06 Oct 2013

Angry ratepayers seek SuperCity referendum

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Written by: Edward Rooney
Photo by: Jason Oxenham
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 06 October 2013

Some see this week’s election as a referendum on the new SuperCity — so Len Brown’s return would indicate most voters are broadly content. It’s a different story, though, on the remote outskirts of Auckland, where disgruntled farmers produce the wool for Newmarket’s business suits and the milk for Ponsonby’s lattes

Dennis Brown and his NAG mates want North Rodney out of the Auckland Plan.

Dennis Brown and his NAG mates want North Rodney out of the Auckland Plan.

Meet Dennis Brown: Iratepayer.

In the northern wards of Auckland’s colossus of a city, the SkyTower is well out of sight. The tallest structures here are bush-clad hills; traffic jams are caused by holidaymakers queuing for the turn-off to Matakana or Snells Beach.

Somewhere south, mayoral candidates are scrapping for a desk in the Auckland Town Hall.

Here, there’s a concerted fight by Dennis Brown and his mates to get even further away from it all.

Members of the Northern Action Group (happy to be known as NAGs) reckon they would do better out of the SuperCity.

Brown claims North Rodney contributes $42 million in rates every year and has between $5 million and $10 million spent on it in return.

Northern Rodney was lumped in with the amalgamation that brought together a regional council and seven local councils under the Auckland Plan.

The Auckland Council controls $32 billion in assets, and has 8000 staff and an annual budget of $3 billion – making it one of the largest councils in the Southern Hemisphere.

Standing on his immaculate driveway just north of Warkworth, Brown waves an angry arm at a pile of sandbags in front of his mother’s granny flat. Council workers put the bags there a few nights before to prevent a flood deluging her home. Now he’s furious no one’s taken the bags away.

“How can a woman in her 80s get in and out of her home?”

Black-faced sheep pace the fence line as we go into his large single-level house for a cup of instant coffee.

Brown is one of the energetic forces behind NAG, which wants a referendum to part company with Auckland and establish a North Rodney Borough Council. It’s not all talk; a submission to the Local Government Commission is being drafted, for delivery in the next two weeks.

The NAG members wanted out when the SuperCity was formed – but were refused. Now they’ve drawn hope from a change to the Local Government Act last year.

The group believes a community can opt out of a council administration, “if it’s the will of the people”.

Brown cites Gisborne as an example of a similar-sized catchment running its own affairs and doing quite nicely.

“We know we can do a small viable model,” he says.

He reckons contractors are trucking heavy machinery from Pukekohe to work in Rodney while local outfits sit on their thumbs. And the workmanship is shoddy because the contractors don’t know the local conditions. He says: “People down in Auckland are not very bright. Our money is not being spent in the area, they are carting it off to Auckland.”

The fact is, the SuperCity of Auckland has been stitched together at New Zealand’s economic heart without the promised review of whether the surgery has worked or not. Not only does this matter to Aucklanders, but also to the whole of New Zealand. Does Auckland work for the people who live in it? And does it work for New Zealand as a whole?

When Auckland sneezes, the whole country gets a cold.

In the first results from this year’s Census, Government Statistician Liz MacPherson will tomorrow reveal the extent of the population shift into Auckland, a 1.5 million-strong metropolis that now contains more than a third of New Zealand’s population.

The money, the jobs, the people – they all mass between the Bombay Hills and the Bryndrwyns.

With more of the population in Auckland, tomorrow’s Statistics NZ announcement is expected to confirm the city will get more electorate seats in Parliament and more of the party vote that determines who runs the country.

Some might argue that the new Auckland Council and its mayor Len Brown already have more say in running New Zealand than the rest of the country signed up for.

In his first three-year term Brown has extracted more than $1 billion from the Government for his pet project to run an underground commuter railway line 3.5km from the waterfront to Mt Eden.

Wellingtonians had to fight for 20 years to get similar public funding towards their 27km Transmission Gully motorway, projected to carry 20,000 vehicles a day.

This is just one example of Auckland’s national clout – so it’s important to the whole country that the new city works well.

Charles Crothers says Len Brown is effectively a Cabinet minister.

Charles Crothers says Len Brown is effectively a Cabinet minister.

“It’s a whole new animal, a new type of regional governance,” says Professor Charles Crothers. “The Mayor of Auckland is now the equivalent to a Cabinet Minister.”

Crothers and his AUT University team are researching the first term performance of the SuperCity.

He’s one of the happy residents, mostly, with his “heaven-on-earth” family home in Pt Chevalier – within walking distance of the beach, cafes and a 15-minute drive from his university office.

But he feels Auckland voters are not adequately equipped to give their verdict on whether the SuperCity structure has worked, much as they might like to.

“One would bloody well hope so, but no, there’s just no information out there for that sort of conclusion to be drawn.”

Crothers blames the media, the Government and, in a roundabout way, the Canterbury earthquakes for the paucity of information about the performance of Auckland.

There was originally a plan for the Department of Internal Affairs to thoroughly rake over the new structures and produce a report card, but resources went to more pressing matters after a 6.3 earthquake smashed central Christchurch on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people.

In December last year, Auditor-General Lyn Provost conducted an overview of the Auckland Council since transition.

Among other findings, she advised Internal Affairs and the council to consider changing the law to help it oversee such a big and disparate region.

“The council still needs to do significant work to understand and standardise the differing policies, regulations, service expectations and performance it has inherited from the former councils,” she found.

