Dumb and dumber – NZTA and AT decide to exclude trains to the airport

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.

When the mayor and the prime minister, launched the construction of the City Rail Link (CRL) before a euphoric crowd and performing dancers on that gorgeous morning in June, one would have assumed that this historic moment heralded a bright new era for rail in Auckland. But if so one would have assumed wrongly; for it soon became clear that the government, reluctantly log-rolled by Auckland public opinion into supporting the CRL, is determined that the CRL will be the last major project in Auckland’s 20-year rail renaissance.

This became all-too-clear a couple of week’s later when the board of the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) in Wellington voted to support a raft of resolutions that specifically excluded route protection and ‘any further option development’ of a rail connection to Auckland International Airport.   A couple of weeks later the board of Auckland Transport (AT), marching in lock-step followed suit.

Deliberately excluding route protection for future rail to the airport is one of the most irresponsible planning decisions I have witnessed during my time in Auckland local government.

Auckland International Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and New Zealand. With passenger movements currently 17 million per year and set to double in the next 10 years, the airport company (AIAL) realises that rail rapid transit will be vital to keep its traffic arteries open and has sought AT’s technical advice.

In September 2011 a multi-agency study that came to be called SMART, including AT, Auckland Council, NZTA, KiwiRail and AIAL, with consultants GHD, after examining the widest selection of modes, light rail, busway, heavy rail, (electric trains) decided on heavy rail from Onehunga (10km from the airport) to the airport and on to Puhinui (6.8km) on the main trunk line as the ‘most economically efficient’ long-term rapid transit solution – providing a single-seat journey to downtown Auckland and ultimately to Hamilton.

In 2012, rail to Auckland airport after much public consultation became a formal commitment in the Auckland Plan: route protect a dedicated rail connection in the first decade (2011-2020);construction in the second decade (2021-2030).

However after the mode and then preferred routes were identified, AT and NZTA became strangely reticent about protecting them, despite the council providing a budget of $30m for this purpose.

The situation became somewhat more complicated in November 2014, when AT management suddenly announced a preference for light rail (trams) rather than the previously agreed trains.

While refusing to be drawn into the argument (I am a committed tram supporter for where they work best – as an analogue for buses in the city and along the waterfront), as the council-appointed chair of the SMART stakeholders steering group, my concern has been to get the transport routes protected. However AT and NZTA have refused to deliver on route protection and persisted with the ‘light rail is better argument’ based on a dubious ‘business case’. For instance the latest costs of adding another track to the 3.5 km Onehunga Branch Line is claimed to be $578m. That compares with the $9m KiwiRail spent on building the first track in 2010. The same level of confidence can be placed in AT’s journey time ‘data’ that claims a tram coming from the airport and travelling along Dominion Road, would get to the CBD within a minute of an electric train. This despite the train being capable of travelling at 110km an hour – and despite the tram sharing the road for much of the way, having to stop at 20 tram stops, negotiating numerous intersections and keeping to the 50kph speed limit.

Based on this sort of suspect methodology AT managers claim that connecting to existing rail lines would cost over $1billion more than connecting to a light rail line on Dominion Road (that doesn’t actually exist). Of course AT never thought to ask the public or undertook an airport passenger survey. AT’s ‘business case’ also studiously avoids international best practice – which is odd given we are dealing with the transport needs of an international airport.

So last week I took myself off to Melbourne which is one major Australian city which does not have airport rail but interestingly has the most extensive light rail system in the world. At meetings with Victorian State government officials I was advised that Melbourne is planning on heavy rail for Melbourne Airport – not light rail. This on the grounds that trains provide a faster, more predictable journey time and carry a lot more people than street-running trams.

Melbourne planners point out that ‘urban rail can carry more than 40,000 passengers per hour on a single line. The same right-of-way used as a light railway or busway could carry 10,000 passengers per hour or 2,000 passengers per hour in a traffic lane.’

While such a major Auckland Plan commitment as rail to the airport can only be overturned by the elected council, the real danger is that by deliberately allowing development in the corridor Auckland Council and NZTA will render that commitment meaningless – and this is actually happening.

While on any objective assessment, heavy rail makes more sense than trams (or buses) for rapid transit to the airport, the final mode choice should be up to the Aucklanders who will build it. But Auckland Transport and NZTA, backed by the government, is determined that Aucklanders will never get that choice. Auckland deserves better than this rubbish.

This article features in Ponsonby News August issue

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North Rodney escape bid could help rest Auckland

When members of the Herne Bay Ratepayers Association Inc (HBRAI) asked to meet with me in May and included on the agenda the application by a rural northern Rodney group to break away from the Super City, I confess I was a little puzzled.

But I soon got the picture. It seems that the rather obscure events at the remote northern end of the region could well have major implications for the Auckland Council and therefore for all Auckland ratepayers.   The North Rodney Action Group had previously had its application for a hearing to break away from Auckland Council rejected by the Local Government Commission.  But the High Court ruled that their application must be heard.  Accordingly the Commission has invited submissions ‘alternative applications’ from across Auckland because the northern Rodney application could affect the whole Auckland region.  Alerted to the possibilities by the HBRAI members I am putting in my own submission.

I have had some involvement in North Rodney politics. Back in 2009 when the Super City was being set up by the government, a determined attempt was made by northern Rodney interests to take the northern half of Rodney out of Auckland and into Kaipara District and Northland.   However some northern Rodney ratepayers (apparently the majority) felt the move was ill-conceived and appealed to the Auckland Regional Council.  The ARC had its own interests to uphold, especially the eight coastal regional parks paid for by ratepayers across the Auckland region.  In the end, the government vetoed the idea.  Just as well as it turned out.   Not long after Kaipara District declared itself bankrupt leaving its ratepayers with huge debts and a government appointed commissioner.   So what is my submission about?  Well this time round the application is not to move North Rodney into Northland but to form an independent North Rodney Unitary Authority.

