I think it’s fair to say that we’re pretty excited about the potential of the new government to deliver a significant change to urban issues in New Zealand, and particularly in Auckland. It still feels really weird to think that the government has actually changed. This blog has existed for about as long as the government were in power. Their policies and actions have played a large part in shaping what we’ve become.
It’s no secret that, by in large, we weren’t a huge fan of the outgoing government’s urban policies, especially their almost singular focus on big roads at the expense of all else. However, over the last nine years not everything they did was bad. So, I thought I’d put together a list of top 10 urban achievements National delivered during their latest time in government.
1. Didn’t cancel Auckland’s rail electrification
Sometimes, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. Electrification definitely falls into that category. Originally approved and budgeted for in 2007 by the last Labour government, it was put under threat by National who promptly cancelled a proposed regional fuel tax, which was intended to use to pay for it and put the project through a review. Thankfully, in late 2009 and after around a one year delay, it was finally confirmed that electrification would go ahead.
Following years of construction and testing, at the end of April 2014 passengers were carried for the first time. It took till July 2015 for all lines to see electric trains running and the impact they’ve had has been nothing short of remarkable. In April 2014, Auckland’s rail network was carrying around 11.1 million trips annually. Today, less than 3.5 years later, the network is carrying 20.2 million trips and we’re still seeing double digit percentage growth. Usage is well ahead of projections, an unmitigated success.
Electrification has not only transformed Auckland’s rail network but helped set up the city for the future. Without it, we wouldn’t even be discussing #2 on this list …..
2. Started the City Rail Link
The CRL is Auckland’s most important transport project and has been around in one form or another for close to 100 years. It is now well and truly under construction. When finished, it will end up being one of the most transformational projects Auckland has ever seen.
Yet, for the first half of their tenure in government, National rubbished and ridiculed the CRL. One of their more memorable quotes about the project came from then Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee, who in parliament quipped “I take big issue with the suggestion that the city rail link is useful or popular“.
That all changed in mid-2013 when Prime Minister John Key suddenly flipped the government’s position on its head and agreed to help fund it. The change in heart has been attributed poor internal polling and pressure from the business community, especially those wanting to develop sites along the route. They did however place some bizarre conditions on the project if it was to start sooner than their delayed timetable. What they didn’t count on was Aucklanders taking to rail travel like we have, passing their ridership target in August, three years early.
Seeing the writing on the wall, a year ago National finally jumped on board with funding the project now. They may have been reluctant to support the project but as the saying goes, better late than never.
3. Urban Cycleway Fund
The UCF has been one of those ‘surprise and delight’ policies. We were surprised National would even propose such a great policy, and it’s one that has delivered some delightful outcomes. The policy effectively changed the conversation about how we invest in cycle infrastructure overnight and laid the foundations for a more bike friendly future. No longer is a skinny bit of green paint on a road considered an acceptable solution. Many of the projects delivered with the help of UCF funding, such as Te Ara I Whiti (Lightpath), the Nelson St and Quay St cycleways, among others, have not only changed how people get around but how Aucklanders see their city. There are many more great projects in the pipeline too.
4. An amalgamated Auckland
Many of the discussions we’ve had over the years would simply not have been possible without Auckland having being amalgamated, including setting up Auckland Transport the way they were. Of course, this isn’t to say that everything has been perfect and couldn’t be better but we’re getting better urban outcomes now than before the supercity. Projects like the CRL or plans like the Unitary Plan would have been next to impossible without the amalgamated city National created. Not that they have always agreed with them and it’s the clash of views that led to the next item on our list.
5. Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP)
For many years we were seeing Auckland come up with good visions and plans only for National to rubbish or ignore them. It wasn’t that they had better or even competing ideas, they just didn’t want to agree with the council and especially then Mayor Len Brown. We’d even seen them work with the council and Auckland Transport on the City Centre Future Access Study, which again confirmed the CRL was needed, but upon release National disowned it and claimed it was flawed.
