Time and patience running out for the Super City?

Auckland has had the Super City for more than six and half years now and for a lot of people it’s starting to feel like a sentence.  It should be recalled Aucklanders were never allowed to vote on this massive amalgamation – the government just imposed it.  Over time even the Auckland Council’s own polling has revealed the council has become increasingly unpopular – and mistrusted.  The election of a new mayor has made little of the hoped-for difference – in many respects the situation is worse now than before.  So in addition to the disaffected communities of Waiheke and North Rodney, it’s not surprising that thoughtful commentators from across the political spectrum are speaking out about an Auckland Council that is perceived to be becoming increasingly ineffective and undemocratic.    Leading the charge is National Party elder statesman Terry Dunleavy who recently in a ‘Herald’ opinion piece delivered a withering verdict on the Super City – the National government politicians, he declared, ‘got it wrong – and imposed their own mangled monstrosity on our largest metropolis’.   Dunleavy’s critique was taken up by Emeritus Professor Ian Shirley who was prescient enough to see it coming. In 2010 he warned that proposed Super City had ‘a corporate structure where the major beneficiaries will be the exclusive brethren of big business, merchant bankers and a narrow range of consultants dominated by legal and accountancy firms’.   How right he was.

But with a flying start under the leadership of the effervescent Mayor Len Brown, things at first looked promising.  But the truth is the Super City was financially crippled from the start by the fatal decision to buy a brand new IT system that has ended up costing $1.2b and some $70m a year to operate.   This was compounded soon after by decisions around office accommodation – especially the decision to buy the ASB tower on Albert Street (a faulty tower indeed) spending on which is still ongoing; and the consequent abandonment of the Civic Administration Building on Aotea Square, 18 floors and 14,000 square metres in the hear of the CBD, deserted for over two years. After the initial spend and borrowing spree (much of it on itself) the council approaching its debt ceiling and fearful of pushing its luck too far with ratepayers is now resorting to selling key assets.  First on the block is the Diversified Financial Asset portfolio, a legacy of the Auckland Regional Council.  Prudently managed by Infrastructure Auckland and then Auckland Regional Holdings, its investment returns along with Ports of Auckland dividends, enabled the region to pay for the Northern Busway, the Britomart Transport Centre and to rescue and rebuild Auckland’s rail network and services from the very brink of extinction.

With the establishment of the Super City in 2010 the portfolio of stocks and bonds valued at $345m was transferred to the council CCO, Auckland Council Investments Ltd. It was very ably managed by ACIL, returning just under 10% per annum, providing an alternative (non rates) funding stream to the council of $24m a year.  However this pot of gold inevitably proved to be too much of a temptation for Auckland Council.  In 2015 against the strong objections of its chairman, the highly rated investment banker Simon Allen and fellow ACIL directors, it was transferred to the control of Auckland Council officers.  It was in council hands only a few months when the first $100m worth of stocks and bonds was cashed up in 2016 to fill a hole in the budget. ‘Repaying debt’ was the stated reason but repaying debt, which has an interest rate of approximately 4.5%, by cashing up investments that earn twice that amount, is simply destroying value.  Last month led by mayor Phil Goff, a majority of councillors including most of the Labour Party and Labour leaning councillors voted to cash up the remaining $230m.  Again ‘repaying debt’ was the stated reason with this time much talk of ‘infrastructure’. But liquidating assets that earn money, to replace them with assets that cost money (lots of it) to operate, is not sensible.   What happens when the capital is spent?    Tragically the benefits of keeping the principal and dedicating the dividends, along with the $50m per year from the port company and the $40m from the airport to a ring-fenced infrastructure investment fund, as I and some other councillors advocated was simply rejected out of hand.  As we know from recent disclosures, things won’t stop here, asset sales, the nightmare from the nineties are back.  These assets which were inherited from previous generations of Aucklanders should be managed well and handed on to benefit future generations of Aucklanders. Unfortunately among other failings, history may judge the Super City guilty of inter-generation theft

I will leave the last word to Professor Shirley.

‘We don’t need another review of governance, what we need is a cleanout in September of the Wellington swamp that delivered us the Super City and as structural change to those policies that continue to undermine the development of Auckland today’.

This article is published in the July 2017 edition of Ponsonby News

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Selling the port – selling out the people of Auckland

 

Ports of Auckland - returns $40 to $50 million to the people of Auckland but for how long? (photo courtesy POAL)

Ports of Auckland – returns $40 to $50 million to the people of Auckland but for how long? (photo courtesy POAL)

Mayor Phil Goff’s intentions regarding the Ports of Auckland always struck me as quite ambiguous.   While he has been free with comments about wanting to physically move the port… to the Firth of Thames, to the Manukau Harbour, to anywhere…I have noticed he has always fallen silent when the question of his commitment to public ownership of the port comes up – ‘coy’ as NZ Herald’s Bernard Orsman puts it.

However plans to sell the Ports of Auckland have now been flushed out into the open after a secret meeting involving Goff and the chair and CEO of the port company was leaked to the media. The port is the council’s principle revenue-earning ($40m – $50m per annum) strategic asset. Relinquishing that income stream would require an extra 3% plus rates increase every year to make up the difference.

The leak forced Goff to make what he and his communications people considered looked like a denial – a ringing declaration that the port company land was not for sale. In his email to councillors Goff claimed the port sale story was ‘factually wrong’ but that he did discuss, ‘whether the Ports should be divided into a Property Company and an Operating Company’.

 Separating out the ‘land’ and selling off the revenue-earning operating business is a ploy long used by those scheming to privatise the port. When I was chairman of the Auckland Regional Council I had to deal on a regular basis with hard-faced international finance people (including the Sultan of Dubai) wanting to get their hands on the people of Auckland’s blue chip asset – to hear them out and show them the door.

What Goff seems to be unaware of is that the only significant ‘land’ remaining on Ports of Auckland’s books is the reclaimed rubble beneath the tarmac of the container terminals. Everything above that is core port operations.  Nearly all the real estate has already been sold or taken out of Ports of Auckland, including the downtown Britomart precinct land, the Viaduct and associated land, Westhaven Marina and the Wynyard Quarter, Wynyard Point land.

Moreover there is already a ‘property company’ for port land.  This is the CCO ‘Development Auckland’ – ‘Panuku’, which assumed the portfolio of Waterfront Auckland which in turn succeeded Sea + City, the agency the ARC set up to develop the Wynyard Quarter land (18 ha) taken out of Ports of Auckland by the ARC after we took 100% ownership in 2005.

Be in no doubt, splitting the business from the ‘land’ is clearly a precursor to privatisation – in many ways reminiscent of the corporatisation of Telecom prior to its sale.

For such a canny politician who has spent a lifetime in parliament (or is it because of this?) there is an apparent gullibility about Goff, revealed for instance by the reliance he places on official advice (no trains to the airport) and his commercially naïve statements like, ‘I believe the Port’s most valuable asset for Auckland is the land it sits on’, and the commercial silliness of aspiring to both relocate the port and to sell the port.

