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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Waitemata & Gulf vote not to be taken for granted

My heartfelt thanks to the voters of Waitemata & Gulf for giving me a decisive 1000 plus majority for another term on Auckland Council. It was a hard campaign against a well-funded, high-profile opponent in Bill Ralston backed by the National Party.

I was also very pleased to see the City Vision Waitemata Local Board candidates do so well in their contest with National’s Auckland Future.   The return of board chair Shale Chambers, deputy Pippa Coom and talented Vernon Tava is a testament to their hard work and newly-elected young Adriana Christie has a great future. I was sorry to see old warhorse Greg Moyle miss out but Auckland Future’s Mark Davey will add value and blue-green Rob Thomas who raises his profile by also standing for council retains his position.

On Waiheke may I extend warm congratulations to hardworking board chair Paul Walden, John Meeuwsen and Shirin Brown for their deserved re-election and to newly-elected Board members Bob Upchurch and Cath Handley. I believe Bob and Cath both bring competencies which will certainly add value to the Board.

It is a critical time for Waiheke.  I have good reason to believe that with a new mayor and the concurrent Local Government Commission process (which by the way is taking the Our Waiheke application seriously) the door is open for a renegotiation of the Super City arrangements for Waiheke, at the very least.   At the same time the unilateral ‘out of scope’ abolition of Waiheke’s Rural Urban Boundary imposed by Council officers is being appealed before the High Court by local residents led by Paul Walden.   The Council officers applied and failed for the right to sue the community for costs in this appeal.  The RUB case is just another example of Auckland Council’s overbearing attitude towards Waiheke. This needs to change.  The same goes with the CCOs. Auckland Transport in particular has an enormous influence on our transport links and to a remarkable degree what happens on the island – and yet I have found its management too often unresponsive to reasonable requests made on behalf of the community by both myself and the Local Board. Parking at Matiatia (both free and paid) needs to be expanded to meet demand, and it is totally unacceptable that the ratepayers of Marine View Road are told that AT (with an annual budget of $1billion) will never be able to seal their street.

All of these matters are inter-related and interlinked. Over the next few weeks and months in particular, the councillor, the Local Board and the community need to work together, presenting a solid front in the best interests of ‘Waiheke Inc’ to ensure the island gets the best possible deal. While the positions on the new Local Board are entirely a matter for the elected Local Board members, may I make the point that continuity of political leadership would be enormously helpful for the interests of Waiheke Island at this critical time.

Congratulations to Great Barrier’s returning board chair Izzy Fordham, deputy Sue Daly and member Jeff Cleave and new members Luke Coles and Shirley Johnson. Great Barrier is currently an island of political stability. In terms of voting the Great Barrier people have the best voter participation rate in the Auckland region, probably in the country – yet, by universal agreement, they put up no elections signs nor hold no election meetings.   Great Barrier people know their candidates very well and vote accordingly.

Voting was up compared to 2013’s hopeless 35.5% but the average turnout across Auckland was still only 38.5% (though 41.7% for Waitemata, 59.8% for Waiheke & for 71.5% Great Barrier).

Part of this is due to the age-old problem that many people find local government dull. In 1988-89 postal voting was introduced in an effort to get participation up. It worked – for a time but now we need to look at the whole system again.

There are two elements to this problem. One is the undeniable fact that people are aware that much of the power in local government is in the hands of un-elected officers. Many feel that whichever way they vote this will not change – when in fact it must change! Despite the best intentions of the reformers of the 1980s to get the voting rate up, other reforms, especially legislation empowering council CEOs (formerly town clerks) and de-powering the role of elected councillors (what Professor Richard Mulgan called ‘Rogerpolitics’), actually worked to turn-off democratic participation.

