it was seeking funding to buy the island.  In June 2013 I successful secured for funding for this operation as a member of the government Nature Heritage Fund which had helped purchase the island twenty years previously.  In September 2013, five years ago, I travelled to Rakitu with then Conservation Minister Nick Smith and local MP Nikki Kaye to publicly announce plans to remove rats from the island in 2015.

Had DOC managers upheld that plan and got the job done in 2015, I daresay the leading stories in Barrier Bulletin would now probably be about how well the little spotted kiwi were doing on Rakitu and how native bird species long lost from Rakitu were being released with enthusiastic community participation.   That indeed Rakitu had become a popular venue for Barrier islanders of every age including school kids who were actively involved in restoring the island, planting flax and pohutukawa etc.  But the reality instead is that last week the pupils of Okiwi and Mairehau schools went on a two-day hike up to Mt Heale and saw and heard NO birds – not a single bird!  A chilling reminder that the ‘rat-induced environmental catastrophe’ that drove numerous native bird species, bellbirds, saddlebacks, stitchbirds, parakeets, whiteheads, kokako (in our lifetime) and Lord knows what else, into extinction on the island in the 19th and 20th centuries, has never really ended.  The process of extinction is ongoing.  I would remind readers of a race of Bellbirds notable for their distinctive melodic song, which were recorded on Rakitu right up until the 1980s but were gone for ever by the end of the century –  driven to extinction by rats.
So for those who don’t know me, or my views let me place on the record that I fully support the eradication of rats from Rakitu and indeed Great Barrier. 
I look forward to the day very soon, when rat poison will no longer be needed on Rakitu and to a future day, hopefully not too long off, that rat poison will not longer be needed on Aotea.  In the meantime I make a plea, 
please let the Department of Conservation people get on with their job on Rakitu and let us give them our support.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Lee
Auckland Councillor
Waitemata & Gulf.”

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Goff’s ‘Toilet Tax’ – Auckland’s ‘winter of discontent’ set to continue

Just one week after the imposition of the council’s regressive fuel tax, more bed taxes and a bunch of new targeted rates, came the disclosure in the NZ Herald that mayor Phil Goff has been planning ways to impose a so-called ‘Toilet Tax’ on the ratepayers of Auckland.

 The new tax would be used to repay the $1.2bn capital cost of the long-talked-about ‘Central Interceptor’, the planned sewer pipeline, in a tunnel, running deep beneath the city, 13 km from Western Springs to the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant. The new interceptor is needed to take the extra sewage and to reduce overflows resulting from Auckland’s continuing population growth. Subject to funding, construction is planned to start in late 2019.

Heavily redacted Treasury documents obtained by the National Party reveal that Goff has been talking to the government since November last year about ways to borrow the money for the project and yet keep the debt off the council’s books. Central to the plan is a ‘special purpose vehicle’ (SPV), which is jargon for an entity, separate from the council, underwritten by the government, which would be set up to borrow the $1.2bn and empowered to send ratepayers bills to repay the principal and interest.

Why would this SPV be needed, you may ask, with council income (rates and charges) now $4.1bn per year. After all, sewerage provision is a basic local government responsibility, and in Auckland the job of Watercare Services, the water and wastewater agency established by the ARC in 1992. Over the past 26 years Watercare, the ‘quiet achiever’ in the Auckland Council family, has successfully delivered a number of major projects, including Project Manukau, the $500m upgrade of the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant, Project Waikato, the $100m, 37 km water pipeline and treatment facility bringing water to the city from the Waikato River, and Project Hobson, the $114m tunnel from Parnell to Orakei which enabled the replacement and demolition of the old Hobson Bay sewer line.

Watercare says it could fund and build the Central Interceptor itself. Furthermore it admits this approach would work out cheaper for ratepayers.

So why? The answer sadly is that the Super City, since its establishment in 2010, has despite hundreds of millions of asset sales, profligately run up an enormous debt – currently at $8.7bn and rising, with interest costs currently at $471m a year. Council finance managers fear that the cost of the Central Interceptor would push the council over its borrowing limits, endangering the council’s credit rating with the international rating agencies, resulting in an increase in interest costs.

The SPV then is essentially a financial instrument, a bankable package if you like. But we are told it will come with ‘governance’ attached – that is people – directors, managers, consultants – in other words the usual suspects.

So the SPV will also mean the establishment of a parallel local authority in Auckland. Except that it will be an undemocratic, unelected authority, and given its proposed legal stand-alone status it is unclear to whom it would be accountable. It is supremely ironic, given the cost and disruption of abolishing the old legacy city councils and the ARC to form a single unitary ‘Super City’, that the mayor and council management are now attempting to persuade the government to establish another, non-democratic, authority to rate Aucklanders.