Goff still does not seem to realise that if you sell a port, it’s not like selling a car. A sold port will not be taken off to a new home. In fact wanting to move the port is logically incompatible with wanting to sell the port. Such public opining by the mayor of Auckland, constantly raising doubts about the port’s long-term security of tenure just strips millions of dollars of potential value out of the company.   Given this, if the port is sold you can be sure the international buyer is likely to get it at a knock-down price. However once gaining control no new owner is going to take seriously requests to take its newly acquired asset off somewhere else.

This issue is not likely to go away.   Goff the experienced politician whose key election platform as Labour Party leader during the 2011 general election was ‘Stop Asset Sales’ must realise how damaging these disclosures will be for his former parliamentary colleagues – just when Labour appears to be gaining momentum. After all it was the same Phil Goff who announced in 2011, ‘The National Party is highly embarrassed by the fact that most New Zealanders don’t want asset sales and the Labour Party is standing alongside New Zealanders in that view. In fact we’re leading the push back against the assets sales’.Almost certainly Goff would have preferred to have waited until after the general election before letting the cat out of the bag.

For their part Bill English and Steven Joyce must be rubbing their hands with glee.

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The planned sell-out of Ports of Auckland – and why selling is losing

The Spinoff series. Storm in a Port series 

One would have hoped given all the problems Mayor Phil Goff has right now, the unhappy progress of his ‘bed tax’ for example and his council’s own systemic problems, with only 18% of Aucklanders trusting it, that he would have clearly and forcefully dispelled rumours about plans to privatise the Ports of Auckland. The port company is Auckland’s premier strategic asset – owned by the people of Auckland it was built and handed down to us by earlier generations of Aucklanders. It pays the council a dividend of $40-$50m per annum

Unfortunately Phil Goff’s equivocating ‘denials’ of what was discussed at a secret meeting last week with the port company chair and CEO (and leaked to the media by one of the parties) have only served to fuel the rumours. And Goff’s repeated comments about wanting to move the port have only added another element of confusion.

I recall the last time a serious attempt was made to sell the Ports of Auckland, This was back in 1991- at the height of the ‘reforms’. The Auckland Regional Council which held 80% of shares (the Waikato Regional Council held the other 20%), was under instructions from the National government to privatise the company. Finance sector players like Fay Richwhite and Bancorp were deeply and lucratively involved. The suggested sale price (by these experts) was $200m which happily coincided with the ARC debt. Then came an enormous public outcry. At the height of it I was elected in a by-election to the ARC. Within two weeks, in March 1992, the late Bruce Jesson and myself proposed a notice of motion to stop the sale. After long and rather dramatic debate it was carried by 13 votes to 12. A year later the Waikato Regional Council did sell its 20% of shares. Immediately upon listing, to its dismay and no doubt eternal regret, the share price virtually doubled.   This meant that from 1993 to 2005 Ports of Auckland was a stock-exchange listed company. However despite the magical properties, that star dust that some believe stock exchange listing brings, the company was for all those years outperformed and outsmarted by its provincial rival the Port of Tauranga which in a major strategic coup acquired the inland port at Penrose, under the very noises of the Auckland company.

In 2005 soon after I became chairman of the ARC, we bought back the 20% listed shares and took 100% control of the company. The reason was two-fold. The Port was a sound blue-chip investment in itself, but it also meant we were able to divest the valuable Wynyard Quarter and ‘tank farm’ land out of the control of port executives (whose development plans for the area were frankly hopeless), and get the company to focus on its core business – shifting cargo more efficiently.

Since the demise of the ARC and the advent of the Super City, there has been much less public oversight and transparency around the port company. In the leadership vacuum, it appeared to me that the directors began to act as if they were the owners. They soon came to grief in the employment court over a clumsily managed, bitter and very costly labour dispute in 2012 and then three years later the high court over the company’s pig-headed drive to reclaim the Waitemata Harbour.   Still, since the decision to abort the sale in 1992, the port company has gone on to pay the Auckland region more than $1b in dividends, as well as bequeathing an extremely valuable real estate portfolio. That dividend stream enabled the development of the Britomart transport centre, the North Shore busway and in particular the infrastructure for the renaissance of Auckland commuter rail.

But now for a number of reasons, it seems privatisation is back on the table and the circus is back in town.   And predictably enough out front leading the parade, and banging a noisy drum is Michael Barnett of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.

It is not unexpected that the head of a business lobby group would take such a position – it’s his ‘brand’ as Michael would explain. However lobbying on behalf of the finance sector, so it can take a big clip out of the ticket of any privatisation to new owners, likely offshore based, is not going to win the hearts and minds of Aucklanders. So by necessity privatisation arguments must be dressed up as if to be in the public interest. It is this sales spin delivered in public good clichés, featuring ‘Ma and Pa Aucklanders’, and even ‘liberating’ the port (??), must be exposed for what it is.

However Michael Barnett is not the mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff is and he is the primary problem here.

Goff’s approach to the port is much less coherent than Barnett’s. Goff despite his obfuscating is clearly interested in selling the port, however he has also made it clear he wants to move the port. It appears he still doesn’t realise that if you sell a port, it’s not like selling a car. A sold port will not be taken off to a new home. In fact wanting to move the port is logically incompatible with wanting to sell the port. Such public opining by the mayor of Auckland, constantly raising doubts about the port’s long-term security of tenure serves to strip millions of dollars of potential value out of the company.   Given this muddleheadedness, if Ernst & Young, Cameron & Partners, the Chamber of Commerce and council senior management get their way and the port is sold you can be sure the international buyer is likely to get it at a knock-down price. However there should be no illusions, once gaining control no new owner is going to take seriously requests to take its newly-acquired port off somewhere else.

Goff also says he wants to keep the land but sell the company. Separating out the land and selling off the revenue-earning operating business is a dodge long used by those scheming to get their hands on the port. When I was chairman of the Auckland Regional Council I had to deal on a regular basis with hard-faced finance people (including the Sultan of Dubai) proposing variations on this scheme; to hear them out and show them the door.

Goff surely by now must be aware that the only significant ‘land’ remaining on Ports of Auckland’s books is the reclaimed rubble locked beneath the tarmac of the container terminals. Everything above that is core port operations.  Nearly all the worthwhile real estate has already been sold or taken out of Ports of Auckland, including the downtown Britomart precinct land, the Viaduct and associated land, Westhaven Marina and the Wynyard Quarter, Wynyard Point land.

Interestingly Michael Barnett’s sales pitch is couched in terms of financial prudence, enabling Auckland to spend the proceedings on much needed infrastructure etc. This is not without irony given it was Michael’s lobbying on behalf of the trucking that helped land Auckland with the $1.8b ‘East West Link’, considered to be the most expensive road in New Zealand’s history – so lacking in demonstrable benefits, that NZTA is unable to contrive a meaningful cost-benefit analysis. (Very interestingly the main beneficiary is the Port of Tauranga’s inland port).

