Tomorrow the council will make possibly its most important decision for a long time, and for a long time to come: Who will be its Chief Executive.
The importance of the decision has been highlighted by the recent ‘emergency budget‘ which has seen projects slashed and delayed in the wake of decimated revenues following the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Last Thursday, Councillor Richard Hills said of the emergency budget:
There is a serious, serious concern out there that we are being derelict of duty by our safety, cycling and walking budgets being slashed. You know I understand – we all understand – the implications we’re facing, but what it looks like to many people is that we’re putting lives in danger due to these cuts because large roading projects and other projects have been favoured or were underway before cycleways, safety projects and walkways, footpaths were contracted… I don’t know if people have realised how dire our budget is for safety and walking and cycling, and how many deaths and serious injuries that our decision-making – unfortunately due to Covid and the revenue loss – will make… also for the climate – if you read the climate impact statement, this may be one of the only chances this year that we really get on top of, and move our transport and community projects to really attack our emissions or give people opportunities.
And yesterday he tweeted:
Our climate change initiatives stay under 3.5% but go under 2.5%.
Living wage for cleaners goes under 2.5%. Many more jobs go under 2.5% too
A 3.5% rise is an extra $1.80 per week for the average ratepayer. A 2.5% rise would be an extra $1.35 per week.https://t.co/vnuDIZmFVl
— Richard Hills (@richardhills777) June 7, 2020
The emergency budget is terrible, but in their defence, the Councillors themselves probably don’t feel they’ve been given many options. Having to choose between different levels of cuts to programmes in a way that doesn’t waste money by pulling out of signed contracts isn’t empowering.
It didn’t have to be this way. The emergency budget is the strongest indication yet that when faced with a crisis, the Council retracts into business-as-usual activity and priorities. The “contract is already signed” argument falls flat when you start to ask why projects that worsen our emissions were on the books in the first place, let alone contracts signed for them. Especially when so many comprehensive, progressive approaches to address our emissions are really cheap.
It may be too late to have much impact on this emergency budget, but the appointment of the new CE will be critical going forward in shaping how the organisation responds to issues and conducts its day to day business in the future.
The appointment will be made behind closed doors and we don’t know who’s on the list or what the process is. For example, is this just a rubber stamp job or are there multiple potential candidates councillors will vote between? What concerns us is that, historically, the process used to find and filter applicants for these sorts of roles has always been conventional, and doesn’t select fresh-thinkers who are prepared to lead into a better future.
The urgent need to address our climate and equity issues can’t afford a conventional approach. It wouldn’t be much of a choice if councillors can only select between two similar shades of grey. Appointing a CE who keeps Auckland on a business-as-usual path would be the true dereliction of duty.
With that in mind, here are some of the things we think the successful candidate will need to understand.
We have a Climate Emergency
Last year Auckland Council declared a climate emergency but so far have only given lip service to it.
Barcelona sets the standard for a Climate Emergency Action Plan and we need the new CE to get the council to step up and deliver here too.
One easy place to start could be the council’s letters of expectation to its Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), such as Auckland Transport. Their current insipid expectation is to only start to think about doing things and only if it doesn’t cost anything.
Council expects the CCOs to continue to deliver on the strategic priorities and key projects/activities as set out in the 10-year budget 2018-28 and reflected in the current annual budget. For the 2020/21 Annual Budget, CCOs should be cognisant of the following:
- The council group should stay focused on delivering capital projects and services for Auckland
- Renewing the drive for efficiency and value for money
- Start taking early actions within the current remit and fiscal constraint to act on the climate emergency declared in June 2019 and contribute towards our 1.5°c target for the region, with a view to making more substantive decisions through the next 10-year Budget
- There is limited capacity for any new cost pressures, new funding requests or unforeseen events.
Lack of instruction for the interim until the Climate Action Framework is available has resulted in contracts that are poor for the climate being signed in the last twelve months, and therefore included in the emergency budget.
At this point, every decision needs to be put through a climate filter and if it’s not actively working towards reducing emissions, it doesn’t proceed.
We need a compact city
We have a compact city strategy for good reason: it is the best way to reduce our carbon emissions, improve liveability, minimise our pollution, conserve our land for the best use, and minimise our infrastructure maintenance bill in the future.