This is all very disingenuous – up until now carried out in secret. Sadly, as we are learning, Phil Goff is proving to have form when it comes to concealing important information. He apparently hopes to claim he is not increasing rates to repay this loan; Auckland ratepayers apparently being expected to take comfort that the ‘toilet tax’ bills they will be getting is from the ‘SPV’ – not the council. The government would be mad to go near it.

In response to the disclosures, Goff is saying, quite correctly, that no formal decisions have yet been made. However he did tell the Herald, that if the council could move the cost of the Central Interceptor from its books to appear on the SPV books, that would free up $1b to invest in other ‘areas of public need’.

However Mr Goff’s ideas on spending for ‘public need’ are not necessarily shared by the public. Recent examples are the $44m plus scheme to divert sewage contaminated storm water from Westhaven to Point Erin and regularly discharge it in the Harbour. The resource consent for this is currently been contested by the Herne Bay Residents Association, St Marys Bay Association, ‘Stop Auckland Sewage Overflows Coalition’ (SASOC), local residents and myself – among others. These submitters are arguing instead for separation of sewage and storm water as the best way to clean up pollution of the western bays. Another is Mr Goff’s $2bn ‘downtown’ stadium. Another, a giant, 25-50 metre-high, ‘Earth Mother’ statue at Bastion Point which Goff believes could become ‘a symbol of Auckland’.  The latest a ‘lightweight O sculpture’ artwork with the heavyweight price tag of $266,000.  Auckland really deserves better than this.

 

This article appears in the Ponsonby News August 2018 issue.

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‘Sea Change’ versus democracy in the Hauraki Gulf

It’s fair to say that the democratic element of our society has been weakened in recent years, a by-product of the neoliberal revolution that has swept across the western world.  Unfortunately this revolution didn’t stop with the disappearance of Sir Roger Douglas down the political plughole of the Act Party; we now know only too well that this ‘rust never sleeps’ revolution is ongoing. Events around the world and right here at home under the Super City confirm this disquieting trend.

I guess in a small island community like Waiheke we are more sensitive than most to the declining role of democracy in our daily lives. That is why a substantial number of Waiheke residents would cheerfully break away from the Super City tomorrow and restore genuine local government – if the authorities would allow it.  But of course they will not.  The truth is democracy, accountability and the rights of ordinary citizens count for a lot less than what they used to.

That being said I have to admit I was still rather taken aback to read of the vehemence of the criticism of elected politicians of the Hauraki Gulf Forum by Environmental Defence Society policy director Raewyn Peart in her recent Gulf News article about the Hauraki Gulf and so-called ‘Sea Change’.

I have known Raewyn Peart since I was chairman of the Auckland Regional Council (ARC). She has worked on and off as a consultant for the Hauraki Gulf Forum for 10 years or so and also for ‘Sea Change’.  One wonders whether it was just naivete or being in the constant company of fellow-minded consultants that emboldened her to reveal such open contempt for elected ‘politicians’ – and by implication the democratic process.

As an elected politician and a Hauraki Gulf Forum member I will defend myself by telling the people of Waiheke the plain truth as I see it about the troubling elements of this so-called ‘Sea Change’, and about the high stakes power play currently underway over the ownership and control of the Hauraki Gulf.

My own role as a Hauraki Gulf environmentalist goes back a long way before I became a politician in 1992 when I was elected to the ARC, and certainly long before the establishment of the Hauraki Gulf Forum.   As for Waiheke’s other elected politicians involved in the Forum, I rate John Meeuwsen and his alternate Paul Walden as public representatives of the highest integrity.

Raewyn Peart’s article was apparently to promote the merits of ‘Sea Change’ but so intent was she on attacking the Hauraki Gulf Forum – or should I say its elected members – that she didn’t get round to spelling those merits out.   The Hauraki Gulf Forum is not and was never meant to be a governing body, as she seems to think. Its role and responsibilities are set out very clearly in part 2 of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act.   In short it is meant to be an interagency sounding board; a clearing-house for sharing information between the government departments, councils and the six Māori representatives of manawhenua, with responsibilities in and around the Hauraki Gulf and to advocate for the Gulf.  The Hauraki Gulf Forum has its limitations but that it is actually more well-known than the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park itself (Part 3) is a pretty sad commentary about the lack of willingness of successive governments to create a genuine, not just a paper, national marine park in the Hauraki Gulf.

It is also important to note that ‘Sea Change’ is meant to be a marine spatial plan for the Hauraki Gulf.  From the outset its advocates including Raewyn Peart seemed to believe that a ‘spatial plan’ in itself would somehow achieve environmental enhancement of the Gulf.  Those of us on Waiheke, familiar with bureaucratic plans are only too aware that they can also achieve the very the opposite of the stated intention.