Essentially Barnett’s argument (based on he reckons ‘real commercial sense’) can be boiled down to this: let’s sell Auckland’s principal strategic revenue-earning asset to pay for other, non-revenue earning assets. However these assets, (including the roads Barnett is championing), and City Rail Link will have high and on going operational costs. Once the proceeds from selling the port, after the brokers, the finance consultants and lawyers have had their chop, is spent, and the port company’s $40-$50m per year dividend steam is diverted to the new shareholders, (the annual shortfall would have to be made up with a 3% rates increase), who is going to be left to pay these operational costs? You guessed it, the ratepayers. That is why Barnett’s slippery sales patter and Goff’s commercial naivete, and lack of political principle should be seen for what they are.

What should be done about the port? Apart from its sometimes, roguish attitude, by and large it is performing efficiently. Return on operating capital is similar to Tauranga. The major problem with Ports of Auckland (interestingly completely opposite to Auckland Council) is not cost control but constraints on its ability to earn revenue. This is due to the mutually damaging, race-to-the-bottom competition between Auckland and Tauranga over containers. This means what the ports can charge for containers is about 40% lower than what Australian ports charge. Auckland’s business strategy is almost entirely based on containers, Tauranga’s main game is bulk exports. Tauranga can bleed Auckland but still do OK itself. But if Auckland (and Tauranga) were to be able to charge something near the international going rate for handling containers, Ports of Auckland profits and dividends would be increased significantly, for example a mere $10 increase per container would mean $10m extra on the bottom line, $20 – $20m.   There has been some improvement to this in recent years but there is still a huge commercial distortion which real leadership at Auckland and central government would set out to resolve – and there is a solution – a jointly-owned container operating company.

The benefits for the company (both companies) and the people of Auckland (and the people of the Bay of Plenty) would be significant. On the other hand selling the port is selling out Auckland’s future generations. Selling is losing.

See also:  https://thespinoff.co.nz/auckland/22-05-2017/the-storm-in-the-port-selling-is-losing/

 

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Auckland Transport’s March of Folly

One of Auckland's new EMUs - but according to NZTA  & AT you won't be catching one of these to Auckland airport - not now - not ever.

One of Auckland’s new EMUs – but according to NZTA & AT you won’t be catching one of these to Auckland airport – not now – not ever.

Historian Barbara Tuchman’s acclaimed March of Folly – from Troy to Vietnam published in 1985 was about ‘the pervasive presence, through the ages, of failure, mismanagement, and delusion in government – contrary to its own self interest.’

I think about Barbara Tuchman’s book whenever the question of rail to Auckland airport comes up. There could no clearer example of Tuchman’s thesis than the boards of Auckland Transport (AT) and NZTA marching in lockstep to rule out even the possibility of future trains to Auckland Airport. And, it’s not just words, over the Christmas holidays AT demolished Onehunga’s Nielson Street overbridge rebuilding the road at grade, thereby physically blocking the rail corridor to the airport.

Deliberately sabotaging the rail corridor to Auckland International Airport is one of the most irresponsible acts I have witnessed during my time in local government.

Auckland International Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and to New Zealand – it is the gateway to the country. Despite hundreds of millions spent in road construction in recent years, congestion on the route to the city is already near where it was 10 years ago, chronic at peak times, periodically at grid-lock. With airport passenger movements currently 17 million per year, and predicted to increase to 20 million by 2020 and 40 million in 2044, this congestion can only become more dire.

Following on from work initiated by the former Auckland Regional Council, in September 2011, a multi-agency study involving Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, NZTA, KiwiRail and Auckland International Airport Ltd, with consultants GHD, after examining light rail (trams), busway and heavy rail (electric train) options, concluded that heavy rail from Onehunga 10km to the airport and 6.8km from Puhinui on the main trunk line would be the ‘most economically efficient’ solution – providing a fast, single-seat journey from airport to downtown Auckland (including the CRL stations), and all points on the rail network including Newmarket, Henderson, Glen Innes, Pukekohe, and ultimately Hamilton.

In 2012, this recommendation, after public consultation became a commitment in the Auckland Plan: ‘route protect a dedicated rail connection in the first decade (2011-2020); construct in the second decade (2021-2030).’

However in November 2014, Auckland Transport ‘planners’ (un-named) announced to the NZ Herald their preference for light rail. A year or so after AT came up with a business case ‘proving’ extending (non-existing) light rail from Dominion Road to the airport would be more economic than extending (existing) heavy rail from Onehunga. As an example of the credibility of this business case, it claimed a second track for the 3.5 km Onehunga Branch Line would cost $578m, (notwithstanding it cost KiwiRail $9m to build the first track in 2010). It also claimed a tram coming from the airport via Dominion Road, despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to a 50kph speed limit, would get to the CBD within one minute of an electric train travelling at 110kph! There are other claims which stretch credibility but let’s leave that to one side.

Melbourne is one major Australian city that does not yet have airport rail but it does have the most extensive light rail system in the world. Unlike Auckland however, the Victorian government is not planning on light rail for Melbourne Airport but heavy rail. This on the grounds that trains as international best practice demonstrates, provide a faster, more predictable journey-time and carry a lot more people and luggage than street-running trams.

However I should point out that the question of light rail to the airport is something of a sham; (one of the few people still taking it seriously is Mayor Phil Goff), given the government’s recently announced answer for Auckland Airport’s transport problems: light rail in 2047,  buses in the meantime. I should add the only other supporters for trams to the airport are the bloggers at Transport Blog – self-styled experts who obligingly changed their Congestion Free Network ‘vision’ from trains to trams in line with the corporate position of Auckland Transport and NZTA. Vision on demand?

Rather than facing up to the growing transport crisis at Auckland Airport, the government is pushing the bizarre ‘East-West Link’ along the Onehunga foreshore, at $1.8b the most expensive road in New Zealand history with no cost benefit analysis (and the reason why the rail corridor from Onehunga was blocked). The only demonstrated benefit of the East-West Link would seem to be better truck access to the Penrose ‘inland port’ owned by the Port of Tauranga. Given Auckland’s long list of infrastructure priorities that would seem a rather expensive gift to the shareholders of the Port of Tauranga. (What electorate does the Minister of Transport Simon Bridges represent again?)

Last month AT’s ‘Project Director Key Strategic Initiatives’ Theunis Van Schalkwyk, whose responsibilities also happen to include the East-West Link, and who commissioned the business case that ‘proved’ trams superior to trains, and who along with his boss David Warburton persuaded the boards of NZTA and AT to exclude heavy rail from any consideration for Auckland Airport, announced to bemused Auckland councillors that ‘mass transit’ services will begin at Auckland Airport in 2024. When questioned on what he meant by ‘mass transit, he answered ‘advanced buses.’

