Auckland: Fighting the sprawl

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Auckland's population reached half a million on a June morning in 1964 when Brett Edward Cox was born at the North Shore Obstetric Hospital.

That night, bonfires blazed on 11 volcano cones in celebration. Statisticians had predicted the half million date with remarkable accuracy, and councils had planned a week of parades and festivities to mark the milestone.

Auckland was booming - but not everyone was celebrating the shape it was taking. Professor Ken Cumberland, chairman of the Auckland City Council's town planning committee, had warned that inner city residential areas were dying.

In 1958 he wrote: "Because of the wartime and post-war shift of Maoris into urban employment, and the continued influx of Islanders to Auckland, we are prone to imagine the inner residential parts of the city are becoming congested. But this overlooks the very much larger migration of Aucklanders from the city to the suburbs.

"For every house let and sublet to Islanders there are scores or houses left in the occupation of one or two elderly folk as the younger generation has moved out to live in state or group houses, or privately built homes, at Kelston, Te Atatu, Glen Innes or Mt Roskill.

"Others have gone as far away as Castor Bay, Howick and Manurewa.

"The inner areas have been left with under-used housing and under-used schools, churches, social halls and other amenities. The districts of declining population are fully services with gas, water and electricity and with roads, footpaths, sewerage and parks and reserves.

"Meanwhile the sprawling new suburbs are underprovided with urban amenities. They clamour incessantly for kerbs and channelling, roads and footpaths, street lighting and community centres, public libraries and sewer connections. Rate burdens are soaring; loan moneys are totally inadequate."

The solution, he concluded, lay in co-ordinated government to replace the "fantastic number of local authorities in the metropolitan area". Co-ordinated government was a long time coming.

A 1960 meeting of 400 local authority representatives agreed to set up an Auckland Metropolitan Authority. Legislation to constitute the authority was introduced to Parliament that year.

A year later Auckland councils and ad-hoc administrations such as the Harbour Board, the Bridge Authority, Transport Board and Drainage Board were still arguing about it.

Parliament deferred the bill in 1962. Late the following year, Auckland mayor Dove Myer Robinson, nearing the end of his first term, led an effort to revive it.

The bill faced a determined filibuster led by Government MPs Jack Scott (Rodney) and Alf Allen (Franklin) before it was passed at 3.40am on October 25.

The Auckland Regional Authority came into being with Mayor "Robbie" its chairman. Parliament, muttered Allen, had "lumbered Auckland with a monster".

The following year, as Auckland prepared for the half million celebrations, the ARA took control of town planning, public transport, sewerage and some other services.

It received a comprehensive transport plan commissioned from San Francisco consultants de Leuw, Cather and Co who recommended an electrified train service fed by local buses, bringing passengers to an inner city circle line with underground stations in Queen St.

For $42 million, the consultants calculated, the journey to downtown Auckland from the city's southern and western extremities would be reduced to 20 minutes.

In April 1966 the ARA adopted the $42 million rail scheme and asked the Government to help pay for it. No reply came from Wellington. As months went by the silence became deafening.

In March 1967 Transport Minister Peter Gordon said a decision on the rapid rail scheme would take at least another year. Meanwhile the population was growing at such a rate that the estimated date at which it would reach a million was brought forward from 1986 to 1984 at the latest.

It looked ominous for rapid rail when the Railways Department culled some of its least patronised Auckland suburban train services in August 1967. But that same month the Government finally endorsed de Leuw, Cather on condition Auckland met loan charges and covered the estimated annual operating losses of $4 million a year.

In effect, Auckland would face the total cost, that had now risen to an estimate of $52 million.

Auckland Mayor R.G. McElroy said the burden would be "unacceptable".

At the 1968 elections the ARA's second chairman, Hugh Lambie, lost his seat and the authority chose Tom Pearce to lead it. Robbie, who had just regained the Auckland mayoralty, was given a special ARA committee to advance the rail scheme.

Wider concern at the population drift was evident at a 1969 National Development Conference. The vice-chancellor of Lincoln College suggested Auckland's growth should be stopped at 1 million.

Pearce, who had a voice like a rasp, was scathing. "People have not quite reached the stage of complete regimentation by starry-eyed planners", he said.

When the ARA produced its first urban plan in 1969, rapid rail was the central element of is strategy to contain growth. But the Government was still insisting that Auckland should cover the interest charges on loans and the operating losses, which the ARA would not accept.

The 1970s brought some relief from the rapid post-war population growth. The advent of the contraceptive pill had slowed natural increase and an economic downtown in 1967 had cause a net migration loss.

By 1972 the rapid rail scheme had been reviewed by officials of the Government, the ARA and the City Council and the envisaged railway was no longer rapid. To lower the scheme's cost it would keep the existing narrow-gauge track.

Later that year a change of Government briefly revived hopes for the high-speed option. But no sooner had the new Government's deputy leader, Hugh Watt, indicated the scheme could go ahead than Auckland's achilles heel kicked in.

Mayors of 10 boroughs met in the Mt Albert council chamber and sent a telegram to Prime Minister-elect Norman Kirk asking that no decision be made until all local bodies had considered the latest scheme. Five North Shore mayors boycotted a meeting called to discuss it.

Meanwhile the region's director of planning predicted that Auckland would have a population of 2 million by 2000.

At a conference of all Auckland councils on February 2, 1973 all but four (Waitemata Takapuna, Birkenhead and Mt Eden) wanted the original wide-gauge scheme, now estimated to cost $273 million, which was to include a line to the North Shore on a second harbour bridge.

But on July 17 Watt brought the Government's offer to Auckland. The city could have an electric train service on the southern line to Papakura and an inner-city underground loop with stations in Rutland St and Shortland St.

The trains would run on the existing tracks at a cost of $60.8 million. Reporters noted Watt was careful not to call it "rapid" rail.

Robbie was deflated. The Government had solemnly promised, before and after the election, a rapid rail service, he said. "But what they have offered us is an improved Wellington suburban service.

"If Auckland accepts financial responsibility for operating losses which would be inevitable, it would be an intolerable burden on ratepayers."

Pearce was more sanguine, noting it was the first tangible offer from any government.

In May 1975 the Government produced a slightly better proposition, with more inner city underground stations. The cost had risen to $170 million and the ARA was still being asked to bear the running costs. Nothing more was heard of it before Labour lost office that year.

A few months later the ARA produced a study that showed an all-bus public transport service would not only be cheaper than rail but would carry more passengers. In March 1976 the authority voted to postpone the rail scheme indefinitely. Meanwhile, Auckland's population had passed 800,000 and was predicted to hit a million in six or seven years.

The ARA offered Aucklanders a questionnaire on growth. Did they want to aim for a population limit of 1.1 million by 2001, or 1.5 million, and did they want it to be contained to existing limits or allowed to spread?

In October it produced the results: a growth strategy of limited spread and closer living arrangements. The quarter acre with house, garden and lawn was out of favour. Flats, home units, townhouses were the future, to be clustered around public transport terminals.

In the event, a slowing economy came to the planners' rescue. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 and the inflation and unemployment that came in their wake, stalled population growth for most of the next 20 years.
By the time the economy revived in the mid-1990s, Auckland's regional government was a weakened force, but it had been given one golden asset: the port.

The dividends of Ports of Auckland Ltd have revived planners' dreams of a more compact city - running on rail.

- NZ Herald

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