Readers will find it ironic, given the bile now targeted at the Hauraki Gulf Forum, that when it came to leading and overseeing this spatial plan process, the Hauraki Gulf Forum was deliberately by-passed –for a role which any reading of the Act would have concluded it was tailor-made for.  Instead an ad-hoc ‘Project Steering Group’ based on racial lines, 8 manawhenua and 8 others representing government departments and councils was set up.  ‘The Project Steering Group (the mana whenua–agency governance group)’ to give its full name was co-chaired by lawyer and businessman, chair of the Maunga Authority, chair of the Hauraki Collective and Ngati Maru Treaty negotiator Paul Majurey, and Cr Penny Webster of Rodney, the former ACT MP who revealed her attitude to the Hauraki Gulf by voting against the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act in 2000. Curiously this ‘Project Steering Group’ and its membership is not mentioned at all in the ‘Sea Change’ report and references to it on the internet have been taken down. The ‘Sea Change’ report only refers to “key leaders with an interest in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park who in October 2013 were invited to participate in democratic process to from the Stakeholder Working Group.”  To head the ‘Stakeholder Working Group (SWG)’ was an ‘independent chair’, merchant banker and CEO, now chairman of Deloittes, Nick Main was appointed and then after him from 2015 a lawyer from Wellington, director (now chairman) of the law firm Buddle Findlay, Paul Beverly a specialist in Māori law and Treaty settlements.

After adopting the snappy corporate brand ‘Sea Change’, (to give it its full name ‘Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari’) those involved made it clear they were not particularly interested in working within (or really even that much aware of) the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act.

It was all very much a behind-closed-doors process, with the SWG dominated by, as Raewyn Peart puts it, a ‘collaborative group’ representing aquaculture, commercial and recreational fishers, dairying and forestry sectors and Treaty claimants. There also two ‘environmentalists’ one of whom was Ms Peart. Meanwhile the general public, including those island communities who live in the Gulf, were effectively shut out.

The Waiheke Local Board, which during this time initiated scientific research into marine ecosystems around Waiheke Island and commissioned professional public opinion surveys on marine reserves incredibly had the door closed on it by the ‘Sea Change’ bosses and its evidence rejected.   The SWG finally reported its findings in December 2016, a year behind schedule. Interestingly on the critical issue of marine protection ‘Sea Change’ turned out to be weak indeed. In fact the most detailed measure advocated by ‘Sea Change’, but one that is not broadcast too widely, is a 2550 square kilometer ‘Ahu Moana’ which would cover the total length of the Hauraki Gulf coastline from the beaches extending seawards for one kilometre, which would also encircle every Gulf island including Waiheke. These would be, according to ‘Sea Change’ co-governed ‘50-50’ by ‘Coastal hapū/iwi and local communities’. What this would achieve in regard to environmental protection remains unclear.

On the pressing issue of marine pollution, ‘Sea Change’ soft-pedals the pollution of the Firth of Thames by intensive dairying and of the scale of the pollution of the Waitematā Harbour from human sewage. The fact that at least 2.2 million cubic metres of sewage-contaminated stormwater pours into the Waitematā each year is not mentioned nor that that the proposed Central Interceptor is designed for sewage not stormwater and as Watercare has pointed out does not provide a sustainable solution to contaminated stormwater pollution.

In mid-2017, three years after shutting the Hauraki Gulf Forum out of its statutory role, ‘Sea Change’ independent chair, Mr Beverly appeared before the Forum urging that it agree to reform itself on racial ‘co-governance’ lines. It was at this point that Waiheke’s Paul Walden intervened to move a procedural motion, reminding the Forum that before supporting any recommendations to change the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act (properly the role of Parliament), Forum members must consult with their parent agencies and the general public. To the chagrin of ‘Sea Change’ proponents the motion was carried.

Could the proponents of ‘Sea Change’ really have been that ignorant of legal processes? Or was this a ‘try-on’ to pre-empt and pressure the government on matters properly dealt with by Parliament and the Treaty settlement process?

I’m not bothered about being criticized for supporting local democracy and for calling out ‘green washing’ and corporate dominance of public life when I see it, but I am really worried by the attempt to undermine the concept of no-take marine reserves and to repeal the Marine Reserves Act 1971.   Right now there is a concerted campaign to put pressure on the new Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage to do just this. This would be a retrograde step for nature conservation but also a dangerous precedent not only for the integrity of hard-won existing marine reserves but for our terrestrial reserves and parklands. The network of pathetically small ‘Type Two Marine Protected Areas’ which ‘Sea Change’ proposes whatever they are, are not ‘no take’.   Even so-called ‘Type One’, ostensibly ‘no-take’ marine reserves, would be placed effectively under the control of ‘hapū/iwi’ who would also have the right to resume ‘customary take’ in them. These would also be subject to a 25-year ‘generational review’ (whatever that means). Which brings me to the another aspect of ‘Sea Change’ which Raewyn Peart places much emphasis on, that is under the ‘Sea Change’ regime, democratic representation on the Hauraki Gulf Forum would be replaced by ‘co governance’ by what she calls ‘strong leaders’ (presumably unelected) and the Forum itself would be reconstituted as a ‘controlling agency’ which would in its decision-making “take into account future Treaty settlements.”