Under the Local Government Act (2002) s.5, a ‘unitary authority means a territorial authority that has the responsibilities, duties, and powers of a regional council …’

Interestingly the best known example of a unitary authority is the Auckland Council itself.

Becoming a ‘unitary authority’ would mean northern Rodney for all practical purposes become would another ‘region’ of New Zealand. While I personally don’t believe that tenable in terms of the population and boundary requirements of the Local Government Act, what I do argue for as an alternative is for North Rodney to become a district council.  This would give the North Rodney community a much greater level of self-government while retaining north Rodney within the Auckland region.  In its relationship with a new North Rodney district council Auckland Council would revert to being a regional council.

As I have told the Commission, the present ‘Super City’ arrangements cannot be defended as optimal in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, nor does the Auckland Council and its CCO’s have much public credibility at the present time. This is not just my opinion.  The Auckland Council’s own recent public opinion poll of 3000 citizens (Citizens Insight Monitor) include the following quite damning findings:

  • 15 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the council’s performance, while 36 per cent were dissatisfied.
  • 17 per cent of respondents say they trust the council to make the right decision, while 47 per cent do not.

The 2010 ‘Super City’ amalgamation resulted in an organisation which today has assets of over $43 billion, a debt of $8b and a turnover of $5.6b a year and 11,380 employees. This is on the scale of a major business corporation.  In the business world it is standard practice that significant corporate mergers, after 5 years or so, are subjected to a post-merger audit.   This has not happened with the ‘Super City’, nor is one planned.  Such an exercise could only be initiated by the council or the government. While the government is obviously not unwilling to give the council a jolly good kicking every now and then, any admission that its own creation could be dysfunctional is apparently to be avoided.  Despite this, a thorough-going audit or review really needs to happen.

Simply put the Super City is too big, too monolithic, too bureaucratic, too secretive and with too much of its responsibilities outsourced to the CCOs (some like Auckland Transport are also too big with too many non-transport responsibilities). In contrast, democratically-elected Local Boards are badly under-resourced in funding, powers and responsibilities.

Rodney Hide’s Super City baby was not perfect at its moment of birth and it’s certainly not perfect now.

Providing the opportunity for district councils such as for Rodney (in the north and south) and for Waiheke (also keen on breaking away) under the umbrella of the Auckland region, alongside local boards in the more urban areas, would, by using a standard and time-tested template, enable the amalgamated Auckland Council to evolve and adapt to better meet the aspirations of its citizens and its different communities. Without compromising a unified region it would also bring an element of diversity and healthy competitive tension to the present monolithic structure of the Auckland Council.  In other words more freedom and better local government for North Rodney and Waiheke could be good for all of us.

This article appeared in the Ponsonby News July issue.

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Auckland’s disproportionate growth – not sustainable nor affordable

A letter I wrote to the Minister of Building and Housing Nick Smith requesting a revocation of a special housing area (SHA) at Kelmarna Avenue, Herne Bay, provoked a furious response. It has also set off a debate about the merits of urban intensification versus suburban sprawl.

SHA’s are Nick Smith’s brain child. Under the Auckland-specific Housing Accord & Special Housing (HASH) Act, selected intensive housing developments have their approvals fast-tracked, mainly by suspending the normal rights for affected members of the public to comment on the applications. The extraordinary step of suspending Aucklanders’ civil and in some cases property rights, was considered by Minister Smith necessary to help solve the housing crisis (though confusingly the prime minister John Key and other ministers like Simon Bridges deny there is a housing crisis). 154 SHAs have been approved by the council and the government.

The problem for Kelmarna Avenue residents is back in 2007, at considerable expense, they had successfully battled a similar proposed development on the same ‘Gables’ site, in the Environment Court. This new development is considerably bigger, 70 residential units, 3 retail units, 4 storeys with 98 car parks and this time the development was approved – not only without their input – they were never even told about it until it had been signed-off by cabinet.

My letter to Minister Smith, the first I have written challenging any SHA, was based on the fact that there was clearly not the required ‘adequate infrastructure’ for the wastewater (sewage and greywater) required under section 16 of the HASH Act.

I pointed out that the wastewater and storm water collection system in this part of Auckland is over 100 years old and collected in a single pipe. According to Watercare while the combined sewer network in this area does have sufficient capacity for the present level of wastewater flow in dry weather, when it rains the system cannot cope and overflows into the Waitemata Harbour. As Watercare Services advises: ‘Currently, there are around 50 constructed points in the combined sewerage system that discharge to the environment more than 52 times per year – most of which now spill every time it rains.’ The situation is chronic and getting worse. Watercare has long-standing plans for a $3 billion central interceptor which will have the necessary capacity and which it hopes to start in 2018. This will take up to 10 years to finish but as yet no funding has been secured.

The principal discharge point for sewage overflows from Herne Bay is Cox’s Creek 400 metres from the proposed SHA.   St Mary’s Bay and the sewage outlet to the east of Westhaven is also regularly polluted with raw sewage overflows. As more and more development is squeezed in the problem becomes worse.

As I wrote Minister Smith:

‘Finally my submission is that the SHA at 1 Kelmarna Avenue does not have – nor will it have for conceivably 10 years from now – the ‘adequate infrastructure’ required under s16 of the Act, nor did the Auckland Council have regard in making its recommendation to you, to all the necessary ‘relevant local planning documents, strategies, policies, and any other relevant information’ required under the same section of the Act – notably its own Proposed Unitary Plan, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (2014) and quite separately and even more importantly its ongoing statutory obligations under the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act (2000).’