However in arguing Auckland Airport’s transport problems can solved with more buses (‘advanced’ or otherwise), the government and AT’s bureaucrats have apparently forgotten their own Centre City Future Access Study of 2012, the modelling in which revealed that inner Auckland streets will be so congested with buses by 2021 that average road speeds will be down to 7kph. Now they are proposing to add ‘platoons’ of airport buses to the city in 2024! What confidence can Aucklanders have in these people’s advice?

Barbara Tuchman made up some rules on how 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 (mad) ruler) [check].

The feasible alternative option of connecting Auckland International Airport by rail to the electrified main trunk line at Puhinui 6.8 km away must be carried out urgently before that option too is sabotaged.

 

This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Ponsonby News and The Daily Blog.

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Here come the Coalition: history repeats as citizens step up to protect the harbour

The mid-March storms revealed just how stretched Auckland’s civic infrastructure has become. More ‘chickens coming home to roost’ after years of council and government high population growth policies for Auckland.   While the irony of water restrictions after very high rainfall was partially due to the decision in the 1990s to allow private timber milling operations within the Hunua Ranges water catchment, the underlying problem is population-driven demand. Though Auckland’s bulkwater infrastructure (ten storage lakes in the Waitakere and Hunua Ranges, augmented by the Waikato pipeline) is probably the strongest element of our civic infrastructure, it is worth pointing out that ten years ago a storm event of similar magnitude would not have caused the same problem.   In 2007 Auckland’s water consumption was 350 million litres per day so the Ardmore filtration plant could have easily coped with the current problem. Ten years on with daily demand at 450 million litres per day – it’s a different story. However, thanks once again to Aucklanders’ willing response to Watercare’s calls for voluntary restrictions the problem will soon pass. But growth driven pressures on our infrastructure will not. They are only going to get worse.

Growth, specifically population growth (2/3 of it from record immigration), is also driving the current property boom and the ‘housing crisis’. The affordability of housing in Auckland is an extremely worrying sign of growing social inequality. House prices continue to increase while average family incomes and relative purchasing power have steadily declined. Most of the politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who talk about the housing crisis are not particularly interested in this demand side problem, nor in tackling the monopoly price rort in building materials. Nor indeed are they interested in diverting growth away from Auckland. What they are focussed on is the supply side and continued deregulation, with little apparent concern about the impacts on neighbours – or on the environment.

After all, as will be remembered it was in the name of solving the ‘housing crisis’ that Special Housing Areas and the Unitary Plan were log-rolled though, the former suspending normal rights of affected neighbours and the latter ‘upzoning’ most of the Auckland isthmus for intensified housing.

The Unitary Plan government-appointed ‘Independent Hearing Panel’ made no secret of its complete disinterest in infrastructure. The whole focus appeared to be on furthering the interest of developers who take the profits and externalise the costs – onto the ratepayer and the taxpayer. I am talking of the costs of infrastructure: reticulated water, wastewater, stormwater, roads, public transport and public facilities, parks, schools, hospitals etc., the costs of providing which faced by Auckland ratepayers is truly enormous. There is also another cost, that borne by the environment.

Ponsonby News readers are better informed than most on the problem of sewage from our overloaded combined sewerage system polluting the Waitemata Harbour. The scale of this pollution has been covered up for years but according to recent disclosure by Watercare amounts to ‘2.2 million cubic metres per year’.

Over the recent holidays I read up on the political rise of Sir Dove Myer Robinson as part of researching the new Browns Island regional park (‘Ponsonby News’ February issue). As we know Robbie’s defining achievement was his long battle to stop Auckland’s sewage being discharged into the inner Hauraki Gulf at Browns Island. Against the odds Robbie managed to defeat the political establishment’s plans, thanks to a grass-roots citizens’ organisation – the militant but mildly named ‘Auckland & Suburban Drainage League’.

As historian Graham Bush wrote in his ‘Moving against the Tide – the Browns Island drainage controversy’:

‘The League came into being in very inauspicious circumstances. In November 1944 the Harbour Preservation Society, on the point of succumbing, reconstituted itself into a body with a more narrow and relevant terms of reference. That body – the Auckland & Suburban Drainage League – commenced its existence with a steering committee transferred straight from the Preservation Society.’

The first meeting of the League took place at the old Parnell Library. Soon other organisations like the Royal NZ Yacht Squadron joined it – and the rest is history.

Last month at a meeting which I helped organise, I had the uncanny feeling that what was taking place was of similar historical importance. It was at the Ponsonby Yacht Club where the leaders of the St Marys Bay Association, Herne Bay Residents Association, the Gables Neighbourhood Group and harbour environmentalists agreed to form a coalition with a mission to raise awareness and exert political pressure on Auckland Council to clean up the appalling level of sewage discharges into the western bays by resuming the task of separating stormwater and sewerage.

The Coalition headed by retired High Court Associate Judge David Abbott (St Marys Bay Association) and Dirk Hudig (Herne Bay Residents’ Association) has a working name ‘Stop Auckland Sewage Overflows Coalition’ – and a watchword ‘natural streams – clean harbours’. As I write this, other residents associations, mainly representing ratepayers living in older parts of the city served by the old Combined Sewerage Area are rallying to the new Coalition. Grey Lynn Residents, Grafton Residents, The Western Bays Community Group, Freemans Bay Residents, the City Centre Residents, Westmere Heritage Protection, Westmere Residents, and the Parnell Community Committee among others have already agreed to support. The advent of the Coalition is remarkable. It appears to be history repeating. I believe the Coalition will attract widespread public support.

This article features in the April issue of Ponsonby News.

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The cost of high growth – the dirty secret Auckland council would rather you not know about

It came as a shock to most Aucklanders when the NZ Herald recently revealed the scale of stormwater-driven sewage regularly overflowing into the harbour. The source is mainly from the western side of the CBD (call it greater Ponsonby) but extends inland as far as Mt Eden. It is also coming from Grafton, Newmarket and large parts of Parnell. These are some of the oldest parts of Auckland, some 16,000 dwellings served by what is called the ‘Combined Sewerage Area’. The combined stormwater-sewage system was built in the early 1900s for a much smaller population. Interestingly much of this area has been recently ‘upzoned’ for more intensive development under the Unitary Plan. But the sewerage system is now so overloaded that when it rains as much as little as 5mm, which it does often in Auckland, it increases the volume in the pipes some 40 times over, washing raw sewage not only into the Western Bays but also into the Newmarket stream and Hobson Bay, and even into picturesque Judges Bay – making swimming and water recreation there unsafe for some days after even moderate rainfall. The problem is a direct consequence of Auckland’s growth and the failure over many years to provide for adequate wastewater sanitation. It is an inconvenient truth the Auckland Council and the government driving these high growth policies would rather the public not know about.