Leaving aside the human politics and getting back to the fundamental issue of the marine environment, I believe the most critically important measure to protect and enhance the Hauraki Gulf is a simple one, marine reserves.

Marine ecosystems in the Hauraki Gulf are under enormous pressure from overfishing and pollution. We need to change our attitudes; it is time to start putting nature first. The very positive conservation work happening on the land, especially on Hauraki Gulf conservation islands demonstrates just what really can be done. It was Waiheke volunteers, whom we should remember, began the game-changing restoration of Tiritiri Matangi back in the mid-1980s. We just need to apply that successful restorationist philosophy to the sea by creating a network of no-take marine reserves.   Not only would this be the practical recognition of the intrinsic value of ecosystems but setting some areas aside from exploitation will mean there will be more fish for future generations. The Hauraki Gulf belongs to all of us and should not be handed over to a non-democratic elite and their consultant advocates.

This article appeared in Gulf News 21 June 2018.

 

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Secret reports – plausible denial: Auckland Council’s winter of discontent

It’s certainly proving to be a Winter of Discontent within the Auckland Council. It’s this discontent that was behind the recent letter expressing ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with the ‘secretive and non-inclusive’ leadership style of Mayor Phil Goff, signed by nine councillors including myself, (the so-called ‘Albert Street Nine’). The letter can be traced back to a report commissioned by the mayor on a ‘downtown national football stadium’, and kept secret from the councillors for nearly a year. It didn’t help either that the report cost nearly $1 million. Nor that Goff only made it available to councillors when its existence was disclosed by Radio NZ and under pressure from the Ombudsman – and then in a form so heavily censored that it was quite unreadable. I have been in local government for 26 years and I’ve never seen ‘redacting’ on this scale. Whole pages were simply blacked out. Several weeks on, Goff has finally agreed to release the report uncensored, on request – but the damage has been done.

At a meeting called to discuss the affair I had the opportunity to question the mayor face-to-face. Mr Goff confirmed that he requested the report early in 2017, via the CCO Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA). The report by PWC was completed in June 2017 but according to Goff, while he was briefed on its contents, he never asked for a copy. However at this briefing he asked for further information and so a second report was commissioned, again by PWC, and completed in September. Same story. Goff was briefed but according to him he never asked for, nor was he given a copy. Nor did he ask for or was told the price. Goff claimed he only received the report(s) and became aware of the cost in April this year. We have to take his word for all this but for someone who obviously has a bit of an obsession with a new football stadium, not reading the reports he commissioned is certainly strange behaviour. And certainly given the secretiveness, unacceptable behaviour. Goff’s fixation with a ‘downtown’ stadium can be traced back to late 2006 when the then Labour government led by Minister of Sport Trevor Mallard came up with the idea of a ‘waterfront’ stadium located in the harbour, for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Goff has been putting it about that the government pledged to build the stadium for free.   This is simply not true. Fortunately as I was the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council at the time I’ve kept a file. While there were certainly hints of government largesse, Mr Mallard was careful to avoid making commitments. Talk of government support melted away as the estimates for this very challenging project (in terms of engineering and deadline), climbed towards $1billion. After two weeks of intensive briefings from a range of experts, including Mallard himself, in November 2006 the ARC unanimously voted against it. It was my job to tell Prime Minister Helen Clark that having carefully studied the proposal it was our best judgement that Eden Park was a more sensible and affordable option for the Rugby World Cup. It was a sound decision and was backed by a clear majority of Aucklanders – but clearly not by Mr Goff.

Back to the present where it appears that despite all the other pressing problems and costs Auckland faces, a new football stadium appears to be still very much the mayor’s ambition. The final catalyst for the nine councillors was to be called to an ‘urgent briefing’ late on 7 June to be told discussions were underway about moving Speedway from Western Springs where it has been for 90 years, to a venue in South Auckland. Despite assurances that this was no ‘done deal’ and had no implications for cricket, the NZ Herald the next morning announced a memorandum-of understanding was to be signed that day by the mayor, RFA and Speedway promoters committing to the move and that Western Springs indeed was intended for cricket. Speedway has long complained of pressure to get out but now to assist the move support amounting to $14m including up to $300,000 for a council-paid project manager is part of the deal. That RFA and Goff want to move cricket from Eden Park to Western Springs is no secret – and hotly opposed by Auckland Cricket. The game plan seems to be to undermine Eden Park (which completed a major upgrade in 2011) and thereby make a ‘downtown’ stadium (now estimated to cost nearly $2 billion) to be somehow justifiable. It’s this sort of behaviour that’s causing councillors from across the political spectrum to question Mr Goff’s leadership style and judgement. And now we have learned of the existence of another report, this one on light rail, commissioned by Goff from Auckland Transport. Given the importance of this project, the mayor’s convoluted explanation for keeping it from councillors for 8 months is unconvincing. This is why this council is not a happy ship. It looks like it’s going to be a long winter.