 Given the polite tone of my letter, I have to say I was taken aback when I got the Minister’s written reply and mortified when he followed it up by attacking me on TV as a ‘nimby’ and ‘hypocrite’. When I was asked for a response I suggested Minister Smith was looking for an Aucklander to pick a fight with. If his housing policies are failing, he is after all the Minister of Housing and he needs to take responsibility – not blame others. Please see link to all the correspondence on my previous post (23 May 2016 – ‘the Nick Smith File’).

Essentially Smith believes that the solution to Auckland’s high house prices is a simple one of supply which is insufficient and the fault of the Auckland Council. But as everyone knows the council has been falling over backwards to do what it is told by the government. We recall the public backlash against the council’s clumsy attempt at widespread non-notified ‘upzoning’ of last February.

But my letter was not about housing policy as I reminded Minister Smith – it was about the environmental effects of raw sewage overflowing into the Waitemata harbour on a more or less weekly basis.

In regard to Auckland’s housing problem, government policies stoking up immigration into Auckland (demand) and its reluctance to build state houses (supply) are also contributing factors. There is also the monopoly price rort on building materials, the most expensive in the OECD, currently costing 3 to 5 times of California, that the government will not touch.

While population-driven pressure on the property market is a feature of cities in other countries – the difference is that in New Zealand a disproportionate amount of growth is loaded onto one city – Auckland.   And Auckland ratepayers are expected to pay for more and more for increasingly expensive infrastructure.

While I support intensification over suburban sprawl (subject of course to the availability of adequate infrastructure) the current debate assumes that Auckland must continue to grow disproportionately. I have long challenged this assumption as in my first speech as chairman of the Auckland Regional Council back in 2004 – (reproduced in my post of 21 May 2016).

With State Highways and motorways increasingly congested on the suburban fringes and sewerage capacity under pressure in places like the historic western bays, such growth is neither environmentally sustainable – nor in the end affordable. An intelligent government-led balanced population and development policy for the whole of New Zealand is what is needed.

If the current debate begins to question long-standing assumptions that Auckland must continue to grow beyond the support of affordable infrastructure, then the tirade of personal abuse I copped from Nick Smith would have been worth it.

This article was published in the Ponsonby News June 2016

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The Nick Smith File

Happier times with Nick Smith the Minister of Conservation and Member of Auckland Central Nikki Kaye on Rakitu Island, September 2013.

Happier times – with Nick Smith then Minister of Conservation and Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye on Rakitu Island, September  2013 (photo Rachel Bruce

Letter to Hon Dr Nick Smith from Cr Mike Lee 22-April-2016 (1)

Letter to Mike Lee from Hon Dr Nick Smith (2)

Letter to Hon Dr Nick Smith 16-May-2016 (3)

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First speech as chairman of the ARC – 21.10. 2004

Left to right Jo Brosnahan, CEO, Mike Lee, Euan Hutchinson, General Secretary

Left to right Jo Brosnahan, CEO, Mike Lee, Euan Hutchinson, General Secretary

‘Honoured guests ladies and gentlemen, I wish to endorse our Chief Executive’s welcome to you all. A special welcome to the Mayor of Auckland City and to district councillors, Management of Watercare Services, trustees of the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust and to the board members of Auckland Regional Holdings and Auckland Regional Transport Authority.

To my fellow councillors I thank you for the great honour and great responsibility with which you have entrusted me. And on behalf of all the elected members my thanks also to the people of the Auckland region for your confidence in us – we will not let you down.

It is appropriate at this time to acknowledge my predecessors in this office especially the Council chairs I knew and served with over the last 13 years during my time as a regional councillor, Mr Colin Kay, the late Phil Warren and my immediate predecessor Gwen Bull.

Now that the government has restored the Auckland Regional Council’s assets and it has assumed, in broadest terms many of the responsibilities of the old ARA, it is also appropriate to acknowledge at this time, those early Auckland Regional Authority chairmen Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, Tom Pearce, and Lee Murdoch in particular, for it was they and their fellow members of the ARA who built modern Auckland.

I was first elected to the ARC in February 1992 – a time when amidst much public alienation and dissension the bulk of the ARC’s assets were being divested with objective of privatisation.   I recall my first significant political act as a newly-elected member of this council was to co-sponsor a notice of motion along with the late Bruce Jesson which effectively halted the privatisation of the Ports of Auckland.

That notice of motion was supported by a coalition of veteran members like the late Keith Hay and the late Allan Brewster and by younger members like Ruth Norman and cr Paul Walbran who is here today. And I also acknowledge them.

Now that those assets have been returned to the ARC, the regional community can be assured that the new ARC intends to ensure, through the excellent board of Auckland Regional Holdings, that those assets will continue to be managed prudently and efficiently for the long term benefit of the people of Auckland.

At the same time we recognise that Auckland’s greatest challenge of our time is to solve the problem of transport and we intend to work as supportively as possible with the new board of the Auckland Regional Transport Authority. Because of the Government’s enlightened December 12 initiative the ARC and its organisations ARH and ARTA have now been given the tools to do the job – and do the job we will.

Much has been said in recent weeks about public attitudes to local government and to local body elections – local government is sometimes criticised for being irrelevant to people’s lives (which is quite untrue and for being out of touch (which is sometimes true). Over the last two years in particular the ARC, mainly over the vexed question of rates, has come in for more than its share of public criticism.

All of us would agree that is of the highest importance for the new ARC to rebuild its relationship with the people of the Auckland region.

I and, I the majority of members here would like to see that this council actively encourages the attendance and participation at our meetings by ordinary members of the public. To this end I will recommend that we set aside a period at the start of ARC monthly meetings for a public forum to enable better interaction and communication with the public. I also believe that we need to move the starting time of the meetings from 4pm to 6pm to enable working people to more easily attend our meetings.

