So the 2019 Auckland Council election results are now finalised, which means it’s a good time to ahead to what might happen over the next three years. The mayor and 16 of the 20 councillors are returning from last time, so the story will likely be one of continuation as much as change. But I think the foundations are there for the new Auckland Council to achieve a lot over the next three years – and it’s critical that they do so.
Starting with the make-up of the Council, all four of the new councillors – Angela Dalton, Pippa Coom, Shane Henderson and Tracy Mulholland – were previously chairs of their local boards. They are all experienced local politicians and deeply understand their communities. I can see all of them potentially adding a lot of value – certainly more value than a couple of the people they replaced. Arguably the political balance of the council has tilted slightly further away from the Mayor, but on the other hand it seems like Dalton and Mulholland are likely to want to be constructive so they can show some wins for their communities. Being a local board chair creates a useful sense of pragmatism I think – with Desley Simpson being a case in point.
The Council will have some big jobs ahead over the next three years, of which the main ones are likely to be:
- Overseeing a potentially fundamental review of Council Controlled Organisations, including Auckland Transport.
- Ensuring ATAP – the 10 year transport programme – gets delivered on time and on budget, including making sure NZTA come to the party with the share of the funding. Part of this is also about accelerating Auckland Transport’s painfully slow implementation of safety improvements, bus and cycle lanes.
- Getting serious about tackling climate change.
Let’s look at these in more detail
Phil Goff’s policy suggests this will be a full and proper look across whether CCOs are best placed to do many of the jobs that the Council funds:
In 2010 it was accepted by legislators and the Auckland Transition Authority that there were clear benefits from establishing Council Controlled Organisations, which were operationally independent from Council, that would carry out service delivery functions in a more effective and commercial manner than if Council itself directly delivered these services.
There are clear examples where the CCOs have been effective in carrying out their roles.
Equally there have been occasions when Council and members of the public have expressed frustration at actions seen as not consistent with the expectations of elected representatives or the community, and have inadequate means by either to hold them accountable. Elected representatives have expressed frustration in CCOs not delivering key projects and strategies event mandated by the Governing Body.
Ten years on from the amalgamation of Auckland Council is an appropriate time to independently examine whether the current model is the best way to deliver services and, if not, whether that model can be improved to address any shortcomings found, or whether more fundamental change including reversion to direct delivery of those services by Council is needed.
Some of the CCOs, like Panuku or Regional Facilities Auckland, can easily be pulled back into the Council. However, a lot of the talk during the campaign was about Auckland Transport and whether change was needed – which is different because Auckland Transport’s roles and functions are spelled out quite clearly in the legislation that established Auckland Council. While I think much of the criticism of Auckland Transport in recent times has been unfair, especially as they’ve started making long overdue (and still far too slow) steps towards making streets safer, the level of disconnection people feel from how Auckland Transport makes its decisions is understandable. Furthermore, AT haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory in some of the most important decisions they’ve made – like the complete debacle that was the 2018 Draft Regional Land Transport Plan.
What’s frustrating is not that AT were given independent powers but that they either don’t use them or when they do they do so in such a ham-fisted way we get pour outcomes. As such the relationship between Auckland Council and Auckland Transport is complex and doesn’t seem to work very well. In the past we’ve seen the council create plans only for Auckland Transport to ignore them – they even ignore their own plans at times.
One of the big things that would be good to address is the plan overloads. While some are mandated by legislation, some parts of AC and AT seem to spend all their time writing and rewriting the same documents. One area that needs focus Auckland Transport’s statement of intent process. A lot council of emphasis is put on it but it seems like this is largely determined by the Regional Land Transport Plan – over which the Council has little to no say even though it needs to align to council budgets, not to mention the challenge of triangulating all of this with NZTA and the Government’s priorities and processes. Then there’s the vast number of plans and strategies that guide transport decision-making (Auckland Plan, ATAP, GPS, RLTP, NLTP, RPTP etc.), each broadly aligned but with a slightly different perspective that makes it difficult for the public to understand where the vast amount of rates and taxes going into transport is actually being spent. Some streamlining of these plans would be useful as well!