This article published in the June issues of Ponsonby News, The Hobson and also The Daily Blog.

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Trams to Auckland airport – is this really a Super idea?

I was as intrigued as most when Transport Minister Phil Twyford announced the NZ Superannuation Fund’s interest in building, owning and operating the Minister’s favoured light rail project – costed provisionally at $6bn for two lines. As we know one of these will link Auckland International Airport with the central city via Dominion Road and the other will service the Minister’s Te Atatu electorate, eventually extending to Kumeu. One can only conclude that the Super Fund’s reported eagerness to invest in a public-private partnership (PPP) for this project means PPPs are as lucrative as their critics have long been saying – that is from the ‘private’ partner’s perspective.   And it’s that role ironically, that the Crown-owned Super Fund is evidently planning for itself. ‘Privatise the profits – socialise the losses’ is the name of the game. But any profit must come at the expense of the ‘public’ partner. That’s us. The ratepayers, taxpayers, fuel tax-paying motorists and fare-paying passengers, in other words the people of Auckland – and New Zealand. But I thought the public were meant to be the beneficiaries of the NZ Superannuation Fund – not its fall guys. I trust the government is getting good advice on this proposal because the worry is that when it comes to choice of rail mode to the airport, it clearly doesn’t have good advice at all. Opting for widely criticised light rail (trams) instead of heavy rail (trains) to the airport is a very high-risk call; one taken on dubious technical advice and without a business case. It also out of line with international best practice. Getting the NZ Super Fund to build it would mean the government doubling down on a deeply-flawed strategy. Leaving to one side the tramline to Te Atatu, let’s look once again at the pros and cons of light rail to the airport.   To be fair, light rail has the benefit of being a versatile and efficient form of public transport. Modern trams can service busy inner city streets like buses, (‘street car’ mode), but can carry much more people (11,000 per hour) and in greater comfort than diesel buses (2500 per hour). Trams are great people movers, based on frequent stops, usually conveniently spaced at 350m to 800m apart. (Ideal for the inner city and waterfront). On the other hand electric trains (EMUs) can carry even more people (48,000 per hour) and go much faster than street-running trams.   This is not just due to the superior power of EMUs, train stations tend to be spaced more widely apart, between one to three kilometres. The latest plan I have seen for a heavy rail connection from the airport via Puhinui to Britomart (journey time 30 minutes and costed at $750m) has it stopping at only two stations but providing cross platform connections to the rest of the suburban network – from Henderson to Pukekohe.   In contrast the 22.8 km airport-Dominion Road-Britomart tramline will have 18 stops. It will be at very best 15 minutes slower than the train but due to traffic conditions much less predictable. From the user’s point of view (overlooked as always), weary international travellers, with their baggage, probably strap-hanging, through multiple tram stops to reach their central city hotels on a crowded tram would not be an ideal prospect. Even less so in the case of travellers, going the other way, anxious to get to the airport on time to make their flights.

When I visited Queensland’s Gold Coast a couple of years’ ago to inspect its brand new tramline, the managers emphasised to me one of their key ‘learnings’: light rail means ‘mass transit’ – not ‘rapid transit’. This is a fundamental point for ‘horses for courses’ mode decisions, one that both Minister Phil Twyford and Mayor Phil Goff worryingly still don’t understand.

So the key question, one that the cocksure politicians have overlooked in pushing their trophy project, is, will a slow tram journey between the central city and airport provide genuine competition to the private car and therefore combat growing traffic congestion? Because it is for this key reason, based on speed, capacity and predictability of journey time, that Melbourne which has biggest and most sophisticated light rail system in the world, will NOT be using trams for its airport connection but trains.

Phil Twyford proudly boasts his light rail scheme is ‘the biggest transport project in New Zealand’s history’, yet it will only service a comparative handful of Auckland suburbs. Is that really the smartest use of six billion dollars of public money?

One of the most worrying aspects of this decision, besides the lack of rigour and contestable advice backing it, is the remarkable unwillingness by both Minister and Mayor to even acknowledge, let alone learn from overseas experience. This will be a hugely expensive, technically challenging project. The stakes are high. If things go wrong the fallout will not only do lasting damage to the government, but could also financially cripple the ‘Super City’.