The local body elections and its results are very much on our mind today. We as individual candidates were elected on the basis of certain policies, of political programmes if you will.

Without overstating the case, from what I have seen there is a significant degree of commonality with the policies of all the successful candidates – from across the political spectrum.   Most salient I believe is the question of rates increases – the voters have made their feelings clear on this issue and I believe the newly elected members of the ARC can say to the public “we have heard you”.

Ratepayers can be sure that their concerns will be taken seriously.

In regard to the recent election I will be proposing therefore that we councillors join in a workshop process as soon as possible in an endeavour to formulate a political consensus around an agreed set of basic principles and policies – which would then inform the policy direction of this council over the next three years.   It would be unrealistic to expect that total agreement on policies can be achieved in any political organisation, but let us work together on what we can agree on – in the interests of democracy and for the good of the region.

In that light let us as councillors resolve to work more closely with our fellow elected representatives of the City and District Councils of the Auckland region. I would like to see this council chamber used as place of idea exchange and of debate, in which all the elected councillors of the region would be invited to this chamber for regular briefings and discussions on regional directions and regional strategies.

The relationship between the ARC and the TLAs is a vital one – most especially our relationship with Auckland City. While relationships between our two organisations could have been better over the last three years, I am confident that there is strong desire on behalf of both councils that our relationship is strengthened and that we work closely together – the presence of the Mayor Dick Hubbard and the likely deputy Mayor Bruce Hucker and Cr Glenda Fryer is very much appreciated.

With regard to our relationship with central government – we acknowledge with thanks the substantial commitment and support that the Government is now giving to the Auckland region. The Prime Minister’s historic December 12 package provided a way forward for Auckland to solve its transport and infrastructural problems.

The new ARC and its organisations Auckland Regional Holdings and Auckland Regional Transport Authority will work closely with the government and the Auckland mayors and TLAs to ensure that this initiative succeeds. This process has already begun and I wish to acknowledge the substantial progress in this area achieved by our former ARC chair Gwen Bull and by our Chief Executive Jo Brosnahan.

We want to engage with central government on other issues – protection of the Waitakere Ranges by legislation is a priority and we wish to work closely with the Minister of Conservation, the Department of Conservation and the Hauraki Gulf Forum to breath life into the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.

Finally in regard to the question of Auckland’s extraordinary growth and its relationship with the rest of New Zealand.   13 years after the signing into law of the Resource Management Act, practical experience suggests that sustainable management of our natural and physical resources can not be managed merely by the regulatory instruments of district plans at city and district council level, or even by regional plans and policy statements at regional council level – sustainable development of New Zealand must also take place at a national level – by national policy statements under s42 of the RMA and  government policies to enable sustainable development of New Zealand in the 21st century.

Disproportionate development and population pressures on the Auckland region and consequent ongoing urban sprawl and traffic congestion is not necessarily good for Auckland nor indeed for the rest of New Zealand.

The Auckland region wants to work collaboratively with the rest of New Zealand in our common national interests for the sustainable management of our greatest treasure – New Zealand’s natural environment.

 Finally More than one observer has commented that this set of regional councillors is the best qualified and most experienced for many years. We are all determined to meet the challenges before us. We have been given the tools now let us get on with the job.’

Left to right Jo Brosnahan, CEO, Mike Lee, Euan Hutchinson, General Secretary

Left to right Jo Brosnahan, CEO, Mike Lee, Euan Hutchinson, General Secretary

21.10.2004

Regional Councillors also elected for 2004-2007 – Christine Rose, Sandra Coney, Judith Bassett, Paul Walbran, Bill Burrell, Dianne Glenn, Michael Barnett, Wyn Hoadley, Joel Cayford, David Hay, Craig Little, Robyn Hughes.

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My grandfather’s letter

William Rose in his last years as groundsman/handyman, truck driver for Little Sisters of the Poor, St Joseph's home, Herne Bay.

William Rose in his last years as groundsman/handyman, truck driver for Little Sisters of the Poor, St Joseph’s home, Herne Bay.

I have had quite a long association with the Ponsonby during my time in politics, first with the Auckland Regional Council (I was first elected to the ARC ‘Auckland Central’ electorate in February 1992) and then as Auckland councillor for Waitemata & Gulf.   While I grew up in Wellington and came to Auckland aged 21, my mother was an Auckland girl and her family also had a connection with Ponsonby.   I was reminded of this recently when I came across a letter given to me by my sister Peggy who in turn was given it by our Aunt before she died. It was written by my grandfather.   My grandfather William Rose was in turn the grandson of a ‘Fencible’, James Donnelly. The ‘Royal NZ Fencible Corps’ as we know were British Army veterans (Donnelly had served in Afghanistan), many of them Irish, who were brought out by Governor Grey to defend the new colony. My grandfather’s mother, Rosanna Donnelly, later Rosanna Rose, was born at sea in the Southern Ocean in April 1852 on the sailing ship Inchinnan bound for Auckland where the family arrived in late May that year.   Rosanna, the youngest of a large family, married a William Rose in Howick in 1871 and the family went off to the Thames to work in the gold fields where my grandfather was born in in 1872. (Most Auckland families seem to have a Thames connection).

