Auckland deserves better

Ian Shirley

In his Briefing Paper published in December 2014, John Clarke wrote: “New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world”. If, like me, he had spent time in Auckland he might have singled out this city for special mention too, although I suspect John would have preferred Palmerston North. Whereas we might have had different views on metropolitan versus provincial cities, in terms of the ‘beautiful country’ we would have been in complete agreement. Our policy makers have been given a head start over other comparative countries. It’s a shame that they have made such a bloody mess of such a wonderful country and undermined a metropolitan centre that aspires to be the world’s most liveable city.

The raw beauty of Auckland was reinforced for me in the 1990s when I was conducting research on Auckland and I was struck by a campaign to promote Auckland that was based on erecting empty picture frames in the region designed to capture the Waitakere ranges and produce snapshots of Tamaki’s magnificent harbours. The frames simply captured the natural beauty of the region – they didn’t need paintings or other embellishments. And whilst we might still be able to capture elements of this beauty today I am frequently reminded of Auckland’s decline and the way in which distinctive characteristics of the region and its people have been brutalised by central government politicians leaving us with deficits that will need to be addressed by future generations.

In a recent article summarising our research on Auckland I suggested it was time to clear the Wellington swamp because the inescapable conclusion I have reached is that the policies of central government are creating major problems that are literally strangling the life and integrity of Auckland. The origins of this decline stem from the market fundamentalism of the past four decades and the way in which government ministers continue to ignore the priorities articulated by the citizens of Auckland. This is particularly true of the past six years with the creation of the ‘super city’ described by a National party member in a recent Herald article as a ‘mangled monstrosity’.

The monstrosity emerged from an ACT party Minister of Local Government who ignored key elements contained in the Royal Commission’s report on the governance of Auckland as well as the thousands of ratepayers who made submissions on the structure and priorities for the new Council once it was established. The Minister of Transport at the time contributed to the monstrosity by creating silos called CCOs and in the case of Auckland Transport he drove through separate legislation effectively taking it outside of the governance of the Auckland Council. This has allowed consecutive Ministers of Transport to plough up the city and asphalt the transport links thereby ignoring the premium placed on public transport by the citizens of Auckland and the first Mayor of the Auckland council, Len Brown. The evidence is clear. Building motorways and putting thousands of additional cars on Auckland roads will grind transport to a halt so if we don’t clear the swamp of the ‘asphalt boys’ come September then the economic and environmental costs for the region will need to be dealt with by the next generation.

Transport is simply one aspect of an infrastructure deficit that Auckland citizens have incurred along with central government’s determination to control funding options and blame ‘the council’ for the shambles. And compared with what we were promised when the super-city was established it is a shambles. The new council we were told would better represent the ratepayers of the region. Yet within six years we had politicians calling for yet another review of local government in Auckland and areas on the periphery of the wider region arguing that the structure does not adequately address their concerns. These individuals and communities are merely reflecting what statistics confirm, namely that the new ‘improved’ governance arrangements for Auckland have led to the most unrepresentative local government structure in Australasia.

While the deteriorating infrastructure and inability to engage the citizens of Auckland stand as major failures of the ‘super city’ the greatest costs imposed on Auckland by central government are reflected in the social deficit levied on the region in terms of unaffordable housing, low wages and immigration policies that have changed the population dynamics of communities and neighbourhoods across the region.

Historically speaking housing has played an extremely important role in providing stability and security for successive generations of New Zealanders. When I was growing up housing provided a base for our extended family and for a multiplicity of households, geographically linked to the labour market and paid work and to a network of neighbourhood institutions, such as church, school and voluntary society. The relative affluence of the country especially through several decades of the post-world war two period led to high levels of private home ownership, with mortgage repayments serving in effect as a major form of retirement security.

That has now changed. The extreme version of economic fundamentalism adopted in New Zealand over the past few decades and especially over the past nine years has seen central government trade home ownership for property speculation and a casino economy. Property developers, speculators and those with assets shifted investment away from the productive economy into buying and selling property. The cost of housing got out of control fuelled by a ‘gung ho’ approach to immigration that has placed a burden on Auckland with significant ramifications for young families and households seeking affordable housing. At the same time state housing has been run down as part of government’s privatisation program.

It is not only state housing that has been undermined by a neoliberal approach to public policy but also public services in health, education and social services. The undermining of public services by austerity policies and the pressures of immigration has seen the voluntary sector and community agencies employed to pick up the pieces and this has imposed additional costs on particular populations and neighbourhoods across Auckland. That is one of the most damaging aspects of swamping vulnerable populations with immigration. It essentially transfers the costs of high immigration to low-income households and especially Maori and Pacific populations who have been adversely affected by the market fundamentalism of recent years.

When I initiated the Metropolitan Auckland project prior to the creation of the Auckland council the aim was to build on Auckland’s inherent strengths and potential – its physical landscape, its economic strength (based on the way the city added value to the New Zealand economy through connections with provincial New Zealand), and above all the diverse population groups scattered across the region. Those strengths and that potential has been undermined over the past six years by leaving population policy to the casino economy and to market forces so much so that the focus for many New Zealanders leading into this year’s general election is how to deal with the consequences of a neoliberal experiment that has failed. Clearing the Wellington bog of neoliberal theology will not address the damage done to Auckland’s expressed aim to be the world’s most liveable city – it won’t alleviate the traffic shambles – it won’t build affordable housing – it won’t address the low wages and the struggling neighbourhoods across the region – and it won’t immediately mend our public services when the goal of the current government is to drastically cut the public sector – it won’t address the fundamental problems we face as a city or a nation, but it’s a good place to start.

Categories: Local government
Ian Shirley
About the author

Ian Shirley

Emeritus Professor – Auckland University of Technology
Ian Shirley is a former Professor of Public Policy at AUT, and founder of The Policy Observatory. He has led major research programmes both in New Zealand and overseas the most recent being an international study of economic and social development engaging 15 research teams in the major metropolitan cities of Asia, the Pacific and Latin America. Professor Shirley has led ministerial councils for both Labour and National administrations in New Zealand. He has acted as a consultant to the Minister of Finance and a Budget taskforce on Income tax and Social Security. He continues research on New Zealand as a social laboratory and Auckland city governance.