 

This article published in the June issues of Ponsonby News and The Hobson and also The Daily Blog.

 

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Rail to the airport – the March of Folly continues

Well, thank goodness for David Parker.   By his stepping in to stop another Auckland Council/CCO planning debacle the Minister for the Environment, Attorney-General etc, etc, has achieved a much better outcome for the waterfront and the America’s Cup. It’s a pity this highly-intelligent, experienced politician (and Grey Lynn resident) is not in charge of transport as he was during the Clark government. Instead of the dubious proposition of light rail (trams) to the airport, Auckland could be focussing on light rail on the waterfront, where the existing heritage tramway (engineered to modern light rail standards) could readily be connected to Britomart and the CRL, as pledged in the 2012 Waterfront Plan, in time for the America’s Cup.

I wrote a year ago on the trams to the airport debacle citing historian Barbara Tuchman’s acclaimed March of Folly – from Troy to Vietnam (1985). Tuchman’s book was about ‘the pervasive presence, through the ages, of failure, mismanagement, and delusion in government – contrary to its own self interest.’ It will be recalled this particular ‘March of Folly’- began in June 2016 when the boards of NZTA and Auckland Transport overturned previous plans for heavy rail (trains) to the airport. Unfortunately new mayor Phil Goff and the new governnent led by tyro transport ministers Phil Twyford and Julie Anne Genter (but not Winston Peters who prefers trains) have fallen into lockstep.

Auckland International Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and to New Zealand – the premier gateway to the country. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars recently spent on road construction, congestion on the route to the airport is already back where it was 10 years ago, chronic at peak times, periodically at grid-lock. With airport passenger movements currently 19 million per year and predicted to increase to 40 million by 2040, this chronic congestion can only get worse – with serious consequences.

It need not be so. Following on from work initiated by the Auckland Regional Council, in September 2011, a multi-agency study after examining light rail, busway and heavy rail options, concluded that heavy rail from Onehunga and Puhinui (10 km and 6.8 km from airport respectively) would be the ‘most economically efficient’ solution – providing a fast train journey to and from downtown Auckland, including the future CRL stations like Aotea and K Road, and, in some with cases cross-platform transfers, all points on the rail network eg Parnell, Newmarket, Henderson, Glen Innes, Papakura, Pukekohe, and ultimately Hamilton.

In 2012, endorsed by AT and after wide public consultation this became a policy commitment in the Auckland Plan: ‘route protect a dedicated rail connection in the first decade (2011-2020); construct in the second decade (2021-2030)’ – [after the City Rail Link (CRL)].

However the consensus, as so often happens (Auckland has a history of this), was overturned when AT bureaucrats (none of whom had any experience with light rail) claimed trams travelling from the CBD to the airport via Dominion Road despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to the 50 kph speed limit would get to the airport within one minute of electric trains travelling up to 110 kph. In late 2016 soon after the election of Mayor Goff, the favoured Onehunga to airport rail corridor was blocked by AT when it demolished the Neilson Street overbridge immediately to the south of the Onehunga train station, putting the road straight across the rail corridor.

Melbourne has the most highly developed, sophisticated light rail system in the world. Unlike Auckland however Melbourne is NOT opting for a light rail connection to its international airport – but heavy rail. This on the grounds that trains can carry a lot more people and luggage, and providing a faster, more predictable journey-time than street-running trams. It’s a decision based on decades of experience operating both light and heavy rail modes.

Last month the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a A$5 billion Federal government contribution to building four dedicated heavy rail routes between Melbourne International Airport and the CBD. The Australian decision is instructive and should give our new government reason to pause.

However in Auckland there seems there is a yawning gap opening up between the political class and ordinary citizens. To most Aucklanders I speak to, the idea of trams to the airport is a joke – and now not so funny given Aucklanders will have to pay for the $4 billion estimated cost of the airport and Westgate tram lines, not only in their rates but also in an extra double-whammy fuel tax – for a project that has no business case.

Light rail to the airport will take a lot longer to build, provide a slower journey, serve a much more restricted catchment and be considerably more expensive than extending the existing rail network. Why on earth isn’t the new government capitalising on the huge strategic investment going into the CRL?

Barbara Tuchman made up some rules on how government policy decisions get to qualify as a ‘March of Folly’. First the policy must be contrary to self-interest, [Check]; secondly a feasible alternative policy must be available [Check]; and finally the policy must be that of a group (not an individual insane ruler) [Check].