William started out as a schoolteacher but was soon working in the mines and then on the railway. In 1905 aged 33, he married an Irish girl Johanna Kavanagh who was 10 years younger and fresh from Kerry where Irish was still the first language. The couple had four children, two boys and two girls, born at railway townships up and down the Main Trunk Line. The youngest, my mother Eileen was born in Onehunga where William got a job on the wharf (unfortunately just in time for the Great Maritime Strike of 1913). Sadly William and Johanna did not enjoy a great deal of luck and by all accounts, like a lot of working class people in the early years of the 20th century their life was a constant struggle to make ends meet.   The situation was not helped by Johanna’s frail health. She eventually contracted tuberculosis and died 1918, aged 35, leaving her husband and four young children. This was a calamity that cast a long shadow over the family. My mother Eileen and her older sister Kathleen were sent to the Monte Cecelia Home (‘the Pah’) at Hillsborough where William secured a job as a groundsman to be near them. The two boys William and Laurence were brought up in the St Joseph’s orphanage at Takapuna. Kathleen (no doubt much to her father’s pride) entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy to become Sister Mary Clare for the rest of her life (it was Sister Clare who gave my sister the letter, presumably given to her by Mother Francis). The two boys would go on to serve in the NZ Army in World War II.

In 1935, then in his early 60s, William came to work as a groundsman/handyman for the Little Sisters of the Poor at the St Joseph’s Home at Herne Bay.   He also drove the truck for Little Sisters on their begging runs down Queen Street where kindly Auckland business people would donate food and clothes for the inmates. Twenty years after the death of his wife William sat down to write this letter:

October 16th 1938.

St Joseph’s Home,

Herne Bay Ponsonby,

Shelly Beach Road.

 

Dear Mother M. Francis,

I cannot let this opportunity pass by, the one of your Golden Jubilee without writing to you my dear and best friend. You came to my wife and children with God’s wonderful grace and compassion at a time when we needed such a good friend as you to comfort & console us. I can never forget you dear Mother Francis for all you have done for us. You are always in my prayers. I sincerely hope you are in good health for this Glorious occasion & pray that God’s blessings may be poured down on you. I have been here a little over three years now. I had a vote here for the last two elections. I am well satisfied with the result which we were listening in to. I was up late last night, being 11 o’clock when I turned the radio off, but we heard enough today to know how the two parties stand in Parliament. I am pleased that the Labour Party were returned with such a good majority. I am feeling very well at the present, wishing you and your Good Sisters health, joy and happiness for your Golden Jubilee & that you may long be spared to us. Say a little prayer for me.

From yours faithfully,

William Rose.

Unfortunately I never knew my grandfather; (when I lived in Shelly Beach Road in 1991 I had the uncanny feeling one night, walking home from the university up College Hill, that I was walking in his footsteps]; William died seven months after he wrote the letter, in May 1939. He was buried with Johanna at Hillsborough cemetery. My mother married my father Emmett Lee exactly one year later.  I believe her middle name Frances was given in honour of Mother Francis.

Published in Ponsonby News May 2016 edition

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A long time coming – the story of the Parnell Station

Parnell station - with restored George Troup heritage building on siteGood things in politics never come easy and unfortunately the converse also is true. Nothing illustrates this maxim better than the protracted saga of the Parnell Station. First proposed by ARTA transport planners in 2005 it suddenly assumed political sensitivity with plans to build a major new station at Newmarket. Ontrack and ARTA (predecessors of KiwiRail and Auckland Transport) argued they first needed to demolish the splendid old Newmarket station building.   Auckland Regional Councillors objected to that. Built in 1908 and designed by the architect George Troup (known as ‘Ginger Bread’ Troup who designed the famous Dunedin Station). It was only one of five historic station buildings still on site on the Auckland commuter network. In other words it was a heritage building. So we opposed its demolition and sought ways to integrate it into the new station complex.   Early in 2006 I received a series of briefings on the Newmarket project from the CEO of Ontrack, William Peet. The problem with keeping the old station building in situ as he explained, was the lack of room for the extra track (three tracks instead of two) needed to enhance network resilience. The adjacent former rail land had been short-sightedly privatised only a few years before.

Early in March 2006, as the chairman of the ARC, I attended Parliament’s select committee on Transport & Labour Relations dealing with a petition from Campaign for Better Transport calling for restoration of rail services to Onehunga. I had earlier presented the petition on behalf of CBT to the local Onehunga MP and former  transport minister Mark Gosche who chaired the select committee.  Mark was supportive of reopening the Onehunga Line and it was his idea to hold hearings on the issue.  I presented along with the chairs of Ontrack and the chair of ARTA; the three of us side-by-side. The only trouble was my submission, which strongly supported restoring Onehunga services was at odds with those of my two colleagues. I even had to (politely) correct my colleagues during questioning. This rather bemused the MPs. At that point the chair of ARTA (Brian Roche now CEO of NZ Post), living up to his reputation as a problem-fixer suggested that the three chairs ‘go away and talk about it.’ This we did.

The discussions were held in the splendid art deco boardroom of the Wellington Railway Station. There William Peet made a proposal.   Ontrack would recommission the Onehunga Branch Line provided the ARC lifted its objections to the removal of the Newmarket station building. I agreed but added a condition that the station building be preserved and relocated to a suitable nearby site i.e. the historic Waipapa Valley in Parnell.  This was agreed and I took the deal back to my colleagues at the ARC. Peet was good as his word. In late March a press release from the office of the Deputy PM, Michael Cullen announced provision in the forthcoming budget of $9m for rebuilding the Onehunga Branch Line and $5m for the storage and relocation of the Newmarket Station building. Construction then got underway and the brand new Newmarket Station complex was opened in January 2010. For its part the Onehunga Branch Line was reopened before a massive crowd in September 2010.

Onehunga services have proved to be very popular, with well over 1 million trips per year, far exceeding projections. Interestingly Onehunga was the first line to be electrified. Then in November 2010, after Ontrack was reorganised into KiwiRail, the ARC disappeared and Auckland Transport became the new mega transport agency in Auckland.