A fairly obvious change to make would be to bring back into council much of the longer-term planning functions of Auckland Transport, as well as the investment decision-making. Both these activities are fundamentally done by the Council already – through the Auckland Plan for long-term planning and through the Council budget for investment decisions and prioritisation – so fully shifting these capabilities would likely reduce duplication and bring the politicians a bit closer to these key issues leaving AT to focus on delivery.
The split in responsibilities between the Council and Auckland Transport when it comes to placemaking in road corridors and the general integration of transport and land-use has also hampered progress, most evidently in the city centre where it seems the Council needs to battle against archaic road engineers to make the tiniest concessions to pedestrians. Again, through the City Centre Master Plan refresh and the Access for Everyone concept, it seems like the Council has essentially already taken over city centre transport planning so completing the shift would simply reduce duplication and allow faster progress.
2018 was a huge year for transport in Auckland, with ATAP confirming an agreed $28 billion ten year transport programme. Furthermore, confirmation of the Regional Fuel Tax meant that this programme was actually now fundable and really for the first time since amalgamation Auckland could move on from endless transport funding arguments and instead focus on actually making the transport system better.
Nearly 18 months later and progress has been glacial and incredibly disappointing. Light-rail is a complete mess (although that’s the Government’s fault rather than the Council’s), the road safety programme seems to be on an endless ‘go slow’, the cycling programme seems to have completely ground to a halt aside from what’s happening on Karangahape Road and Auckland Transport have resorted to cutting bus services.
Meanwhile NZTA aren’t stumping up with the money they promised through ATAP and continue to stymie progress through endless business case processes that add no value aside from keeping New Zealand’s transport planning and engineering industry in constant employment.
The Council needs to cut through this mess and smash some heads together to get things back on track (pun semi-intended). While light-rail is no longer technically a ‘Council/AT led project’, it matters enormously to Auckland that the project is done well and meets the needs of Aucklanders rather than some Canadian pension fund with dodgy financial deals. Similarly the Council needs to make Auckland Transport ‘up their game’ – especially when it comes to public communications and engagement, to finally get past this issue where Aucklanders overwhelmingly support safer streets and better public transport and cycling facilities, but then a few noisy people endlessly delay the very projects that will deliver these gains.
Getting serious about Climate Change
A lot has changed when it comes to climate change over the past 12 months – not just ongoing scientific evidence showing the increasing urgency to dramatically reduce emissions, but also a tremendous and rapidly growing impatience of the public for governments to act on this.
— Conor Roberts (@conorroberts) September 27, 2019
Auckland Council were quick to declare a climate emergency earlier in the year, while they also produced the Auckland Climate Action Framework for public consultation. But the big serious decisions that will really determine whether the Council is serious about tackling climate change are yet to come. These will be things like:
- Will the Council cut back on opening up land for car dependent sprawl on the edges of the city?
- Will the Council raise rates or reallocate the transport budget to facilitate a faster uptake of electric buses?
- Will the Council be bold about reallocating street space to make public transport, walking and cycling safer, faster and more reliable travel options?
- Will the Council fund Auckland Transport sufficiently to avoid them having to cut back bus services, or make Auckland Transport abandon stupid investments like the Devonport shuttle.
I think the 2019-2022 term of Auckland Council has the potential to achieve a lot. There’s a strong bunch of highly capable councillors and a broadly supportive and aligned Government that means efforts can focus on making stuff happen, rather than forever arguing with each other. Many of the big issues previous councils have faced are now largely resolved – we have a Unitary Plan and we have a funded 10 year transport plan. Where the Council really needs to focus on is ensuring these plans are actually being rolled out on the ground. This isn’t easy – as efforts to reduce speed limits or remove parking have often shown – but after years and years of planning it is crucial that we actually now get on with transforming Auckland from an overgrown town into a proper modern city.