Leaving all that to one side, City Vision is urging a return to election-day voting. While worth considering I believe quite a lot could be done to improve the present system. Auckland Council officers were so concerned at the low turn-out in 2013 that this year they spent a lot of money ($1.2m) to do something about it. Typically, they chose a PR campaign based on the theme of love, beating hearts and ‘love bus’ – (a somewhat implausible association with local government) but with little focus on the practical aspects of postal voting.   Yet a key change since the 1980s is the retrenchment in postal services. As one voter reminded me, even finding a letterbox nowadays can be a mission. I was also dismayed at the chilling effect of statements from council that Wednesday 5 October was the last day a vote could be posted and arrive in time to be counted (though you could take it to a library). Why votes can be apparently collected from far-flung suburban libraries up to the Saturday but our specialised mail agency NZ Post takes more than 2 days to transport a voting envelope a few kilometres across town is a mystery. Given the closeness of the local board race the 180 Grey Lynn votes that inexplicably just did not turn up were also significant.

Rather than spending over a million dollars on PR why didn’t the council talk to NZ Post (pay them if necessary) to organise a special Saturday morning collection? Why not employ new technologies to boost postal voting. While any IT specialist will tell you internet voting is presently just too difficult to secure from hacking, other media could be tried including automated emails, phone messages and texts reminding voters to vote until the voting papers are received and scanned on a daily basis.

Returning to politics, a disappointed Bill Ralston complained to the media that despite a determined effort by the National machine to get the vote out ‘people on the right of the political spectrum just don’t vote’. Actually they do and they did. It is a mistake to assume that people in this most sophisticated of electorates always vote the party line or the same way for local government as they do in parliamentary elections. To make the point I give the last word to Ponsonby resident of centre-right persuasion (I won’t include a name) but the email message is clear.

“Hello Mike.

I was VERY pleased to see that you had been re-elected to council (I hope my vote just added to the “avalanche!).

I voted for you because you listen and react to “the voice of the people”, and that is how democracy really works.

You must (and should be) very proud that when there is a wave of “chuck the bums out” sentiment, you have stood up, been proud of your achievements and stood for re-election based upon the voice of the people.

I am very pleased for you, AND for Auckland, to see your fine results.

I look forward to seeing your sage contribution (especially as far as Rail to the airport is concerned and perhaps the new rail network to the Shore) continue in this new term.

I am delighted for you personally Mike, but also for Auckland, as I see you as a “light in the tunnel” when it comes to the council finally getting control of the bureaucrats who think that THEY are running Auckland (when in fact they need to listen to what the punters are saying and THEN make their decisions!).

Well done you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Auckland at the cross-roads

As I write this voting is underway for the local body elections.

I am seeking re-election for a third term as Auckland Councillor for the Waitemata & Gulf ward, the heart of historic Auckland. As the name suggests the Waitemata & Gulf is bounded by the harbour to the north and extends from Parnell to the east, the CBD, Freemans Bay, St Mary’s Bay, Herne Bay – as far west as Westmere. To the south it includes Newmarket, Grafton, Newton, Arch Hill and Western Springs – and the heartland of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. Someone once called this the ’capital of Auckland’ and I guess it is. The ward also includes the Hauraki Gulf islands, Waiheke, Rakino and out to Great Barrier Island 100km away. There are smaller islands too – some with just one or two people living there. While all of these communities are unique, I have found a progressive political outlook is a unifying factor across the whole ward. I am pleased to be endorsed by City Vision and have forged a strong working partnership with Waitemata Board chair Shale Chambers and members Pippa Coom and Vernon Tava. I am also really impressed with City Vision’s dynamic young candidates Adriana Christie, Chang Hung and Kurt Taogaga. These young people deserve your support – they are the future.

Waitemata & Gulf (Auckland Central) then is a sophisticated electorate, therefore not a ‘safe seat’ for anyone. While I have won this electorate before with substantial majorities, I never take elections or this electorate for granted. Accordingly I have been campaigning as hard as I can – door-knocking, meeting residents and listening to their views.

The feedback I have been getting is almost universally similar – that the Super City has lost direction, that bureaucrats have too much power and that the council (and its CCOs) have become increasingly high-handed in the way they deal with the public.

It has also become glaringly obvious that the council spends way too much money on itself rather than on what the people of Auckland want. Sadly too many residents far from seeing council management as their public servants wonder whether these people are even friends. In other words there is a great deal of disaffection with the Super City and with its corporate culture. This has to change. Hopefully with a new mayor and council it will – but Auckland is indeed at the cross-roads.

