At last month’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee (TIC) meeting on 17 August, Mayor Wayne Brown proposed reforming the governance and investment direction for Auckland Transport, with unanimous backing from councillors.
As a first step to “changing Auckland’s complex transport ecosystem”, the Mayor’s motion included a request that Council and AT work together to develop the next Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP).
How things got to this point
Auckland Council currently has little say in how transport investment is planned and prioritised, with legislation granting those powers to Auckland Transport as a Council Controlled Organisation. Transport accounted for 32% of Auckland Council’s FY23/24 budget—contributing towards some $30bn of investment over 10 years.
Councillors are wary (and, in many cases, weary!) of a lack of alignment between transport investment and the strategic outcomes of that investment – such as road safety, maintenance and emissions reduction – which don’t appear to be tracking in line with expectations.
When Council discussed this in August, the TIC agenda item Options to Reform Legislation Governing Transport in Auckland noted:
“Auckland Council is the only council in New Zealand that does not have a direct formal role in preparing and approving the strategic direction for transport and the allocation of funding in support of that direction.”
The agenda item, and the resulting discussion by Councillors on the day, highlights a growing frustration around Auckland Council’s limited ability to influence transport-related decisions and outcomes for the super-city.
The frustration is particularly felt around major “city-shaping” projects, like Auckland Light Rail (ALR) and Auckland Waitematā Harbour Connections (AWHC). In June, when central government moved to make the ALR route a Specified Development Project, Mayor Brown likened it to a “bombing run”, saying:
“Enough is enough, surprises from the Minister of Housing in the South Island telling us what to do here is not welcome.”
This growing dissatisfaction has now come to a head, with the Mayor leading moves to reform Auckland’s complex transport investment and decision making ecosystem.
Council’s two big moves for change
The Mayor’s notice of motion at the August TIC included 2 distinct components:
- A change to legislation, to give Auckland Council greater decision-making power in regional transport decisions.
- A request that Auckland Transport and Auckland Council jointly develop the upcoming Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP).
Because legislation change can take time, a belt-and-braces approach was endorsed. Council staff will draft a local bill to be brought before Cabinet at the nearest opportunity. At the same time, the Mayor’s office will advocate to central government for legislative change to give Council a lead role in future decision-making.
These two processes are seen to be complementary, with an opportunity for a central government sponsor (from whichever party ends up in Parliament post-election) to adopt any work developed on a local bill and sponsor it through to adoption.
Knowing that legislative change takes time is why the Mayor also moved that the next RLTP – due to be adopted in 2024 – be co-developed by Auckland Transport and Auckland Council’s strategy team.
It’s important to note here that Council and AT haven’t always been on the same page. Council’s transport strategy team took the lead role in developing Auckland’s ambitious Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (the how-to manual for achieving the transport aims of Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri, Auckland’s Climate action plan), while Auckland Transport continues to drag its heels on climate action.
Councillors endorsed the Mayor’s call for AT and Council staff to jointly develop the next investment plan, with a request that officials report back on options the following month.
Auckland Transport’s response
Agenda items for the September 12 RTC meeting offer the first glimpse into how Auckland Transport is responding to this request from its shareholder.
The key paper is Agenda item 7, which is fairly long-winded; it provides background information on the RLTP, and Auckland Transport’s legal designation and role in the “complex transport ecosystem”.
The paper, submitted by Executive Manager Planning and Investment Jenny Chetwynd, is almost entirely a refresher on the status quo, with only a few short paragraphs towards the end offering an assessment of “possible roles for Council in jointly developing the RLTP”:
Paragraph 22 opens by stating “While Council cannot under the statute play a role in prioritising the RLTP, its influence over the content of the RLTP can be achieved more effectively through the higher order processes.” (emphasis added)
However, this does not align with the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009, which sets out what roles and responsibilities Auckland Transport may delegate to others.
Under the Act, Auckland Transport may delegate any responsibilities, duties, functions or powers except the ability to approve or adopt a regional land transport plan. That wording is important, because the Mayor has asked that AT and Council jointly develop the plan, while final approval and adoption of that plan will still sit with the RTC and the board of Auckland Transport.
However, the advice which Ms Chetwynd has provided to the RTC differs from what the legislation allows for, suggesting that Council can only play a role by setting funding envelopes through development of the long term plan, and endorsement of the draft RLTP before it goes to the RTC.
Last year’s judicial review of decisions surrounding the previous RLTP demonstrated the ineffectiveness of those ‘higher order processes’. In his ruling on the case, Justice Venning effectively said (to paraphrase) “what Auckland Council did doesn’t matter, because what Auckland Council could have done wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.”
In short, AT’s advice to the RTC seems to be “Let’s keep doing what we’ve always done, and not what the Mayor is asking for.”
Auckland Transport’s limited view on the role that it will let Council play in the development of the RLTP is revealing. This is the first formal opportunity to show an appetite for cooperating in order to achieve the strategic direction set by Councillors… and AT seems to be saying “Butt out. This is our job, not yours.”
In fact, it is well within AT’s legal responsibilities for them to delegate the development of the RLTP to Council, while maintaining the RTC’s statutory role of reviewing the RLTP before submitting it to the AT board for approval.
Let’s hope that AT can find a constructive way to “jointly develop” the next RLTP, and recognise this as a chance to work more closely with Councillors and the Council strategy team to build a stronger collective understanding of the transport challenges and opportunities that Auckland faces, and how best to address them.