But now, Internal Affairs spokeswoman Chandrika Kumaran admits, any major scrutiny is unlikely. “The department did develop an Auckland evaluation framework in 2010 and we considered whether to progress it,” she says.

“The decision was made not to progress this work for a number of reasons, including the need to divert resources to the response to the Canterbury earthquakes and the work we are doing around Better Local Government. There are no plans to pick this up.”

That, says Crothers, is “a bit of a pity”, given that Auckland now has a mayor whose entire constitutional relationship with the Prime Minister and Government has changed.

In simple terms, Wellington was once sovereign. Now, Auckland and Wellington are in a power struggle – mostly, the Prime Minister comes out on top, but sometimes, it’s the Mayor of Auckland who wins.

The supercharging of mayoral power was shunted through; there’s been no real review of whether it’s worked for Auckland – and now aspects of it are being loaded into the rest of New Zealand.

Every mayor in the country is getting a bit of the “super” power with a taste of the heavier-gauge mayoral chains already in the hands of Auckland’s top dog.

The president of Local Government New Zealand, Lawrence Yule, says mayors will now be able to appoint their own deputy mayors, determine the structure of committees and appoint committee chairs.

They will also now be responsible for driving major plans and budgets, including the long-term and annual plans – but they will also be more accountable for their decisions.

Crothers says he’d like to have known more about the relationship between the Mayor’s office and the Beehive before other mayors gained similar stripes.

“What we do know is we had a u-turn by John Key four months ago on central rail. People close to the Mayor have indicated to me that central Government and Len Brown get on very well behind closed doors. Yet there’s this public rhetoric of them having a disagreement, a u-turn by the Government, and then silence.”

In giving Len Brown his city rail link, the John Key Government seemingly capitulated and acknowledged that Brown was unassailable in Auckland. They could not put up a candidate who could beat him – so instead they would work with him.

National Party supporters and other conservatives are now putting their energies into tipping the actual council to the right, by winning wards off Labour old-timers like Ann Hartley and Richard Northey. If they are successful, Brown could find himself in splendid Obama-style isolation.

Denise Krum wants to see a curb in council spending. Photo / Doug Sherring

Denise Krum wants to see a curb in council spending. Photo / Doug Sherring

National Party member Denise Krum, a candidate for Maungakiekie-Tamaki ward, says the mayor, should he win, could well find himself outnumbered in council.

She does not propose a shutdown like that in the US this week – just a “hand brake” on Brown’s political programme.

“I would just say ‘bring it on’,” Krum says.

The 42-year-old businesswoman says a lack of public consultation over the unitary plan and soaring debt levels could swing the council to the right.

“Everything’s rising – rates, building heights, grass … and there’s just a thorough lack of transparency and accountability for it.”

Krum struggles to see how the SuperCity amalgamation has worked and doesn’t blame those in Northern Rodney for wanting out. People are starting to realise, three years on, that the promised efficiencies, streamlining and improved services haven’t eventuated, she says. Although she would not want to see Auckland suffer through having a mayor and council who cannot work together, “if it’s going to be more of the spending programme that we’ve had in the past three years then it’s going to be tough.”

The Auditor-General says Len Brown’s council still needs to do “significant work” to bring the six former cities and districts of Auckland together under the one council.

A study commissioned by AUT found that only a third of Aucklanders surveyed believe Len Brown was an effective leader for the region.

A quarter of respondents felt he was not an effective leader and the remainder of respondents were ambivalent. A third of respondents felt they did not get value for their rates.

Crothers, whose team commissioned the study, believes the new structure is a step in the right direction but, for now, “the jury’s out”. He believes Brown will walk back into office after the election and, despite what could be a record low voter turnout, he will believe he has the nod to carry on as he wishes.

“What does this election do to give anyone such as Len Brown a mandate? Excuse me? It’s head-in-the-sand stuff.”

Yet if Brown is returned to office this week, as seems likely, he will claim a new electoral mandate to lead all of Auckland, from Pokeno to Pakiri.

Up in Rodney, Dennis Brown would rather not be part of that Auckland. As we get into our car for the 40-minute drive back to the central city, Brown decides he’s had enough of the sandbags outside his mum’s front door. He calls the Auckland Council on speaker-phone and gives the call centre a dose of his exasperation about the still-to-be-moved sandbags – liberally laced with sarcasm.

20131006 Angry ratepayers seek SuperCity referendum - Len Brown

Super-size me

A survey of 350 Aucklanders found those surveyed still unsure whether the SuperCity benefited the region or their community. Most respondents think the reforms have made little difference (so far).

• 33 per cent – Confidence in Auckland’s regional and local government is mixed, with 33 per cent surveyed reporting confidence, around 16 per cent a lack of confidence, and around 50 per cent with middling confidence.

• 33 per cent: A third of Aucklanders surveyed believe the Mayor is an effective leader for the Auckland region. A quarter feel he is not an effective leader for the Auckland region.

• 25 per cent: Although a quarter of Aucklanders surveyed feel they get value for their rates, a third feel they do not and 40 per cent are ambivalent.

• 50 per cent: Around half of Aucklanders surveyed feel the distribution of power between central and local government is about right. A sixth feel Auckland Council is too powerful and central government needs more power. A third feel central government is too powerful and Auckland needs more power.

• 80 per cent – Eighty per cent of Aucklanders rate their quality of life as positive compared to 88 per cent of Wellingtonians.


– Herald on Sunday


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