The problem first became apparent in the 1970s. By the late 1980s Auckland City Council began to the expensive task of separating the sewer and stormwater pipes. In February 2008 an announcement from Council-owned Metrowater claimed the job would cost $50 million and be completed by 2011. Instead in 2010 separation of wastewater and stormwater was quietly put on the back-burner. Critical momentum was lost when the government decided that the top priority for Auckland was a ‘Super City’. Then the focus turned to a ‘Central Interceptor’ originally proposed to convey both sewage and stormwater directly south from Western Springs via a 13 km tunnel to the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant. In 2012 it was planned that work would begin this year and take 10 years to complete. Now the start date has been put back once again to 2019. The Central Interceptor is estimated to cost about one billion dollars and that’s just the start. Ironically the cost of Super City amalgamation, notably the $1.2 billion that the Council paid for a new (still not working properly) IT system, could have easily paid for the Central Interceptor. All that time, 2.2 million cubic metres per year of diluted sewage has been washing into urban streams and the inner Waitematā harbour and the problem is getting worse.

This sorry story I guess could be categorised under ‘Sins of Omission’. Now we come to the Sins of Commission. A key objective of the Super City amalgamation, the Unitary Plan, is a major deregulation of planning rules to drive urban growth and intensification. Like the Super City itself the Unitary Plan was largely government-imposed. And not bothering to wait even for the Unitary Plan, in 2012 Housing Minister Nick Smith pushed through legislation to enable fast-tracked intensified Special Housing Areas (SHA), suspending the normal RMA notification processes.

Like most Aucklanders I had assumed that sewerage problems were being taken care of by the experts. Clearly they haven’t been.

However thanks to the honesty of Watercare’s chief executive Raveen Jaduram, Aucklanders are now learning the sheer scale of the problem – and the real cost of Auckland Council’s and the government’s obsession with high growth. There are over 100 constructed overflow points in the combined system. According to Mr Jaduram, combined sewerage pipes are so overloaded that these overflow points now discharge on average 52 times a year – just about every times it rains. This is a massive breach of the Council’s own 2014 Network Discharge Consent – but do not expect prosecutions any time soon.

There is now a debate going on between Watercare and the Auckland Council stormwater department (now unfortunately rebranded as ‘Healthy Waters’) over whether the Central Interceptor would be adequate to deal with the problem (as claimed by ‘Healthy Waters’) or whether separation of sewage and stormwater also needs to be completed throughout the Combined Sewerage Area (as maintained by Watercare).

In the meantime, in contrast to Mr Jaduram’s refreshing honesty, Council spokespeople, including Mayor Phil Goff, have been trying to talk the problem down, absurdly attempting to convince the public that extra growth and intensification in the inner city combined sewerage area will not add to harbour pollution.

It’s a pity the problem did not get the present level of public scrutiny one year ago when the Unitary Plan was being bulldozed through. But the lesson is clear, growth, (and the profits of private developers), come at a substantial cost, both to ordinary ratepayers and our environment.

This article appears in the April issue of The Hobson.

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Auckland’s dirty secret – can we handle the truth?

Sewage pollution of the inner Waitemata harbour is a direct consequence of Auckland’s disproportionate growth. The failure to provide for sufficient basic sanitation infrastructure is something the Auckland Council and the government driving these growth policies would rather the public know as little as possible about.   It’s an inconvenient truth also for the Unitary Plan-urban growth acolytes and despite their stated mission to save the planet, they won’t be talking much about this either.   The shocking scale of the problem was finally outed by the NZ Herald in December and January and came as a shock to most Aucklanders. Its due to stormwater-driven sewage overflows from the Western Bays, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Arch Hill, Mt Albert and Mt Eden areas. Areas especially targetted by pro-Unitary Plan advocates for intensification. These are some of the oldest parts of Auckland, some 16,000 dwellings served by what is called the ‘Combined Sewerage Area’. Built in the early 1900s and designed for a much smaller population it connects to the larger and (somewhat newer) Orakei sewer line which extends eastward to the Eastern Interceptor which then turns southward to the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant. The combined sewerage system is decrepid and increasingly overloaded. Local sewage overflows especially contaminate urban streams like Cox’s and Meola Creeks and inner harbour beaches from Point Chevalier to St Mary’s Bay. While the sewerage system which conveys human waste is within capacity – barely, when it rains as much as little as 5mm, which it does often in Auckland, it increases the volume in the pipes some 40 times over. The system is quickly overloaded with the result that surges of diluted human sewage pop open manholes in suburban streets and on peoples’ properties, spewing into urban waterways and the inner harbour.

Meola Creek - serving the biggest catchment and probably Auckland's most polluted.   (Photo John McCaffrey

Meola Creek – serves the biggest catchment of the  Combined Sewerage Area is and probably Auckland’s most polluted. (Photo John McCaffrey).

The problem first became apparent in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s Auckland City Council began to separate the sewer and stormwater pipes. In early 2008 a bold announcement from Council-owned Metrowater claimed the job would cost $50 million and be completed by 2011. Instead by 2010 separation of wastewater and stormwater had been quietly put on the back-burner. Critical momentum was lost when the government decided that the top priority for Auckland was a ‘Super City’. Then the focus turned to a ‘Central Interceptor’ which was originally proposed to convey both sewage and stormwater directly south via a 13 km tunnel to the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant. In 2012 it was planned that work would begin this year and take 10 years to complete. Now the start date has been put back once again to 2019. The Central Interceptor is estimated to cost about one billion dollars and that’s just the start. Ironically the cost of Super City amalgamation, notably the $1.2 billion that the Council paid for a new (still not working properly) IT system, could have easily paid for the Central Interceptor. All that time, 2.2 million cubic metres per year of diluted sewage has been washing into urban streams and the inner harbour and the problem is getting worse.

 

The old sewage lines that flow past the Creek have extensive broken and damaged leaking  pipes that also pollutes the stream even when it is not raining or overflowing at the pump stations. These old lines are NOT due to be repaired or replaced for some 8-9 yrs AFTER the Central Interceptor is completed in 8-9 years time ie 16-18 yrs away. (John McCaffrey).

The old sewage lines that flow past Meola Creek have extensive broken and damaged leaking pipes that also pollutes the stream even when it is not raining or overflowing at the pump stations. These old lines are NOT due to be repaired or replaced for some 8-9 yrs AFTER the Central Interceptor is completed in 8-9 years time ie 16-18 yrs away. (John McCaffrey).


This sorry story I guess could be categorised under the heading ‘Sins of Omission’. Now we come to the Sins of Commission. A key objective of the Super City amalgamation, the Unitary Plan, is a major deregulation of town planning rules, designed to drive urban growth and intensification, while decoupling this development from its infrastructural and environmental consequences. Like the Super City itself the Unitary Plan was largely government-imposed. And not bothering to wait even for the Unitary Plan, in 2012 Housing Minister Nick Smith pushed through legislation to enable fast-tracked intensified Special Housing Areas (SHA), suspending the normal RMA notification processes.