The feasible alternative of connecting Auckland Airport to the main trunk line at Puhinui has been costed by one recent study at around $750m. This corridor must be protected urgently before it too is sabotaged. There certainly is a role for modern trams as we reach maximum bus capacity in our busy inner city routes and waterfront – but trams will be a hugely expensive failure as an Airport connection. David Parker help!

 

Versions of this article were published in May editions of Ponsonby News, The Hobson and NZ Herald (1 May 2018) and on The Daily Blog and on Whale Oil blog sites.

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Kaiserschlacht and the Third World War – ANZAC DAY speech – Waiheke Dawn Service

On this day the people of New Zealand and Australia gather as they have since the first Anzac Day, to commemorate the fallen and honour those men and women who have served in all our wars.

This is the fourth year of the commemorations of the centenary of the Great War, New Zealand’s bloodiest war, with some 17,000 killed and another 41,000 wounded, and the origin of Anzac Day, so it is appropriate again to cast our minds back to this time 100 years ago. In April 1918 the climatic battle that would decide the outcome of the Great War was raging across northern France. Difficult though it may be for us in the 21st century to comprehend, New Zealand soldiers who first went into battle at Gallipoli on that April morning in 1915, were still fighting on the western front three years later. In the crisis of late March 1918 the New Zealand Division was called on to play a role that would help change the course of history.

Miraculously the NZ Division had recovered from the dreadful slaughter it had suffered at Passchendaele the previous October when in one morning 843 NZ soldiers were killed after being ordered to attack in the mud and rain against curtains of barbed wire and walls of machine guns. Despite this devastating blow, the NZ Division remained one of the elite formations of the British Army. When in March 1918 the German High Command launched its supreme effort to win the war, the offensive called Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser’s battle) or Ludendorff’s Offensive, attacking with overwhelming numbers of troops and artillery, spearheaded by highly-trained storm troopers, the British 3rd and 5th Armies reeled back in retreat. In a matter of days the Germans had advanced nearly 100km. All the gains that had been won over months during the bloody attacks on the Somme of 1916 were lost, indeed now at stake was the war itself. As the German armies advanced on the strategic city of Amiens, the British high command turned to the New Zealanders and the Australians. Such was the reputation by then of these ANZAC troops, that when they moved up, along roads crowded with retreating British troops and French civilians, their very arrival stilled the panic. Military historian Glyn Harper in his book Dark Journey Passchendaele, the Somme and the NZ experience on the Western Front quotes from the diary of Lieutenant Kenneth Luke: ‘We met remnants of the British Divisions that had fought from the beginning of the terrible battle struggling along the road & everywhere our peaked hats were espied the anxious questions were asked ‘Are the ANZACs coming? And cheers and smiles met us everywhere.”

Harper adds:

‘When asked why the French civilians had halted their flight from the Germans at Amiens, the answer attributed to a French general, no less, was:

They had learnt that the troops they had just passed were the New Zealanders moving in and so there was no need for them to move out & so the evacuation came to an end. Yes he [the French general said,] such was the reputation of the New Zealanders’.

The Anzacs would go on to meet the advancing Germans head on and stopped them. Amiens did not fall, the German offensive failed. The NZers making their reputation as, the British military historian John Keegan described them, ‘the best soldiers in the world in the 20th century’ would go on to play a key role in the fighting, right up until 11 November 1918 when the Great War finally came to an end.

I recall these events not out of chauvinistic pride, or to glorify war, that is not the New Zealand way, but to remember a part of our history almost completely forgotten and to remind ourselves again of the calibre and courage of those New Zealanders and the sacrifices made by them and the whole nation. One wonders why those events largely disappeared from collective memory. Perhaps Harper provides an answer when he writes: ‘Life for all New Zealanders could not turn back to 1914. Too much blood had been shed and too much pain, often borne in silence, endured. The shadow of death had fallen across the land and it would remain for some time to come.’ Perhaps another reason was because the First World War, supposedly the ‘war to end all wars’ was followed only 21 years later by the Second World War – when again New Zealand was called upon to make another great sacrifice.

And then, only narrowly avoided was a third world war in the 20th century, a nuclear war, 20 years or so after the second, avoided mainly because most of the world leaders and statesmen of that time– unlike the leaders of today – had experienced war at first hand and rightly fearing its consequences, they pulled back from the brink.

Those world leaders are no longer with us and today according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Science and Security Board we are closer to a third world war than we ever have been. Two weeks ago, the Doomsday Clock that symbol, maintained since 1947, representing the likelihood of a man-made global castastrophe was moved up to two minutes before midnight.

So as we gather once again in the darkness of this Autumn morning, as is our custom, to keep faith with the fallen, and to remember the sacrifices of our ancestors, I wonder if only those people could look forward 100 years and see us gathered here – and all across New Zealand, keeping vigil. I’m sure they would be comforted to know that they had not been forgotten. They would be even more comforted to know I am sure, if we people of the 21st century – in these dangerous times of spiralling international tensions, did not forget the lessons of 1914 and the chain of events that spun out of control – and could not be stopped – that led on to a catastrophe then and could lead on to an even greater catastrophe now.

