Michael Barnett: Auckland needs to decide faster

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A simple 'go' decision on the city's agreed urgent 'to do' list would bring more than 5000 new jobs.

Auckland's traffic problems urgently need a solution. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland's traffic problems urgently need a solution. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The growing list of big opportunities piling up in Auckland "awaiting action" reinforces how appallingly ineffectual we are at making decisions to solve the city's major problem - managing our rapid growth.

In one sense we are a lucky city. We have a list of joined up issues that all stem from the fact that Auckland's population is growing at more than twice the rate of other New Zealand cities and most in Australia.

It is not the case that our problems reflect a city without opportunities or is unattractive. It's the opposite. The prevailing climate of uncertainty and caution is instead undermining our need for decisive action to manage our opportunities to stay an attractive, progressive city as we grow.

Our issues of opportunity start with providing basic infrastructure to meet demand - affordable housing and efficient transport - but quickly spread to challenges to reinforce Auckland's role as New Zealand's only city of global scale.

We urgently need to get back a fit-for- purpose sea port, grow new wealth from exports and build a world-class convention centre.

The job creation opportunities we are failing to convert adds to the urgency for decisive decision-making on Auckland's major issues. I estimate that a simple "go" decision on Auckland's agreed urgent "to do" list would bring more than 5000 new jobs. If we have an unemployment problem - and I am yet to be convinced we do - its solution lies squarely in cutting through the political and bureaucratic churn of Auckland and Wellington decision-making on projects that should dominate Auckland's growth management programme over the next few years:

Build 13,000 affordable new homes in 2013 as a start

We are short of 20,000 homes right now! Our current annual build of new units is only around 4000. We need a joined up collaboration strategy between Auckland Council, central government and the private sector with some clear accountability for results. The current stand-back and let the market sort it won't cut it.

Make faster progress on urban growth projects

Auckland is running up against a shortage of developed business land. Traditionally it takes more than 10 years for large property development proposals to get consent. Efforts to speed up and simplify the consenting process are essential, not just to reduce the huge compliance costs contributing to our high house prices, but to help convert the significant employment opportunities. Projects such as Drury South, with potential to create 20,000 jobs, needs a decision-making focus that embraces the step change Auckland is seeking aimed at increasing exports, real GDP and productivity, as well as giving business the certainty it needs to provide the jobs that Aucklanders want.

Move transport solutions into the fast lane

After more than 50 years of start-stop planning and action, we still have an incomplete, disconnected motorway system and inefficient public transport. Other cities have sped past Auckland with decisive action on roading and public transport, leaving Auckland ranked around 46th among cities in developed nations on transport infrastructure provision. The momentum of the past 10 years to progress long-neglected key motorway links, build Britomart station and start rail network electrification needs to be accelerated.

The proven economic and social benefits of transport improvements should empower transport decision makers to build a consensus that can unlock needed funding and get things done.

Build a national convention centre - fast

It is just not good enough that having agreed 10 years ago that New Zealand needs a national convention centre capable of hosting conferences averaging 3500 delegates, and being raised as a top priority at every growth forum Auckland has ever had, we are still in discussion. The SkyCity proposal to fund and build a purpose-built national convention centre in Central Auckland - basically at no cost to rate and tax payers - is a game changer. It is to be regretted that issues over pokies and problem gambling have seriously muddied the very real need for this infrastructure. The "go" button is urgent.

Every year we fail to provide this facility means that every year we fail to convert the expected direct benefits of close to $400 million and additional benefits of $85 million in increased tourism spend, not just in Auckland but across New Zealand.

Stop the bleed of money and exports from Ports of Auckland

The long-running Auckland water front dispute badly needs a circuit-breaker solution. Say much more while facilitation talks are continuing and I risk a rocket from detractors, but the plain fact is that this has dragged on far too long. Exports from Auckland in the year to June 30 contracted by 25 per cent, while Port of Tauranga enjoyed growth of nearly 50 per cent, significantly higher than the decade average growth of about 8 per cent a year. The lost Port revenue by Auckland Council (as 100 per cent owners) translates to higher rates, and lost opportunities for business to promote Auckland's international brand as a competitive city to invest and work.

Heal the leaky home dispute and focus on the fix

The blame game for the multi-billion leaky home problem needs to stop and instead the focus should go on to the fix. It is another opportunity to create jobs and help lift the confidence and skill base of the building industry.

Converting the potential of these opportunities requires a very robust but collaborative relationship between Auckland and Wellington, embracing central and local government and private sector stakeholders. We need a joined up strategy to address Auckland's skill shortage and which attracts and empowers the around 20,000 school leavers a year without qualifications to seek a job.

None of these issues will be solved by government, or council, or the private sector acting alone.

Each organisation staying in their respective corner and cautious is no solution. While not making a decision offends no one for a time, making a decision has some risk. At the end of the day, not making decisions on these critical opportunities is the biggest risk that Auckland faces in terms of managing our growth-led opportunities. Without decisions, opportunities are rapidly turning into difficult, harder to resolve issues.

In a world in which Auckland is New Zealand's largest city, and is competing with other world cities for skilled workers and productive capital, Auckland clearly has a better leadership role to play.

We owe it to ourselves. We no longer have the luxury to stall and play it safe. It's our joined up leadership that needs to act - and act now. The longer we delay making the change of culture to one of shared leadership action, the worse Auckland's problems will become.

Michael Barnett is chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.

- NZ Herald

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