What is Auckland anyway? The kernel of what we now call Auckland was a 3,000-acre triangle of land, with Maungawhau (Mt Eden) forming one corner. This was acquired by Governor Hobson in 1840 by a purchase from Ngati Whatua chiefs. Since then, as a place with physical boundaries, ‘Auckland’ has moved like a concertina. So, for example, the former Province of Auckland extended from Cape Reinga down to Taupo, although this was abolished in 1876. What we now think of as urban ‘Auckland’ emerged initially as a patchwork-quilt of municipalities. This pattern was set early on with the creation of the Fencible villages of Onehunga, Otahuhu, Panmure and Howick between 1847 and 1852. The Auckland City Council was formed in 1871. From the 1880s to the 1920s, small road districts and boroughs voluntarily amalgamated into Auckland City, seeking economy of scale and better, more timely decision-making. Normally, such amalgamations were endorsed by petitions and referenda of ratepayers, as well as by commissions of inquiry.
By the 1920s, however, this development of a ‘Greater Auckland’ had resulted in a rather strange territorial boundary for Auckland City Council, taking in Avondale and Pt Chevalier to the east, the central suburbs (but not Newmarket, which remained staunchly independent), a southward oblong taking in Epsom, and then the eastern suburbs of Parnell, Remuera and Tamaki. Mt Albert and Mt Eden Boroughs failed to amalgamate into Auckland City when the matter was put to the vote in 1931. Parochialism left the Auckland isthmus with a patchwork of local boroughs, including Mt Roskill, Onehunga, One Tree Hill, Ellerslie, Mt Wellington and Newmarket. There were more beyond the isthmus, such as Takapuna, Devonport, Howick and Henderson.
By the 1960s, there were 31 local territorial authorities in the greater Auckland region, plus eleven special-purpose boards, such as the Harbour Board and the Electric Power Boards. For a population of half a million or so, Auckland governance was over-crowded and fragmented, and thus incapable of addressing urban growth in an era of increasing mobility. What was becoming a conurbation was being governed as if it were a set of parishes or villages. To bring some coherence into this, the Auckland Regional Authority (ARA) was formed in 1963. It was given a range of region-wide responsibilities, including planning, public transport and regional parks. But from a purely proportional point of view, the smaller boroughs tended to have a much greater level of representation on the Board than did the larger ones. And the local councils were unwilling to relinquish any greater strategic powers to this over-arching body.
The fourth Labour government rationalised local bodies across the country, by force of law, in 1989. This left Greater Auckland with four metropolitan city councils (North Shore, Waitakere, Auckland and Manukau), three district councils (Rodney, Papakura and Franklin) and an over-arching Auckland Regional Council. Thirty lower-level Community Boards with elected members were established in order to provide representation for communities closer to the flax-roots.
That arrangement persisted for about two decades, until the pressure for another round of reform built up. This was initiated under the Labour-led government (defeated in the 2008 election) and brought to fruition by Labour’s traditional opponents, a National-led government. Initial consultation was carried out by the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, which submitted its report in March 2009. While not all of the Commission’s recommendations were implemented, the general idea of unifying the eight local authorities into one Auckland Council became a foregone conclusion.
The first mergers (of Ponsonby, Karangahape and Grafton into Auckland City in 1882) may look, in hindsight, like the first step in an ‘inevitable’ historical process that saw the growth of Auckland produce, at first, a multiplicity of municipalities – followed by their gradual unification as the population rises and the suburbs spread out and merge – and ultimately a wider rural/urban Auckland Council or ‘Super City’. But no such thing is inevitable. Rather, it is the result of a series of political choices and designs, and alternative models were always available. The other feature of such experiments in public policy is that they are not controlled experiments. So, as for whether the results of the unification are to be judged beneficial (meaning either ‘better than the status quo ante,’ or ‘better than some alternative model of reform’), we will never be able to say for certain that they were – or that they were not. And, in any case, we would also have to ask: ‘Beneficial for whom, and for what purposes?’ Such major reforms of public policy do not permit easy evaluations.
What we can ask ourselves, in retrospect, is this: If ‘Super City’ was the answer, then what was the question? That is, what were the problems to which this reform was thought to be the best available solution? The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance diagnosed ‘the Auckland problem’ in much the same way as did proponents of the ‘Greater Auckland movement’ a century earlier. The Commission saw disputes between councils, inconsistent standards and plans, limited sharing of services, and hence delayed and/or poor decision-making. Central government had to deal with multiple bodies. In spite of many needs for developing a growing city’s infrastructure, Auckland could not ‘speak with one voice.’ The Commission also had a vision that Auckland should be a competitive international city, on a par with Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. It should attract skilled people and investment, provide a high quality of life, and be lively and creative.
The subsequent creation of Auckland Council was more than just an amalgamation of seven former authorities. Neither a ‘city’ nor a ‘district’, it introduced a new governance model with new executive powers for the mayor, and second-tier local boards. The opinion of most local government experts is that this unified model was definitely needed, and has basically been a success. No-one promised that the unification itself would solve Auckland’s problems. But the unified model makes it possible to tackle those problems in a cohesive and strategic manner. The arguments over Auckland’s problems – and their alternative solutions – are now out in the open. No informed person expected that unification would result in lower rates. A recent levy on households addresses expanding infrastructural needs in a planned manner. No-one likes to pay higher rates, but dealing with Auckland’s rapid growth is costly. Failing to deal with it would be even more costly.
Auckland can now grow according to one plan, one set of rules, and a single budget. It has more political clout in relation to central government; it can ‘speak with one voice.’ Groups in Rodney and Waiheke Island talk about re-establishing independent local councils, but they are the exception. If there were now a referendum in Auckland to return to the old model, it would not succeed, as the obvious costs and disadvantages of multiple councils would deter people from taking the idea seriously. Dissatisfaction with the Council does suggest, however, that there is a need to make its public processes more democratic and deliberative, and to bring this large and complex public entity closer to its communities. Auckland has always been, and remains, a ‘work in progress’.