Transport is a particular worry, with rising traffic congestion and given the extensive powers of Auckland Transport a lot of dissatisfaction at the way this CCO responds to public concerns. While everyone is relieved to see the City Rail Link is underway at last, the decision by Auckland Transport and the government to exclude the possibility of future trains to Auckland Airport is deeply unpopular with just about everyone I talk to.

Another widespread concern is about the gradual loss of our historic townscapes and heritage buildings. I intend to work with groups like the Character Coalition and our residents’ associations to ensure that the special character overlays that cover a large part of the ward are strengthened and that our unique heritage and character buildings are given better protection.

Other policies that I have been formulating after listening to small business people relate to the commercial vitality of high street retail in Ponsonby, Karangahape Road, Parnell and Newmarket. I spent quite a lot of time and effort during my time as chairman of the ARC to open Queens Wharf up to the public while also making Queens Wharf our premier cruise terminal. Now we receive over 115 cruise ship visits per year – some 188,000 passengers and crew with a claimed economic value to Auckland of $190m. But how much economic benefit are Ponsonby and Parnell businesses getting out of this?  It seems most cruise ship passengers get bused off to places like Rotorua and Matamata. If I’m re-elected I am going to work with our business associations and the cruise ship sector to get more cruise visitors up to our retail and entertainment strips. In Ponsonby (until we get that tram service) we should make the Inner Link bus a part of a ‘ship to shop’ cruise ship visitor outing package – in Parnell with its soon to be opened heritage station we can use the train. Getting cruise ship visitors to our inner city shops, cafes and restaurants I believe is an obvious way to inject economic activity and jobs into the ward.

Another issue that is troubling people is homelessness – the spectacle of people sleeping in the streets. I have to confess it was only a few months ago that I learned from a group of concerned citizens that Auckland is the only city in New Zealand that doesn’t have a night shelter. The one we did have in Airedale Street was closed and demolished in 2012. The government should be the lead agency in these matters but the council also needs to lend a hand. What’s the point of upgrading street furniture and facilities if we have poor people sleeping on the footpaths.  This is not the spirit of the proud, go-ahead Auckland (‘the Queen’s City’) our ancestors bequeathed to us. Leadership and contribution from the council for a night shelter would be helpful.

Finally to take up where I left off at the beginning of this article, whatever the outcome of this election it has been a real privilege to serve as the ward councilor for the Waitemata & Gulf ward – the most progressive, sophisticated, artistic, go-ahead and generous community in New Zealand.

This article was published in the October 2016 issue of Ponsonby News.

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The Unitary Plan. Sustainable management? – or 1980s-style ‘big-bang’ deregulation.

The deregulatory hurricane called the Unitary Plan swept over Auckland last month and it is fair to say the place will never be the same again. Goaded on by threats from government ministers, in four and half days the council approved the Plan (with a few exceptions) as presented by the government-appointed Independent Unitary Plan Hearing Panel.

The Unitary Plan is the finally and critical element of the ‘Super City’ amalgamation project, which like the Super City itself has been imposed on Auckland.

While the Plan has grown to have a life of its own – a key part of the government’s housing policy, legally-speaking it is the combining and updating of the former ARC Regional Policy Statement and the legacy council district plans. These were of course instruments of the Resource Management Act, the purpose of which, we should remember is ‘to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.’ But RMA phraseology like ‘people and communities’,  ‘life supporting capacity of ecosystems’ ‘amenity values’, ‘aesthetic coherence’ indeed the notion of environmental sustainability is notably absent from the Unitary Plan.

What the ‘Independent Hearing Panel’ has carried out is actually a radical 1980’s-style deregulation of Auckland’s planning rules. The stated objective is to enable more houses – a lot more houses, 420,000, about double the 212,000 extra houses projected as needed in the original council plan of 2013.  (The ‘Independent’ Hearing Panel was unconvinced by evidence that Auckland’s present 3.1 persons per household would be maintained or even increased (especially given immigration).  Instead they foresee a much lower household formation figure, something closer to 2.4 persons per household in the Auckland of the future. Hence the need for substantially more houses. Well, deregulation to achieve more houses.

