In 2010 Auckland’s eight regional, city and district councils were amalgamated into one, more or less along the old regional council boundary lines. This was seen as a victory by those seeking a regional view, and a travesty by those who feared a loss of local identity and service. Five years on, opinions are still divided.
Many in the rural areas of Franklin and Rodney, on the margins of urban Auckland, resisted amalgamation and sought exclusion from the Auckland Council. The prevailing narrative perpetuated by the media, centred on the concept of a ‘SuperCity’, rather than a city-region. This narrative glossed over the fact that the Council includes diverse urban and rural communities, many a long way culturally, economically and physically from the metropolitan heart, and may have caused some of the initial rural dissatisfaction with the new model. Opponents argued it was inappropriate and impossible for a centralised Auckland Council, a super City, to accommodate the interests of far flung and small rural communities in Rodney and Franklin. The SuperCity moniker probably continues to support concerns about the amalgamation and how well it serves all interests across the region today.
Rodney and Franklin between them comprise 70% of greater Auckland’s landmass. They contain more than a dozen dispersed towns, villages, and coastal settlements, each with distinct histories, economies and communities of interest – as well as their own, often inadequate, localised infrastructure and utilities. But the areas also contain important regional and national infrastructure such as State Highway One, and national electricity and gas networks. Both areas span East and West Coasts; they include four of the region’s harbours and contain significant industry, agriculture and horticulture supporting the Auckland market and export economy. The beaches, landscapes and open space of Auckland’s periphery provide for important recreation opportunities including 17 regional parks, and are popular with day visitors and holiday home owners from greater Auckland.
Rodney contributes only 3.9% of the region’s population, and Franklin, 8%, but both areas are fast growing, and are set to accommodate considerable future urbanisation as the Auckland population increases and spreads. The currently rural periphery supports the regional economy and society but is seen by many locals to not get much in return to address the impacts of life on the edge of New Zealand’s biggest city.
Rodney Hide, Minister for Local Government who oversaw the design and implementation of the Auckland Council, argued that inclusion of Rodney and Franklin was essential to allow an integrated approach to the issues of the region, for the benefit of all. But there were concerns that inclusion would see the transfer of funds from the rural periphery to the urban core, and that the hinterland would be opened up for development by ‘big city investors’ seeking profits from chopping up land on the margins, especially in the absence of the regulatory checks and balances previously provided by the Auckland Regional Council. The designation of Special Housing Areas for fast-tracked urban development, by the Government and Auckland Council, irrespective of infrastructure constraints or community wishes, confirms these fears.
There’s one view that whatever is in the interests of the metropolitan area is in the interests of the whole of Auckland. Examples given where city-centric benefits are assumed to equate to regional benefits, are the city rail link and rail electrification. But many people living on the edge of urban Auckland continue to perceive an investment and democratic imbalance, where the rural but urbanising periphery is neglected in favour of the metro core.
In Rodney, Local Board members and communities alike, express frustration with the new council. They feel disenfranchised by funding and electoral arrangements based on population, which disadvantage land-rich, population-poor rural and township areas. With a small rating base and an existing infrastructure deficit they miss out on the better, ‘legacy’ services and facilities found in the metro areas, such as sealed roads and swimming pools, and there are real fears that under a rates constrained future there’s no hope of improvements ahead.
There’s concern that because of Rodney’s relative isolation from the city centre, its issues are not well understood or addressed. Submissions from the Local Board and its communities say there’s inadequate funding from the Governing Body to address growth and other pressures from Auckland. ‘Local infrastructure needs such as road sealing and public transport take a back seat in favour of big budget metropolitan projects which are good for the city, but deliver “little or no benefits for Rodney”’. “The costs of the City Rail Link and Auckland city’s waterfront development, leave little or no discretion to fund local roads, passenger rail extensions or mainstreet improvements”. The metrocentric, “centralised, urban model disadvantages the Rodney Local Board area and its residents”. These concerns are voiced by communities in Rodney’s north in particular, who continue to seek, through the Local Government Commission, formation of a breakaway, standalone, unitary ‘Northern Rodney’ Council.
Yet others say fears of loss of local identity and services, powerlessness, and rates rises, are unfounded. Rural areas benefit favourably from regional funding of environmental, catchment and rural management programmes. Rodney and Franklin also benefit from regional scale investment in local wastewater treatment. Watercare, the Council Controlled Organisation responsible for water and wastewater development and delivery, has harnessed regional resources to provide infrastructure otherwise prohibitively expensive for small councils. In doing so, they have improved environmental outcomes, enhanced local facilities and created the preconditions for significant urban development to accommodate Auckland’s growth.
Other regional network benefits aren’t so comprehensive. Rodney and Franklin have the worst public transport in the region. Passenger rail serving Rodney’s North-west has been cancelled and future plans, shelved. Pukekohe, a major town in Franklin, has been excluded from the city’s rail electrification project, and locals fear ‘managed decline’ of the current diesel service, and a downward cycle of poor performance, declining patronage and eventual closure of the line.
Whether they like it or not, Rodney and Franklin are subject to the forces of Auckland. They have benefitted from regional scale investment in some major infrastructure, but there’s still a view they’re ‘living on the edge’, and feel a loss of voice and power in the SuperCity arrangements. It will take the best efforts of Local Boards and all Councillors, to address the perception of rural disadvantage, and meet the challenge of improved services to cope with the areas’ growth. The tensions between the metropolitan, rural, and regional interests that all make up the SuperCity, present ongoing challenges, and opportunities too, for those on both sides of the rural-urban divide.