Last week Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown kicked off what is always the most important thing a Council does every three years – update its ‘Long term plan’. This is the budgeting process for the Council and – unlike central government – the budget has to balance in terms of income and operating expenses. There can be no deficit (aside from short term fluctuations).
It’ll take a bit longer to digest the details of the budget, with specifics yet to be fleshed out and public consultation to occur next year, but one of the things that stood out was a renewed push for a whole different relationship with central government. This builds on the ‘manifesto for Auckland‘ that the mayor released before the election.
Seeking a fundamentally different relationship with central Government
One of the points of creating a Super City was that it could have a different relationship with the Government so it could provide regional leadership and deliver for Aucklanders. This has not happened as proposed. This year, I published the Manifesto for Auckland which envisaged a new type of relationship based on partnership and mutual respect. This long-term plan builds on the manifesto and will set out our priorities for central government in an accurate and consistent way.
I think Phil Goff’s closeness with the previous Labour government actually held progress back in many ways. Goff, being a former Labour party leader, seem so concerned to not damage the government’s popularity that Auckland Council became a bystander on big issues like light-rail and the Waitemata Harbour Connections project. And when the Council did stand up to the government it was often on stupid issues where they were clearly wrong, like all the push back on the National Policy Statement for Urban Development and the Medium Density Residential Standard.
So – perhaps surprisingly – it has been quite refreshing seeing Mayor Brown really fight for Auckland to get a better deal from ‘Wellington’. But with most of the past 12 months being crisis management over floods and then central government election silly season, it’s probably really only in the new year that we will potentially see some real progress.
And this is where the other Brown – Simeon – comes in. As Transport Minister, Local Government Minister and Minister for Auckland, it is clear that the relationship between the two Browns (presumably unrelated) will be critical. The incoming government surely knows that in many respects it won the election due to dissatisfaction in Auckland with the previous government, which gives it a mandate but also creates a lot of expectations that will fall on the youthful looking shoulders of one Simeon Brown.
Some of the key transport issues that are likely to be major talking points between the two ‘Browns’ over the coming months include:
- The future of the regional fuel tax, which funds a very large chunk of Auckland Transport’s capital programme and which National has vowed to get rid of. In particular, it’ll be fascinating to see whether the government will find some way of replacing the $150 million a year this provides Auckland Council, or whether the council will need to further slash their transport budget or increase rates at even more eye-watering levels.
- Whether the government agrees to some pretty major proposed overhauls to roles and responsibilities for transport decision-making in Auckland, including shifting development of Regional Land Transport Plans from Auckland Transport to Auckland Council, and much more joint decision-making between the government and the council on key matters.
- The extent to which the government and its transport agencies (especially Waka Kotahi) genuinely work with the Council on major projects, including a Northwest Busway (which they all seem to agreed on), light-rail (which presumably will disappear for a while, hopefully to be reincarnated as something more sensible again) and the Waitemata Harbour Connections project (which Waka Kotahi seem determined to push on with, despite everyone else thinking the project is an unaffordable catastrophe).
- Whether the government is willing to take the leap in enabling congestion pricing.
- The extent to which two politicians who don’t seem especially focused on reducing emissions and tackling climate change have to pull their heads out of the sand, probably due to pressure from the rest of Auckland Council, and cold hard numbers from the Climate Commission that will go into the next version of the Government’s emissions reduction plan.
Overall, the transport section of the ‘manifesto for Auckland’ highlights areas where there should be good alignment, but also some pretty gnarly issues that Simeon Brown in particular will need to be on top of very quickly.
Fundamentally the big question for the government will be the extent to which they are willing to devolve meaningful power to Auckland Council, and work with them in genuine partnership.
The last time there was a National government, the answer to this question was a really mixed bag. On the one hand, it was a National-led government that created Auckland Council in the first place and eventually funded things like rail electrification and the CRL. But on the other hand they got rid of a previous iteration of the regional fuel tax, fought against CRL pretty much every step of the way, changed the Land Transport Management Act to be much less about regionally-led long-term planning, and seemed to have an almost allergic dislike of anything Auckland Council did. It wasn’t until their final term from 2014-2017, when Simon Bridges was transport minister and John Key overruled Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee on CRL, that we saw a more constructive approach.
Simeon Brown may be feeling on top of the world right now, with a huge amount of power in his hands when it comes to how Auckland moves forwards. But this also places a great amount of pressure on him, with a lot of hard questions that have no easy answer landing on his lap in the very near future – and with the stakes being incredibly high.
He’s going to need to find his feet really fast.