As the government no longer actively builds houses (New Zealand built more houses in 1974), the idea is to encourage a developer-friendly market to incentivize the private sector building of more houses. This to be achieved in two ways: First, by expanding the rural urban boundary (RUB) by 30% (abolishing it entirely around coastal settlements and controversially on Waiheke Island) and enabling it to be even further extended by developer-initiated plan changes. This unprecedented urban sprawl into the rural greenbelt, including over prime horticultural soils, has not stopped the council and the Independent Hearing Panel talking about a ‘compact city’.

Secondly, by intensification. 42.6 % of single houses on the central isthmus have been upzoned for intensification. This will mean major changes to how Auckland looks and feels. The pre-1944 building demolition control overlay has itself been demolished, meaning hundreds of quality 19th and 20th century houses across the isthmus, having been upzoned are now incentivised for demolition.   Along with this, requirements for quality design standards for new intensified developments have been thrown out.

Some good things came out of the process, councillors cheered on by the public pushed back against the recommendation to urbanise the largely pristine Okura peninsula north of Long Bay. But that just restored the status quo.

The councillors also declined the Independent Panel’s removal of minimum apartment sizes and restored a minimum of 30 square metres.   I also managed to get the art deco Housing NZ apartment building on 44 Symonds Street put back into the heritage schedule Category A after the Panel had thrown it out.  Incidentally when I went to take a picture of the building to post on Facebook, I found it closed and fenced-off with razor wire, a shameful waste of an ideal inner city accommodation.  The Fraser Labour government built these smart apartments in 1948 for low income single Aucklanders or couples with no children. The present Housing NZ evicted the tenants a couple of years’ ago and put the building up for sale (and apparently demolition).   So much for official sincerity about dealing with the housing crisis.  On this point, I was also dismayed to see council’s previous requirements for a quota of ‘affordable homes’ thrown out by the Panel, disappointingly supported by council staff advice and by a majority of councillors despite the arguments of mayor Len Brown, myself and other councilors like Cathy Casey, Wayne Walker and John Watson.

What the Unitary Plan ‘blue print for growth and development for Auckland for the next 30 years’ didn’t and couldn’t deal with was the infrastructure needed to cater for the extra growth it encourages – and how will this be paid for. Even now overloaded sewerage systems are regularly spilling into the harbour and despite a massive investment in transport over the last 10 years, there is increasing traffic congestion. Despite this the government’s continues to bring more and more people into Auckland, making us the second highest immigration city in the OECD. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lower immigration rates until we get our housing and infrastructure problems sorted?

Despite its deregulatory radicalism the Unitary Plan’s provision for inner-city housing is actually quite conservative and unimaginative. A large swathe of Great North Road & Grafton for instance is still dedicated to business use and office buildings much of which should go to the CBD or moved further out.

‘Intensification well done’, will not be achieved with a hands-off ‘leave it to the market’ approach. The past – think leaky buildings – should teach us that. It also needs to have the support of the community. It is unacceptable that Aucklanders learn after-the-fact that the amenity of their homes and their neighbourhoods have been compromised and their rights of appeal removed by special legislation. At my request the council has agreed to initiate another plan change early in 2017 to deal with some of the more bizarre and unfair property anomalies that inevitably occurred in the rush to meet the government deadline.

Which brings me to another concern about the Unitary Plan. While the big property interests are understandably exultant, their allies and supporters, apparently taking a lead from the regularly red-in-the-face-angry Nick Smith, young and old enough to know better bloggers and denizens of Twittersphere (who no doubt pride themselves on their political correctness) have been vituperatively targeting anyone challenging the official narrative – especially older people. It is rather sad and unfair that the generation of Aucklanders who bought run-down villas and bungalows in Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Westmere etc., and lovingly did them up, often with their own hands, are now meant to feel guilty. Auckland and Aucklanders deserve better than this.

A version of this article appears in the September 2016 Ponsonby News.

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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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