That changed in 2015 when National agreed to work with the council on an agreed plan for transport in Auckland. Starting with just agreeing on the basics and how things would be measured, they came up with various options for transport packages before coming up with a final proposed plan for Auckland. Despite asking some of the wrong questions, we got a relatively good outcome. For the first time National had to admit we can’t build our way out of congestion with more roads, that interventions like road pricing were going to be needed and that we need a Strategic Public Transport Network of rail and busways to complement our road network.
ATAP isn’t perfect though and just a year later the document had to be revised because Auckland’s population growth has been much higher than originally expected.
6. Northern Busway extension
At the same time as National first agreed to support the CRL, they announced a suite of motorway projects. One of those was the Northern Corridor (SH18-SH1). At the time a notable absence from the project was an extension of the Northern Busway past Constellation Dr. This was something we later learned was against the advice of officials. Later, they came to their senses and included the busway extension in the project and just a few weeks ago got planning consent. Construction is due to start next year and the busway is likely to be built “at an early stage in the Project“.
We’ve been pretty critical of the Western Ring Route projects, mainly because the NZTA refused to build a busway on SH16 at the same time, something that we’re now going to have to go back and build at even greater cost. We’ve also been sceptical of the claims of time savings related to Waterview, not because journeys haven’t improved since it opened but because local and international experience shows they’re not likely to last. That doesn’t mean that Waterview itself is bad. Finally connecting up SH16 and SH20, to provide an alternative route through the isthmus and allowing traffic to bypass the city centre is a good thing.
It’s also positive in that it, temporarily at least, reduces traffic on local roads. That gives Auckland Council/Transport a golden opportunity to rethink how those streets are designed and the modes that are prioritised on them. We just hope they grasp that opportunity.
8. Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel
One of the key tasks that arose from amalgamating Auckland was to align the myriad of planning rules from the former councils. After starting out bold in a draft plan, the council scaled back on allowing for more housing in the formally notified plan following outrage from some groups, spurred on by the likes of the Herald who scaremongered to anyone who would listen/read – before long even three storeys started being considered ‘high-rise’. They cut so much capacity the amount possible was just over half of what was needed in Auckland over the 30-year timeframe the plan covered.
Auckland needs more houses and needs them quickly so there was also a need to get the plan implemented as fast as possible. If it had followed normal planning processes, we’d have been waiting years for all the various appeals to be sorted. The Council wanted the plan implemented immediately, National came up with a modified version of its Board of Inquiry process it developed for big projects – like its Roads of National Significance. It was called the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP). After listening to all of the evidence, the IHP released it’s recommendations back to the council and thankfully sanity prevailed. The IHP recommended a number of changes to significantly increase the amount of development possible. The Council ultimately accepted most of the IHPs recommendations.
Now we just need to build a lot more homes.
9. Losing the Basin Reserve Flyover fight
Nationals signature transport policy has been its Roads of National Significance and one of those was a series of motorway projects through and north of Wellington. As mentioned above, they also changed the planning process, introducing a Board of Inquiry (BoI) which was intended to fast track projects and prevent them from being held up by years of court appeals. That backfired though when the NZTA sought approval for a flyover around the Basin Reserve.
Most notably it set some useful precedents due to the impact the project would have on the neighbouring area. A lot of the failure can be attributed to the NZTAs poor planning however that can in part be attributed to the pressure to get stuff built that National placed on them.
10. Urban Redevelopment
The government owns significant chunks of land in Auckland. This is mainly though Housing New Zealand and in many cases the land is poorly utilised. While they absolutely haven’t gone far enough, and they often tried to do anything but build homes, National increasingly came to realise they’d actually have to build homes and use government land better. This is primarily being delivered as a result of beefing up Housing NZ with redevelopments like at Northcote. While many of these changes are welcome, they too have often fallen under the category of too little too late.
Housing NZ, also ended up playing a critical role in pushing for increased housing capacity within the Unitary Plan process.
Over the nine years National have achieved some positive things for our urban environment but it’s notable that many were either
a) a continuation of work by the previous Labour government or
b) only achieved after exhausting all options to try and not do something
With a new government we look forward to seeing some much better urban outcomes.