 

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‘Have Your Say’ and ‘consultation frenzy’

‘Consultation Frenzy’, my friend Luke Niue calls it. Over the past four weeks Auckland Council has been consulting on the 2018-2028 Long Term Plan – along with a stack of other plans. The Long Term Plan (LTP) is simply council’s budget projected out over ten years. It will cost a truly massive $65 billion, comprising $25b of capital and $40b of operational expenditure. Breaking it down to a yearly basis that’s $2.5b of capex and $4b of opex. It will be funded annually by $1.69b from rates; with the balance from borrowings, user charges, government subsidies eg for public transport; and dividends from Ports of Auckland and Auckland Airport. This year rates will increase on average by 2.5%. Of course depending on how individual property valuations have moved, many homeowners will be paying more, some will pay less.

But the Super City as we know is a hungry beast. Rates and all the other normal revenue sources will be insufficient to cover its spending. A large part of the problem is due to the cost of Auckland’s growth (which government and council policy actively encourages), including NZ’s extraordinarily high construction costs. Part of it frankly, is that Auckland Council simply spends too much on itself; and part of it is fiscally self-induced. The existing (2015-2025) Long Term Plan was budgeted on rates increases of 3.5% per year. However in 2016, Phil Goff while campaigning for the mayoralty promised to hold rates increases to 2.5%. In this new LTP rates increases will go back to 3.5% but in ‘Year 3’ – after the next local body elections. To cover the shortfall, last year the mayor pushed through a targeted rate on accommodation, the so-called ‘bed tax’. Unfortunately, as it turned out, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, while Auckland central and Waiheke accommodation providers have to pay the full rate, those in other parts of the region, eg Waitakere, Franklin and most of Rodney pay less or nothing at all. This means that the targeted rate only brought in about $13.5m, half that originally estimated. This year the council is proposing new, additional forms of revenue, most significantly a regional fuel tax of 11.5c per litre. This will go towards the proposed $12b, LTP transport spend. Exactly for what though, rather surprisingly, is still not clear. The mayor announced the setting up a ‘political advisory group’ of his close political colleagues to work out where the fuel tax will go. On top of that, additional targeted rates are being proposed to provide funding for stormwater to reduce the pollution of our harbour, beaches and streams ($66 per year), and for environmental initiatives $21 or $47 per year).

If you thought the LTP was challenging enough to respond to, there is also the raft of other documents the council is consulting on – notably a ‘refreshed’ Auckland Plan. Remember that?   The Auckland Plan, legally the ‘Spatial Plan for Auckland’, was produced in 2012 under Mayor Len Brown and designed for 30 years. A great deal of funding and public input went into it and the document as it turned out was actually pretty good.   However council officers argued that despite its time-frame, it’s already out of date and needing ‘refreshing’.   This they have done by removing much of the content of the original.

Of real concern chapters dedicated to Auckland’s natural environment and built heritage have been removed and the words ‘built heritage’ totally expunged. This I believe is totally out of step with what most Aucklanders would want. The following ‘Direction’ I think, sums up the ‘refreshed’ Auckland Plan rather succinctly, ‘Use Auckland’s growth and development to protect and enhance our environment’. Oh really? So extreme is the council’s ‘refreshing’ (read gutting) the new Auckland Plan is no longer compliant with the requirements of the Local Government Act legislation.

Council is also consulting on a new Waste Management Plan with changes to services, including lucrative outsourced ‘pay-as-you-throw’ and highly centralised kerbside food waste collections. Finally there is the Regional Pest Management Plan, which deals with serious problems like kauri die-back and ecological pests but unfortunately also includes a silly proposal to microchip pet cats.

So how do Aucklanders respond to this ‘consultation frenzy’ in a meaningful way in such a short time frame? Unfortunately the traditional right of ordinary ratepayers to present submissions to the councillors was quietly dropped three or so years ago. Now only ‘key’ or ‘regional stakeholders’ retain this right. Regrettably attempts by some of us in the last two years to restore this right have been voted down. Interested citizens, not part of a recognised lobby group, are therefore encouraged to attend ‘Have Your Say’ meetings. The problem with these is that, despite their name, they tend to be dominated by council people having their say.  Ratepayers are also encouraged to send their submissions to a website. My advice is to make sure you also email them to the mayor and to all the councillors. Good luck. This council’s track record for listening is not exactly encouraging. And remember while you may ‘have your say’ the council will almost certainly be having its way.

 

This article appeared in the April issue of Ponsonby News

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