Like most Aucklanders I had assumed that sewerage problems were being taken care of by the experts. I was drawn into this issue almost indirectly by the Kelmarna Avenue SHA and investigations that I made with Watercare about it. When I raised the question of the extra sewage pollution in a letter to Housing Minister Nick Smith, who also happens to be the Minister for the Environment, in April last year, he appeared on TV, red-faced with anger, to personally attack me.

http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2016/05/the-nick-smith-file/

http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2016/05/aucklands-disproportionate-growth-not-sustainable-nor-affordable/

However thanks to the honesty of one public servant in particular, Watercare’s chief executive Raveen Jadaram, Aucklanders are now learning the sheer scale of our human waste problem – and the real cost of Auckland Council and the government’s obsession with growth. Until now the people of Auckland have been deliberately kept in the dark about the scale of sewage pollution of the harbour. There are over 100 constructed overflow points in the combined system, with about 40 discharging into the harbour from Whau creek to the CBD. According to Mr Jaduram, combined sewerage pipes are so overloaded that these overflow points now discharge on average 52 times a year – just about every times it rains. This is a massive breach of the Council’s own 2014 Network Discharge Consent – but do not expect prosecutions any time soon.

There is now a debate going on between Watercare and the Auckland Council (the latter’s stormwater officers have unfortunately chosen now to rebrand themselves as the ‘Healthy Water Department’) over whether the Central Interceptor should extend from Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant to Western Springs, with ongoing site-specific separation of stormwater and sewerage lines in the western bays (Watercare) or extend further from Western Springs to St Marys Bay (called the Waterfront Interceptor) with little or no further separation work (Auckland Council). I welcome the debate but unfortunately for the harbour and water quality of our beaches its happening at least 20 years too late.

In the meantime, in contrast to Mr Jaduram’s refreshing honesty, Council spokespeople, including Mayor Phil Goff, have been trying to talk the problem down, attempting to convince the public that extra growth and intensification in the inner city combined sewerage area will not add to harbour pollution.

It’s a pity the scale of harbour pollution did not get the present level of public scrutiny one year ago when the Unitary Plan was being bulldozed through. But the lesson is that growth, (and the profits of private developers), come at a substantial cost, both to ordinary ratepayers and our environment.

A version of this article appears in the March issue of Ponsonby News

and the Daily Blog.

 

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Motukorea – Auckland’s forgotten gift – rediscovered

Motukorea or Browns Island (60 ha), the iconic inner-Gulf island, formed by a 10,000 year old extinct volcano, a sight familiar to all ferry users and yachties, was back in the news recently – but for all the wrong reasons.

Motukorea - owned by the 'Mayor, councillors and people of Auckland'.

Motukorea – owned by the ‘Mayor, councillors and people of Auckland’.

Before Christmas a wildfire lit by a distressed woman, mysteriously marooned on the island trying to attract help, got out of control and burnt a substantial part of the island.

Motukorea was purchased by John Logan Campbell and his partner William Brown from the Ngati Tamaterā tribe in 1840. Campbell and Brown’s canvas tents, nikau whare and pig run were the modest beginnings of pākeha commercial activities in Tamaki – even before Auckland was founded; the ancestor if you will of the Auckland CBD.

After Campbell and Brown sold the island, (Campbell went to live in Parnell, his home Kilbryde overlooking the sea near present-day Dove Myer Robinson Park), it passed through a succession of owners, notably from 1906-1946, the Alison family of the Devonport Steam Ferry Company, at which time it became popular for ferry excursions and picnics. The hulks of some of those old paddle steamers still lay on the seabed on the western side of the island.

Then in 1931 sleepy Browns Island burst into the headlines. The reason: a controversial drainage scheme that would have seen the sewage of virtually the whole city pumped out to the island and after rudimentary treatment, discharged into the Hauraki Gulf.

The scheme was promoted by the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board and the Auckland City Council and backed by a host of technical experts. The banner of public opposition was first raised with a petition signed by 173 members of the Tamaki Ratepayers & Residents Association and 50 Waiheke Islanders (which must have been most of the island’s population). These early opponents were later joined by recreational boating fraternity – led by the Royal NZ Yacht Squadron. The Second World War slowed the scheme down but officialdom remained determined and with the end of the War in sight planning advanced apace.

The scheme’s opponents late in 1944 decided to form a specialized opposition body, ‘the Auckland and Suburban Drainage League’ with a previously unknown businessman Mr D.M. Robinson at its head. To cut a long story short, after 10 years of at times very bitter struggle, against the all odds, Robinson and his League won the day. They did so in the end by organizing to get Robinson and a team of his supporters elected onto the Metropolitan Drainage Board. Robinson then as chairman halted the scheme – but after contracts had been signed and the work begun! It is hard for Aucklanders today to appreciate the magnitude of this epic struggle of citizens versus officialdom.

Mr, then Sir, Dove Myer Robinson, ‘Robbie’, famously then went on to become six-times mayor of Auckland and the founding chairman of the Auckland Regional Authority (ARA) which later became the ARC. He is still revered as one of Auckland’s greatest civic leaders.

In 1955 his friend Sir Ernest Davis, the brewery magnate and a former mayor of Auckland himself, purchased and gifted Browns Island to – as the certificate-of-title states – ‘the Mayor, councillors and people of Auckland’.

In 1967 the City Council transferred the island’s management to the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board.  When the Maritime Park was abolished in 1990, the new Department of Conservation inherited management but not apparently the enthusiasm or priorities of the old Maritime Park Board. Auckland City Council paid DOC $15,000 a year to manage the place, which in turn out-sourced a minimum management regime to a private contractor.  In 1995 as chairman of ARC regional parks committee I led a bid for the regional parks service to manage the island on behalf of the city council but DOC opposed the idea. In 2014 the government tried to include Motukorea in a Treaty of Waitangi settlement until I reminded the Council that the island was owned not by the Crown but (literally) the Council and the people of Auckland.

In November 2015 council officers recommended renewing DOC’s contract but Auckland councillors instead supported my amendment that Auckland Council resume direct management of the island.

Regrettably implementation of this decision was continually delayed by council management throughout 2016 – until the fire that is.

In November I inspected the island with council regional parks and biosecurity officers. The damage done was significant, thousands of native skinks burnt and thousands of dollars worth of fencing destroyed, but the evidence of decades of neglect and minimal management was even more dispiriting.

Thankfully the memorial cairn to Sir Ernest and Lady Davis’ great gift (and to Robbie’s great victory) still stands on the northern shore, though forlorn and neglected, their great generosity forgotten and the vision unfulfilled. But it appears the fire provided a sharp lesson for council officers and so did some good after all. Auckland Council will now assume direct management of the island on 2 February, hopefully the Whakanewha rangers will be involved. A group of volunteers is also being formed to assist in the restoration work.  The decades of neglect of this marvelous gift are over. Browns Island – Motukorea –Browns Island – is to become Auckland’s lastest regional park – our first island regional park.

