Profligate city

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    A healthy undercurrent of demand for policy and people rather than populism and histrionics is beginning to brew in the leadup to this year’s mayoralty and local government elections in Auckland in October.

    It certainly looked like it at last Sunday’s launch of former Auckland Regional Council chairman and the Gulf’s three-term city councillor Mike Lee’s candidacy for the ward council seat last weekend.

    On a stormy Sunday afternoon, with the Ponsonby Cruising Club lashed by rain and salt spray, almost every political and community allegiance was represented in the gathering of long-time Auckland leaders and colleagues of the veteran politician.

    Council budget consultations early this year presaged a looming financial crisis with the council teetering on the brink of virtual bankruptcy and the prospect of massive rates increases, putting what’s left of our income-earning assets including the port and airport holdings in jeopardy, Lee said.

    The super city is essentially a massive ‘operation’, despite its trappings of mayor and councillors; a $10 billion goldmine for multinational corporations and big local companies. “The operating model of contracting out most of the work of Auckland Council has fed about $10 billion dollars of ratepayer money to 20 companies since 2010,” Lee said, quoting a recent NZ Herald investigation.”

    This included offshore companies Downer Construction and Fulton Hogan, the French HEB construction and rail operators Transdev, Ventier for parks and multinational Fletchers. A recruitment company was also a surprise entry in the big money, he said.

    “To pay for all this, council rates and charges have now doubled to $5 billion a year, compared to $2 billion at the start of the super city in 2010,” said Lee.

    Council debt per household is currently $30,000, up from $11,000 and staff salaries have gone from $440 million to nearly a billion dollars in the same 11 years. “All of this belied the promised cost efficiencies used to justify the imposition of the so-called Super City on Auckland by the National government,” he said.

    Into this equation, the council – despite widespread public opposition to the government’s ‘Three Waters’ proposals – has now effectively sold $10 billion of Auckland’s dams, wastewater treatment plants, infrastructure and reservoir land to the government for just over $500 million.

    Of that, the mayor was applying the first tranche of the Three Waters proceeds, some 25 percent, to fill the council’s operating deficit in the year, Lee said, quoting Bruce Cotterill in the NZ Herald. Assets that had taken more than 100 years to accumulate had gone for a firesale price.

    In the meantime, the central city council anti-car ideology had turned Queen Street into a forlorn shadow of its former self – commercially depressed, raddled by crime and general shabbiness and from amateurish and inordinately expensive attempts to make the once vibrant, bustling leading shopping street in New Zealand ‘more liveable’. While shorn of any police presence and with its promised infrastructure unforgivably stalled by incompetence.

    Lee also raised the latest “open charter for the property development sector” – the National Policy Statement on Urban Development – which targets the city’s much-loved historic heritage quarters, “those areas that, back in 2013, we worked to save, street by street, house by house, from the city’s Unitary Plan.

    “Despite 72 percent of public submissions supporting retention and protection of Auckland’s historic landscapes, the government and the council still intend to remove long-established protection from a substantial part of these townscapes presently deemed ‘special character’. The intention, as we know, is to replace these old villas and bungalows with intensified high-rise apartments and condominiums, supposedly to ease the housing shortage,” he said.

    “Despite the assertions of ‘urbanist’ intensification idealogues, there is no way these new apartments and condos will be affordable for ordinary first-time buyers. 

    “Logic would also suggest destroying old wooden buildings, releasing embedded carbon and replacing them with new buildings of steel, concrete and paint would generate a whole new level of carbon emissions. When it comes to buildings, old is greener than new.”

    However, developers would want their apartment towers on the best possible sites, he said, and “don’t give a toss about the damage they will do to existing neighbourhoods, the quality of life and property rights of long-standing residents and the historic fabric and sense of place of Auckland’s much loved built heritage that was handed down to us and is rightfully the legacy of future generations”, said Lee.

    In a recent survey, 80 percent of Aucklanders do not trust or approve of the council and the super city is failing most objective measures by which anyone could judge its performance. In the face of all this, any promise of advocacy and leadership in service to citizen priorities has to be welcome in what will be a watershed election. • Liz Waters.

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