Our current plans allow for 30-40% of Auckland’s future growth to happen on greenfield land outside the current urban boundaries but if we’re going to properly address these issues, those plans will need to be revised to drastically slash that. We need a CE who understands that, put simply, the more growth that happens on the urban periphery, the more emissions we’re going to have.
The Auckland Unitary Plan (AUP) was passed in 2016 but in many areas they compromised the initial intent of the plan in order to get the wider changes though. This was on the understanding they would go back and fix the issues later. The new CE will need to drive the organisation to do this as soon as possible and not only because it would help address emissions but also because it could help save ratepayers tens of billions of dollars from having to provide new infrastructure.
Fixing the Unitary plan isn’t a small task but even just getting the council to enable what’s currently allowed would help.
An example of the issues the council are creating for themselves can be seen in this thread from urban designer Matt Prasad in which the council are saying you can have a two-storey attached house but not a two-storey attached terrace. It’s stupid and not at all what the Unitary Plan allows for. As Matt says in another tweet, their guidance is “an interpretation, of an interpretation, of the actual rules“.
Have discovered why.
There is an AUP practice & Guidance Note.
In there it specifically lists terrace housing as a typology within MHU and not MHS.
This internal guidance has no statutory weight at all and states it on the disclaimer on page 1 https://t.co/TLv5yywQpm
— Matt Prasad (@matty_prasad) May 3, 2020
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen situations like this from the council, or heard about them imposing conditions on developments that contradict what’s allowed by the Unitary Plan and all because council officers don’t understanding their own planning rules. The effect of this is to make urban redevelopments much harder than they need to be, which only serves to encourage more of our growth to the periphery.
Support those delivering, not those preventing progress
Despite the rhetoric of needing to deliver more with less and to be more innovative, the council family has a culture of burying or booting out people who push to make actual change while protecting and promoting those who seek to prevent progress.
This was so starkly shown earlier this year where on the same day the Councillors unanimously approved and praised the new City Centre Masterplan, it was revealed the council were disbanding the team behind it, the Auckland Design Office. This is the same team that were also behind the shared spaces, the improvements to widen the footpaths on High St and more recently the COVID-19 response on Queen St. The plan was for some staff to go and others to be merged into other teams within the organisation where they would struggle to be effective or deliver anything.
Following the outcry from Councillors and the public, the restructure of the ADO was eventually put on hold pending the appointment of the new CE.
Pressure will once again come on this, particularly in light of the council’s plans to reduce staff as signalled in the Emergency Budget. The new CE is going to have a hard time as it is, but cleaning out the ‘dead wood’ in the middle of the organisation would be a good start.
Sort out who sets the strategy
The council has a variety of strategies but far too often neither itself nor parts of the wider council family understand them, let alone adhere to them. There are also often lots of duplicate and conflicting strategies. For example, the council have a small team that works on transport strategy but it seems to have no teeth and so seems to be ignored by Auckland Transport who have their own teams doing strategy.
The council family need to work out where the creation of strategy sits – although this is likely subject to the ongoing CCO review. In our view, the creation of strategy should sit with the council and CCOs like Auckland Transport should just be tasked with delivering it.
But even where clear strategy exists it is often not followed. One of the reasons for this is it’s extremely common for staff at these organisations not to know what the strategies, or even just council decisions, are.
As an example of the latter, back in November 2018, Councillors unanimously called for a trial of closing Queen St to cars within 12 months. A year later there still wasn’t even any talk of this happening and even a few months ago we were still hearing stories that some council and AT staff were claiming these sorts of changes couldn’t happen because they wouldn’t get political support, completely unaware the councillors unanimously asked for it. It’s happened now – but only because it was part of the response to COVID-19 – and Auckland Transport are already talking of pulling it out to appease one opponent.
The reality is many people in the council family are working in silos and simply don’t see what the wider plans are. So they keep on maintaining business as usual completely unaware of what’s happening elsewhere in the organisation. The new CE will need to address this.
At Tuesday’s meeting, I’m hoping there will be no shirking of responsibility in choosing a chief executive that will deliver what Auckland needs. Everything hangs on this appointment.