 

 

 

 


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Public oversight of Auckland Transport – is less really more?

Mayor Goff’s announcement that Cr Chris Fletcher and myself were to be removed from the board of Auckland Transport and not replaced by any other councillors came as a surprise to a lot of people – us included. That’s understandable given the statements Goff made before his election about getting better accountability out of council controlled organisations, (CCOs), Auckland Transport (AT) in particular. One would have assumed that given AT is wholly-owned by Auckland Council, a democratic body, better accountability would have included democratic oversight – but apparently not.

Transport, public transport in particular, has always been the core business of local government – ‘roads, rates, rubbish’ as they old saying goes. This was the situation in Auckland until 1 November 2010 and it is still the situation in the rest of New Zealand. Moreover the directors of Auckland Transport are more than just a CCO board, they also form Auckland’s Regional Land Transport Committee – legally, in terms of transport, a regional council, the legal successor to the Auckland Regional Council – but now a completely undemocratic one.

The arguments for and against democratic governance of the Auckland Transport CCO – overwhelmingly for – were heard early in 2010, by parliament’s Auckland Governance Legislation Select Committee when the ‘Super City’ was being formed. The Select Committee’s recommendations in the Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Act (2010) included the option of two of Auckland Transport’s directors being councillors.

 This was a concession from the Government to provide some reassurance to the ratepayers of Auckland that there would be continuance of at least some democratic representation on the new transport CCO; representation, as in the age-old principle – ‘No taxation without representation’. Still even this was considered insufficient by most of the 786 submitters – including the parliamentary Labour Party. Labour was so concerned about the ‘Super City’ bill it lodged its own ‘minority report’ which stated ‘…this bill corporatises much of Auckland local government with no democratic mandate.’

As for Auckland Transport, Labour reported: ‘We have particular concerns regarding the Auckland Transport CCO. It will be larger than any existing transport body in Auckland (and larger than the one contemplated by the Royal commission), with the power to make bylaws, and an annual budget of $1 billion soaking up 54 percent of rates. However, there is no evidence that running Auckland transport as a CCO would be more efficient than running it in-house. No other council in New Zealand has this arrangement. …it lacks transparency and accountability to the ratepayers.’ The report was signed-off by the leader of the Labour Party at that time – Hon Phil Goff.

The Green Party expressed similar concerns: ‘We strongly oppose the bulk of the Council’s work and assets being put into the hands of appointed rather than elected representatives, given the near certainty that the organisations will claim that commercial imperatives can override the public’s right to know how their assets are being managed.’

Six years on, the Super City and its CCOs are still very much experimental – and still very much peculiar to Auckland. Whenever given the opportunity to vote on ‘Super City’-style amalgamation, (which Aucklanders were never given) other regions of NZ have always voted against. Recently, the government had to withdraw its Local Government Act Amendment Bill that sought to impose Auckland Transport-type CCOs nation-wide, after a furious backlash from regional and local councils across New Zealand. The rest of the country is not impressed with what they have seen of the Auckland model. In fact they don’t want a bar of it. Aucklanders themselves are not that impressed either – if the Council’s own opinion polling of earlier this year is anything to go by. Only 15% of Aucklanders were reportedly satisfied with Auckland Council and only 17% had confidence in Council decisions. Candidate Goff shrewdly capitalised on that dissatisfaction when he targeted CCOs and Auckland Transport especially, during his mayoral campaign.

Now, rather than providing increased oversight and accountability Mayor Goff has done the opposite. Much attention has been given to his counter-intuitive arguments that removing councillor oversight from the AT board will somehow improve accountability. But there has been no media scrutiny of Goff’s removal of another accountability mechanism (arguably as least as important as democratic representation on the board); that is the specialised council transport or infrastructure committee that AT was required to report to. This is something that the Royal Commission into Auckland Governance recommended as essential in its report of 2009. Still, despite the impression given in the media, the question of councillor representation on AT is not yet over.

Something councillors need to bear in mind: Nothing is more critical in shaping the city than transport. As my colleague Wellington Regional Councillor and former Green MP Sue Kedgley reminds us: ‘More than anything else transport shapes a city… So if councillors are unable to make key transport decisions, their influence on how a city is shaped is incredibly limited.’ What kind of job can we as elected representatives of the people of Auckland do if we abrogate our remaining transport responsibilities?

 

This article was published in the December 2016 issue of Ponsonby News

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Letter to Mayor Goff – in defence of democratic representation on the board of Auckland Transport

31 October 2016

 

Hon Phil Goff,

Mayor elect of Auckland

 

Dear Mr Mayor,

Thank you for your letter dated 26 October 2016 (note this was emailed to me on 28 October) regarding the matter of councillor-directors on the board of Auckland Transport.

I will accept in good faith, your questionnaire about ‘arguments for and against, the appointment of councillor-directors’ and ‘competencies and personal attributes’ is a genuine quest for knowledge, despite you already making your own preferences known in such a public way.

You begin your letter with ‘as discussed’ but without going into too much detail there really has been no discussion on this matter between us, nor with my esteemed colleague Cr Christine Fletcher. That is really the problem.    Regardless of the pros and cons of the question of councillor-directors being on the board of Auckland Transport the peremptory manner in which you have gone about this has been unfortunate and could and should have been avoided.

In regard to your questionnaire

  1. The arguments for and against councillor-directors to the Board

Given your public statements I don’t propose to get into a lengthy argument regarding the appointment of councillor-directors. Transport, public transport in particular, has always been the core business of local government. This was the situation in Auckland until 1 November 2010 and it is still the situation in the rest of New Zealand. Moreover due to that aberration, the board of Auckland Transport is more than just a CCO board, it is also legally Auckland’s Regional Land Transport Committee – legally a regional council and in terms of transport, the legal successor to the Auckland Regional Council.  The arguments ‘for and against’ democratic governance of Auckland Transport (mainly ‘for’) were heard by the parliamentary Auckland Governance Legislation Committee chaired by Hon John Carter, when the ‘Super City’ was being formed early in 2010, the recommendations of which were included in the Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Act (2010). Please note:

s 43 Governing body of Auckland Transport

(2) The board of directors comprises – (a) no fewer than 6 and no more than 8 voting directors, of whom 2 may be members of the governing body of Auckland Council.’

This was step was taken by the Government, supported by Parliament to provide some reassurance to the ratepayers of Auckland that there would be at least some element of democratic representation on the CCO board of Auckland Transport.

