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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