Despite these changes late in 2011 enabling work started on lowering the track gradient at Parnell. There had been some debate about the location of the actual station. Ontrack had wanted it further down the hill next to the rail bridge, being closer to the University, but I argued with the support of the Parnell community, this would not serve the Parnell Village, nor the Museum, ‘a Museum station’ always an important consideration in my mind (besides a 100 year old heritage building would look out of place in overlooking Stanley Street). Despite the track enabling work being completed in 2012, and a strong business case, (it is projected to be the 4th busiest station on the network), Auckland Transport management have postponed completing and opening the station from 2013 to, to 2014, to 2015, to 2016 .

In March 2015 work finally began by AT on building the two platforms, access road and turnaround and a new underpass to the Domain and Museum. This has been completed and KiwiRail, after some argey-bargey, have relocated the Cullen funding to restore the station building which has been in storage these last seven years at Swanson.

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But late in 2015 Auckland Transport management advised that the opening the Parnell station to services scheduled for 2016 would be postponed indefinitely until the building of a road bridge at Cowie Street to replace the Sarawia Street level crossing near Newmarket. The overbridge is hotly disputed by local residents who backed by engineers have proposed instead a more inexpensive, less environmentally intrusive underpass. This dispute is going to the Environment Court and is another story. Auckland Transport’s position seems to many Parnell people suspiciously like holding the whole Parnell community to ransom for technically dubious reasons. I have challenged management over this and AT is reconsidering its position. Meanwhile KiwiRail intends to have the heritage station building on site and restored ‘before the end of the year’. The Waitemata Local Board has offered to contribute funding for a pedestrian access via a Carlaw Park link to the University. As noted Parnell Station when it opens is predicted to be the 4th busiest on the network – with over 2000 passengers alighting there on a week day morning. ‘When’ being the operative word. The local business association Parnell Inc and the Parnell Community Committee fed up with continual delays are fully engaged. The battle is not yet over but be in no doubt we are going to win it. It goes to prove the point– good things in politics never come easy.

A version of this article appears in the April edition of Ponsonby News

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Too bloody big for its boots – Auckland Council arrogance sparks citizens’ backlash

After years of disruptive change, rates and user charge increases, and various scandals, Auckland really did need a period of political stability and civic calm. But no. Last November, the Council’s Unitary Plan committee, in secret meetings led by deputy mayor Penny Hulse and committee chair Alf Filipaina, supported by three other councillors and an unelected Independent Maori Statutory Board member, pushed through massive changes to the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan. In a series of narrow votes, two on the casting vote of the chair, nearly 30,000 properties (more than in the original Unitary Plan) were ‘up-zoned’ across Auckland. Most of these are on the isthmus, including parts of the Waitemata & Gulf Ward, notably Westmere and to a lesser extent Parnell. In 2013, supported by Shale Chambers and Waitemata local board members I successfully battled to protect these single house townscapes (along with most of Grey Lynn) from intensification in the first version of the Unitary Plan.

 This time there was no notice, no warning, no right for affected property owners to be heard or make submissions. The principal target for council planners was the single house zone – one or two storey homes on traditional lawn and garden sections. Thousands of householders who believed themselves safe from the original notified Unitary Plan changes, and who therefore did not make a submission, found that their homes and neighbourhood zonings had been suddenly changed ‘out-of-scope’ to allow for mixed-use, town houses and apartment buildings. Thousands of other single house owners whose properties escaped the planners’ latest attentions suddenly found themselves living very close to future high-rise buildings, often with possible loss of cherished views and even sunlight. On top of this – schools and their playing fields across central Auckland have also been zoned for intensification, incentivising the development of even these islands of open space (and therefore putting more pressure on public parks).

Once the full implications of the changes filtered out there were widespread outpourings of public anger. The interests and civil rights of Auckland ratepayers, betrayed by their own council, were taken up by a group of concerned citizens, ‘Auckland 2040’, whose indefatigable chair Richard Burton is a public hero. ‘Auckland 2040’ experts maintain there is already sufficient capacity in the Unitary Plan to cater for major population growth. Indeed, as an example there are 54 apartment developments currently underway in central Auckland.

The council’s massive un-notified change to zonings is essentially another example of business deregulation, which would make Auckland even more of a free-for-all for the development lobby. Interestingly some young ‘climate change’ activists lined up with big business to support the changes. ‘Generation Zero’ argues that the all-out assault on the historic garden suburbs of Auckland is a good for young people, taking as an article of faith vague promises from the developers of ‘affordable housing’ close to the desirable city centre. They also believe a further round of intensification will force more people to use public transport. Sadly they have bought into the endless growth ideology and are not too bothered about the wider environmental impacts of overcrowding (sewage disposal for instance) nor indeed, as they freely admit, about the loss of people’s democratic rights and due process.

The weird assumption that unsustainable growth and urban overcrowding is the formula for quality of life and better public transport ignores the fact that in 1956 when Auckland’s population was below 300,000, incidentally a time when nearly all Aucklanders lived in single houses, public transport patronage was over 100 million trips per year. 80 million of those trips were on Auckland’s electric tram system built in 1904 when the population was less than 100,000. Now Auckland’s population is 1.5 million and despite the injection of massive amounts of ratepayer/taxpayer cash, public transport patronage is still only 80 million trips per year. However this assault on due process and property-owners’ rights cannot be blamed on a handful of bloggers and misguided activists.

The real pressure for the un-notified changes is coming from the powerful vested interests led by the NZ Property Council – the arch lobbyist for big developers, supported by the board of Housing New Zealand and foreign-owned Fletchers. Awkwardly in 2011 the Auckland Council which is meant to be the statutory planner and regulator, decided to become a member of the NZ Property Council. With its CCO’s it is now the biggest fee-paying member. For a regulator this is a massive conflict of interest.

