Playing a very small game

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    With a few outstanding exceptions, we are direly short of leadership at this point in time, not least in local government.

    Leaders – great communicators, far-seeing, motivational, inspiring and persistent – literally create a compelling future that galvanises their enterprise over time to achieve rewarding, hard-won goals, often for others rather than themselves. 

    Len Brown, Auckland’s mayor after the most recent re-amalgamation 11 years ago, had it. Manukau City’s former mayor knew his people and articulated an Auckland that was to be a great place to live. He captured the sophisticated melting pot but also the essentially laid-back and inclusive nature of the country’s largest city, sprawling as it did in the sub-tropical sun.

    Unfortunately, it wasn’t a popular notion for central government which, at the time, was bent on turning us into an economic powerhouse and his creative aspiration languished, along with the great City of Sails branding. 

    When he left, his vision of a people-centric city revitalised by passenger rail transport was still stuck in a stubborn future.

    Since then, we have been managed rather than led and nowhere has it been more obvious than when it comes to climate issues. 

    It didn’t help that Google and Facebook were both repackaging news content and syphoning off traditional advertising, hollowing out any genuine scrutiny of local government affairs that had previously been the domain of traditional media’s extensive newsrooms.

    One outcome of the pandemic has been new funding for a network of Local Democracy Reporting staff by New Zealand on Air and, this last week, Auckland reporter Justin Latif reported a new billion-dollar revenue stream proposed by two-term Auckland mayor Phil Goff.  

    In a morning press conference, Goff revealed that he will be seeking support from the public and councillors for a new climate action targeted rate (CATR) to be introduced in next year’s annual budget.

    The new fixed rate, separate from the general rate, would raise $574 million, with a further $471m to come through co-funding arrangements with central government. 

    For this we get “significant” public transport upgrades, 66 low-emissions buses and the establishment of new routes (generating more council revenue from increased bus and train usage). As a result 170,000 more Aucklanders will live within 500m of a bus stop.

    There’s also $228m for walking and cycling infrastructure and $13.3m for tree planting in areas like Māngere and Ōtara, which have the lowest urban canopy coverage of any suburb in Auckland, Goff proclaimed. 

    “For a person with a median-value home worth $1.18 million, the Climate Action Targeted Rate will represent a contribution of around $1.10 a week. So what I’m proposing meets the requirements of prudent financial management of our funds and with the climate action targeted rate, it’s council showing some vision for the future and being prepared to act to preserve the fundamental needs of kids growing up in this country.”

    The mayor’s claim that the drive for the new revenue is the “most significant action taken by this or any council to respond to climate change”, is almost frighteningly banal.  

    Especially set against the realities of the council’s woeful tree protection policies, widespread sale of local green spaces and the overwhelming cost of the city’s sclerotic (and rapacious) planning regime, which has contributed considerably to extreme poverty and homelessness.

    The drive also includes the sale of surplus “non-strategic” assets, leasing out or selling car parks and an obsessive, paralysing search for savings and value for money – levers the mayor said he needs to remedy Covid’s “major detrimental impact on council’s revenues”. With rising interest rates and inflation, his council needs new forms of revenue and further savings, he said. 

    Really, is that the best we can expect? A pallid, grey austerity narrative. A recycled promise to plant a million trees and a better class of roadside vegetation isn’t going to cut it if you’re sleeping in a car or listening to gunfire in the street. 

    We all just paid our November rates bills and the inevitable increase dwarfs the $1.18 a week of this new levy. It’s the spurious smallness of the vision that offends.

    The city has annual revenues of $5,315,000,000 (I write it out in full to get the impact). Waiheke’s property owners alone contribute more than $25 million a year, of which a scant $5 million (much of it for staff wages), appears on the Waiheke balance sheet. 

    Bona fide leaders can come out from nowhere or anywhere and often aren’t the ones we expect. With Covid sharpening our ambitions and the climate crisis upon us, it would be nice to think that we will use the coming local government election year to throw up meaningful visions for radical, constructive and – let’s be brave here – exciting change. • Liz Waters

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