Still even this level of democratic representation was considered insufficient by most of the 786 submitters- including the parliamentary Labour Party, which was so concerned it lodged its own ‘minority report’ on the Government Bill. This ‘minority report’ stated ‘The goodwill and high expectations generated by the Royal Commission have dissipated as concern has mounted about the loss of democracy’.   The ‘minority report’ went on to claim ‘ …this bill corporatises much of Auckland local government with no democratic mandate.’ In regard to Auckland Transport, the Labour MPs commented: We have particular concerns regarding the Auckland Transport CCO. It will be larger than any existing transport body in Auckland (and larger than the one contemplated by the Royal commission), with the power to make bylaws, and an annual budget of $1 billion soaking up 54 percent of rates. However, there is no evidence that running Auckland transport as a CCO would be more efficient than running it in-house. No other council in New Zealand has this arrangement. These reservations were shared by four Government departments – the Treasury, Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Economic Development , and Ministry for the Environment – who argued against setting up the transport agency as a CCO. They argued that it lacked transparency and accountability to the ratepayers.’

Now as the newly elected Mayor of Auckland you have revealed your preference to abolish even the minimal democratic level of oversight that the National-led government felt it was obliged to provide. Incidentally I checked to confirm who was the Labour Party leader at that time – and it was you.

The Green Party at that time had similar concerns: ‘We strongly oppose the bulk of the Council’s work and assets being put into the hands of appointed rather than elected representatives, given the near certainty that the organisations will claim that commercial imperatives can override the public’s right to know how their assets are being managed.’

In regard to arguments against democratic representation on the board of Auckland Transport – I am sorry I have none. I would refer you to the ‘minority report’ of your own party and remind you of the age-old principle ‘No taxation without representation.’

  1. ‘The specific events over the past six years where you, as councillor-director strengthened Auckland Transport’s accountability, in a way that independent directors couldn’t be expected to’

I am uncomfortable about discussing my own achievements, as if begging you for my job back (a dialogue inappropriate – for me as well as you).

Obviously I don’t have recordings of the points I have made within board room discussions and I will refrain from sending you the long list of letters and emails sent to Auckland Transport on behalf of concerned members of the public. In regard to this interface role I would note that the public is by and large completely unaware who the ‘independent directors’ of Auckland Transport are, though some have been in place for six years.

but I do have copies of numerous letters, many sent on behalf of the elected members of Auckland Council. For these please see the archived minutes of the Auckland Council Transport & Infrastructure committees. I can provide others including memos provided at the request of Mayor Len Brown.

As for information, I will point to the protocol I proposed (accepted at the time by the AT board chair and announced to the councillors) for AT to release commercially-confidential board items as soon as possible and to give councillors the courtesy of prior notice before being posted on the AT web-site. Incidentally I have found most ‘independent directors’ are quite uncomfortable with interacting with the public, as anyone who has attended an AT Board ‘open session’ will attest. And I well recall the former ‘independent’ deputy chair of the AT Board successfully arguing why a request by the former council chief executive Doug Mackay, no less, to sit in and observe a confidential board session (most AT business is deemed confidential) should be declined, adding that it was ‘inappropriate’ for him to have even asked! ( Obviously I did not allow this pronouncement to go by unanswered).

As one example for my personal efforts to seek better accountability, I also attach a bench-marking report I went to a lot of trouble researching and compiling and provided to the AT board as well as to the mayor and governing body, in 2015, highlighting systemic financial inefficiencies relating to 10s of millions per year of public money in AT’s commuter rail operations, compared to the operation of a similar operation funded by that of the (democratic) ‘Greater Wellington’ Regional Council.

Finally I would point to my willingness to challenge management policies whether it be the failure to address chonic rail fare evasion (or even to admit the true level of evasion, (now 5 years on grudgingly and inadequately being addressed by installing gates at the worst effected stations) and the deeply-flawed decision to dismiss any future possibility of train services to Auckland International Airport.

  1. ‘The competencies and personal attributes you believe Auckland Transport directors must possess’

I will not attempt to respond in regard to ‘independent’ directors but it should be glaringly obvious. However ‘independent directors’ seem to all come through one privileged recruitment company, have no special experience or interest in transport but all apparently acceptable to or actual supporters of the National government.

In regard to councillor-directors I would say this: They should be councillors with a good knowledge of transport and commitment to improving transport – public transport in particular – and ideally a track record of service (and corporate memory) in this field would be preferable but not essential. Most importantly of all, councillor-directors should have a serve-the-public ethic and the strength of character not to be coerced into corporate ‘group-think’; in other words, a commitment to advocate for the interests of the ‘shareholder’ (the council on behalf of the ratepayers) and the ‘customer’ – again the interest of the general public of Auckland.

  1. Strengths and weaknesses of the Council’s monitoring and setting of expectations for Auckland Transport.

A full answer would take some time and strictly-speaking should come from council management. However there are some existing mechanisms which need to be improved.

Statement of Intent. I have repeatedly argued for more inclusion for meaningful metrics in the annual corporate Statement of Intent which would enable direct comparability with the performance of other jurisdictions. Example: a ‘fare box return’ metric which is comparable for instance to that of the Wellington Regional Council and not ‘sandbagged and made to look better by adding in non-subsidised commercial services. Another important metric lacking despite my repeated requests is ‘percentage of public transport trips per capita’ which also would allow effective bench-marking with comparator cities who use this metric.   To be fair the weakness for failing to demand this rigour is really the council’s. Council senior management appears to be adverse to challenging Auckland Transport senior management in any way. The council itself as shareholder needs to be prepared to lift its game. This leads me to:

Contestable advice. I have also argued for the retention of those Auckland Council officers with expertise to provide contestable transport advice to councillors. My letter to the council CEO Mr Town in 2014 on this matter was never responded to, though the letter was acknowledged by his personal assistant.  Unhelpfully the small council transport planning team was soon after disbanded and the highly-respected manager who also managed the Transport-Infrastructure committee was made redundant. He now works for NZTA. I understand this was done at the behest of management of Auckland Transport who resented councillors receiving occasional expert challenge to its approach. The council’s Transport Committee (advocated by the Royal Commission) from 2010-2013 which I chaired was a popular and effective monitoring tool, of Auckland Transport, so effective that apparently Auckland Transport lobbied for its abolition. It was renamed the Infrastructure Committee in 2013 but with the subsequent disbanding and dispersal of the council’s own team of transport experts and now your own decision to abolish this committee, it has been effectively removed as a monitoring mechanism of Auckland Transport for councillors and the public alike.

Finally I recall when you were in parliament and ‘Labour spokesperson on Auckland affairs’, you did seek information and advice from me on transport matters on a number of occasions. I recall the briefing I gave you at your rather urgent request on Auckland Transport’s plans for light rail which had just been announced that day and the subsequent arrangements I made for you to have a special technical briefing from AT staff.

While I view your preferred approach, the removal of the role of elected representatives on the board of Auckland Transport as likely to result in the antithesis of better accountability and public confidence in Auckland Transport, I am bound to say am also personally disappointed at the manner in which you have handled the matter.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Michael Lee

Auckland Councillor

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