Mayor Len Brown claims the Unitary Plan changes had the full backing of the government. As a matter of fact this government has had a most unusual degree of influence over the Unitary Plan and the detested SHAs. In other parts of New Zealand and in Auckland prior to the Super City, regional and district planning was solely a regional council and city/district council responsibility. But in the case of the Auckland Unitary Plan, the government put it in place special fast-tracking legislation and government ministers appointed key members of the ‘Independent Hearing Panel’. Ministers also appointed the private sector directors on the board of Housing New Zealand, whose tax-payer funded lawyers are hard-line allies of the NZ Property Council before the hearing panel. That being said, what Len Brown seems to have forgotten is what John Key personally told him at a joint meeting between the Governing Body and cabinet ministers last July at which I was present. At that meeting the prime minister advised the council to exercise restraint in imposing more intensification and high-rise on what he called the ‘leafy suburbs’ of Auckland.   The council chose not to take this sensible political advice and pushed ahead with its secret plans.

This is another case of council arrogance but this time it over-reached itself. The public outrage set off a councillors’ revolt. Last Wednesday at a marathon extraordinary meeting of the council’s Governing Body, before a packed and vocal public audience, a majority of councillors overruled the unconvincing advice of senior planners and lawyers, swept aside the protestations of Mayor Brown and deputy mayor Hulse and voted to dump the undemocratic changes. I was proud to be among them.

This article appears in the Ponsonby News March 2016 edition

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A funny thing happened on the way to the airport – the trams versus trains debate

 

People and Trams - Angers, France   (Chan collection.) Trams are for mass transit rather than rapid transit.

People and Trams – Angers, France (Chan collection.)
Trams are for mass transit rather than rapid transit.

Readers who’ve followed my political career will be aware that I am a long time advocate for ‘light rail’ – by that I mean trams, sleek high-tech versions of which are rolling out on city streets across Europe and North America – and of course Australia. (In this article I will use the American term ‘light rail’ and European word ‘trams’ interchangeably]. I also support heritage trams – as the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council I was responsible for getting the popular ‘place shaping’ heritage tramway built in the Wynyard Quarter.   The trouble is – the Wynyard tramway was never meant to stay in the Wynyard Quarter – it was to be extended along the waterfront to the Britomart Transport Centre using both heritage trams and state-of-the-art modern trams to pick up cruise ship visitors on Princes and Queens Wharf while shuttling weekday commuters from Britomart to their new Wynyard Quarter offices.  Despite overwhelming public support for this idea in public submissions to the Waterfront Plan in 2012 (43% of public submissions responded with ‘do now’, 30% said ‘do soon’, 13%  said ‘do later’, 13% said ‘don’t do’ – that is 73% or even 86% support) – the waterfront extension has been blocked, essentially due to opposition within the Super City bureaucracies.   Whatever the real reason behind this, what has become clear is that the bureaucrats don’t appear to fully appreciate the ‘city building’ benefits of trams, which go together with people and civic spaces much better than buses (or indeed for that matter trains). Blocking future trams on Quay Street and insisting they run on Customs Street along with the North Shore buses and the rest of the heavier traffic planned for this corridor misses a unique opportunity to showcase both light rail and Auckland’s waterfront while servicing the growing number of cruise ship visitors ferry users, waterfront hotels, apartments and entertainment areas.

Its been just on 60 years since the Auckland’s highly successful 72 km electric tramway which carried over 80 million passengers per year – when Auckland’s population was less than 300,000 was terminated, trams bulldozed, lines pulled down and tracks dug up. Aucklanders have been paying dearly for that blunder ever since. Today with a population of 1.5 million Auckland’s total public transport patronage is still less than that what it was in 1956. The long 60 year interregnum also means today’s transport managers despite being recent converts to light rail are still coming to terms with the mode – both its strengths and for that matter its limitations.

 Recently a debate has broken out involving trams (the future use of) to the airport. In this case officialdom (Auckland Transport management) is pushing hard for trams as our future rapid transit option between the downtown CBD and Auckland International Airport. Up until recently there was an agreement between the parties (Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, NZTA, KiwiRail and Auckland International Airport) reached in 2011 to extend electric trains from the Onehunga to the airport and then eventually southeast to the main trunk line at Puhinui. Work to start some time in the 2020s.

However a business case has recently been produced by Auckland Transport indicating a tramway extending from the end of Dominion Road to the airport would be significantly cheaper than the rail option from Onehunga. I have serious reservations about the figures used and some of the assumptions. Without going into detail, probably the most glaring weakness in the ‘business case’ is that electric rail to Onehunga (only 10 km from the airport) actually exists – unlike the Dominion Road tramway which at this stage exists only in the imagination. My concern is that just as with the Quay Street situation where officialdom doesn’t appear to ‘get’ the potential benefits of light rail – the airport debate suggests it also may not understand its limitations.

So lets briefly some up the case for and against trams and trains to the airport. Trams have the benefit of being a flexible and very efficient form of public transport. Modern electric trams can service busy city streets, like buses, (‘street car’ mode), but can carry much more people (12,000 per hour) and in greater comfort (and more quietly) than diesel buses which can carry 2,500 per hour. Trams can also perform like trains on their own dedicated corridors.   But electric trains (commuter rail) carry even more people (48,000 per hour) and go even faster.  This is not just due to the superior power of EMUs, train stations tend to be spaced between one to three kilometres apart whereas tram stops are spaced only 350 to 800m apart.   Trams on Dominion Road I am sure will be a great boon in the future for people and businesses in the Dominion Road area, but looking at it from the passengers point of view (often overlooked) for weary travellers and their baggage, keen on getting to the central city, multiple tram stops are not something one imagines many will appreciate. Even less so in the case of anxious travellers wanting to get to the airport.  When I visited the Gold Coast last year to inspect their brand new tramway, the managers emphasised to me not to forget a key point – light rail mean ‘mass transit’ – not ‘rapid transit’.

