Recently the New Zealand Herald published an article by a member of the National Party under the heading: “National’s ‘super city’ for Auckland is not working’. The article describes how, in 2008, the newly elected government in Wellington ignored the report of the Royal Commission: “its politicians got it wrong … and imposed their own mangled monstrosity on our largest metropolis”. The problems identified in the article refer to the way in which the current structure fails to engage the citizens of Auckland in the governance of the region and it singles out the council controlled organisations because of the way in which they operate at ‘arm’s length’ from the governance of the city. These limitations were evident from the beginning; indeed, I identified these (and more) at a national policy-makers conference in 2010.
Tragically, my predications have proven true and the failings of the design are
so widely acknowledged today that even National Party members advocate a review of the ‘super city’ structure in 2018. But in my view the last thing Auckland needs is another review of the governance system. What we need is central government action to address the major deficits in the region, and a commitment by Wellington to fulfil its role in the so-called partnership with the local and regional government of Auckland.
In a report last year The Policy Observatory identified three major deficits.
The first is a deficit in Auckland’s infrastructure that has been incurred largely because of central government failure to fund infrastructure and utilities over several decades. The failure is most evident in transport where National Governments have consistently opposed major attempts to advance public transport in the region. This opposition was evident when the original design for the Harbour Bridge was downgraded and as a consequence ‘clip-ons’ had to be added to cope with the volume of traffic. And later, when Mayor Robbie advanced his plan for a rapid rail system the Muldoon government scuttled the initiative opting for increasing the volume of cars and the clogging of motorways. The third example concerns the formation of Auckland Transport, the local government silo with its own legislation and over which the Auckland Council has little control. This allows central government ministers to determine transport policy in the region and so continue to build motorways whilst undermining Council’s attempts to advance public transport and generate regional funding for infrastructure.
The second is a deficit in democracy, frequently referred to by citizens in council generated surveys and graphically evident in the decision-making processes of the council controlled organisations such as Auckland Transport. The reality today is that the representative structure that has been put in place is the worst example of representative governance in Australasia: Councillors fail to represent the different cultural and social groups that make up greater Auckland; representation ratios are higher than anywhere else in Australasia; local boards lack authority and resources to represent the wishes of their communities; and the various panels that have been set up to address population diversity are effectively outside the governing body of council.
The third is a social deficit most evident in Auckland’s housing crisis, in the widening disparities in income and wealth, and in neighbourhoods increasingly separated between those who can afford access to affordable housing and core services such as health and education and those who can’t. The failure to address this deficit can be seen in a series of downstream effects such as New Zealand’s low wage economy, the exclusion of future generations from owning their own homes, a series of negative social indicators such as the incidence of domestic violence and child abuse, the suicide rate especially among young people, the spate of robberies at dairies and service stations that have dominated recent news headlines and the expansion of prison populations. NGOs and community-based services are stretched to the limit while government ministers are seemingly intent on pacifying criticism, diverting the attention of the news media with puerile pursuits such as tipping for hospitality services and blaming the transport shambles on ‘big projects’ or the council itself.
These deficits cannot be addressed by council policies alone and that is patently evident when we consider who drives policy choices such as the ‘gung-ho’ approach to immigration, the demolition of state houses, the stark inequalities between different communities and neighbourhoods across Auckland, the gridlock on regional motorways and the environmental decline evident in the creation of ‘poo harbour’. These obstacles require the engagement of central government but as our research demonstrates the greatest obstacle to the development of Auckland is the failure of central government in Wellington to honour its partnership with the council and its inability to address the economic and social deficits of the Auckland region.
We don’t need another review of governance. What we need is a structural change to those policies that continue to undermine the development of Auckland today.