Its an intriguing debate but it will need to be settled by next June when Auckland International Airport will be making key decisions regarding its second runway and new terminals.   The stakeholder steering group of the multi-party airport rail planning process (which carries the hopeful acronym SMART) which I chair has recommended that a working party made up of technical experts from the key agencies and the airport company, work together to come up with the best option for Auckland and our vitally important international airport. I will keep you posted.

Mike Lee is the Auckland Councillor for Waitemata & Gulf Ward and the council appointed chair of the SMART (Southwestern Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit) Stakeholders Steering Group

 This article is featured in the February 2016 edition of Ponsonby News.

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Next up from the Super City – plans to flog off public assets and parks

Privatising the Ports of Auckland has long been the ambition of the New Right.  Bruce Jesson and I stopped them in 1992 with the backing of Pam Corkery and the Alliance and the overwhelming majority of Aucklanders..  The ARC through its holding company ARH secured 100% ownership in 2005.  Auckland Council senior management are determined to sell.  Stand by for a fight,

Privatising the Ports of Auckland has long been the ambition of the New Right. Bruce Jesson and I stopped them in 1992 with the backing of Pam Corkery and the Alliance and the overwhelming majority of Aucklanders.. The ARC through its holding company ARH secured 100% ownership in 2005. Auckland Council senior management are determined to sell. Stand by for a fight,

Late on Friday afternoon, 13 November, a thick document landed on my desk – marked in bold red capitals ‘Embargoed until 10am Friday 13 November’. (!) I knew exactly what the EY (Ernst & Young) report was going to say, so to avoid ruining my Friday evening and the whole weekend – I stuck it in my briefcase without opening it.

As it happens it turned out to be a horrid weekend anyway – because the next morning, the dreadful terrorist attacks took place in Paris. Ponsonby has a strong cultural connection with France – and we have a small but vibrant French community – as anyone reading ‘Ponsonby News’ would know.   These connections go back to the very beginnings of Auckland and have much to do with the legacy of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier who lived here and gave St Mary’s Bay its name. To the French members of our community I extend my condolences and solidarity. An attack on Paris is an attack on civilisation itself.

On Sunday evening, still depressed by the weekend’s events I finally dealt with the EY report. There were two reports actually – the second report was from Cameron Partners. (Dear reader Auckland Council does not stint ratepayers’ money on these sorts of things – the two reports together cost nearly half a million dollars.) Despite the costs the quality of the reports is unimpressive and unashamedly biased towards the same old neo-liberal agenda – privatisation of public assets.

Having pushed rates increases and the level of borrowing as high as it dares Auckland Council management, rather than dealing with costs is casting about for more money. EY’s key recommendations are the partial or full sell down of council shares in Auckland International Airport; partial or full sell down of the Diversified Financial Assets portfolio (global shares and bonds inherited from the ARC); partial of full sell down of Auckland Energy Consumer Trust (not legal); commercialising Watercare ie increasing householder charges in order to privatise); and finally a ‘long term lease’ of Ports of Auckland – in effect a full sell-down of the company.

The Cameron Partners report is more oblique and couched with euphemisms such as ‘asset recycling’. Essentially its conclusions are similar to EY’s – with somewhat more emphasis on selling off ‘community assets’ eg golf courses and prime areas of regional parks.

There is a deep irony here and apart from the costs of these reports. The Council has spent a huge amount of money on consultants in its continuing quest to come up with more funds. The previous big spend was on the three-year process to find alternative funding for transport eg. road tolls, motorway charges etc. As it turned out none were feasible – or more to the point, legal. In the end ratepayers simply got slammed with a $110 plus gst ‘transport levy’). Despite my urging, council management has refused to have its own administration costs reviewed to identify savings.

Three egregious examples of over-the-top council spending on itself come to mind.

The first is IT. Over half a billion dollars has now been spent so far on a system that still does not work properly.

Staff costs. The Auckland Council 2015 Annual Report indicated Council staff numbers (including CCOs) increased from 11,122 to 11,380. At the same time, officers earning more than $100,000 increased from 1,720 to 1,912, including 146 now earning over $200,000 and 36 earning over $300,000. The Annual Report also revealed total staff costs for 2014/15 were budgeted at $729m but they came in at $792m – $63m over budget and $62m more than the previous year.

Accommodation. A couple of years ago the Council bought the former ASB Bank office tower for $104m and then proceeded to spend another $53m to bring it up to its high standards. The Council then evicted rent-paying commercial tenants and moved in en masse.   The perfectly functional 18-storey, 14,000 sq m Civic Building has been left standing empty for over 12 months, meanwhile CCOs and Independent Maori Statutory Board pay millions every year to rent swank, mainly waterfront offices.

 This council seems to be only interested in getting its hands on more income not controlling its costs. Like a congenital spendthrift it refuses to face up to the fact that it has a serious spending problem. It is now, with a little help from the finance sector attempting to hawk-off the family silver left to it by its more responsible predecessors.

The deep irony is that while the council professes to be looking for ‘alternative funding’ – that is alternative to rates and user charges – the Airport Company dividends ($39m in 2015), the offshore Diversified Investment Asset earnings ($23m in 2015) and the dividends from the Ports of Auckland ($41.7m in 2015) constitute the one source of alternative funding that does not come from Auckland ratepayers. There will be a showdown early next year but be aware and on guard.  Rust never sleeps.

A similar article has been published in the Ponsonby News December 2015 issue.

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