Liam Dann 's Opinion

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: Great city, pity about the political wrangles

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Without consensus for big changes Aucklanders will be living with traffic and housing problems for a while yet.

There is a sense of momentum ... but it is threatened once again by a stand-off with central government. Auckland has a lot going for it despite its problems. Photo / Brett Phibbs
There is a sense of momentum ... but it is threatened once again by a stand-off with central government. Auckland has a lot going for it despite its problems. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Happy Anniversary Auckland. Today marks 173 years since Governor William Hobson first visited New Zealand's fledging capital city on the Waitemata. Or perhaps it was just his support crew that arrived then. He got as far as the Bay of Islands and after that the history seems a little unclear (please don't write in).

There was an Auckland before he got there and it didn't officially become a province until 1853. The logic for this date smells of a bureaucracy.

Sometime in 1842 the Government decided Auckland needed a long weekend and a yacht race. The end of January must have seemed as good a time as any. As local government decisions go it has probably been one of Auckland's smartest.

Personally I'm a Cantabrian and this year I'll have lived here 17 years. But, using the loose standards of 1842, I'm celebrating this weekend as the 30th anniversary of my first visit - as a wide-eyed provincial kid. We drove up for that holiday, mum, dad and three kids in a two-tone Holden station wagon in the same beige and brown as the one day cricket uniform of the day.

That Auckland summer I remember, filtered unreliably through 11-year-old eyes, still evoked the hot sleazy music of Dragon and Hello Sailor. On K'Rd there was still a hint of Mr Asia in the air.

The persistence of Muldoon and his closed market economics meant New Zealand enjoyed the 1970s for a few years longer than the rest of the world anyway. Auckland's market boom and Gloss era confidence were still a change of government away.

Ponsonby was tough, Parnell was hip and all the cool guys had moustaches, Hawaiian shirts and coral shell necklaces.

It was a low rise, low rent city with plenty of room on the motorways and affordable housing in the central suburbs. Culturally it might have been lacking but the beaches, parks and surrounding environment were marvellous, as they still are.

The records don't date back far enough but it would be interesting to see how Auckland would have rated on the kind of "quality of life" indexes that now regularly put the city near the top of the world.

We are currently, according to the Mercer Quality of Living index, the third most liveable city in the world. That's quite an achievement when you consider that same Mercer research team ranked Auckland at just 43rd for the quality of its infrastructure. Presumably we make up the deficit by rating extremely well for culture and the natural environment.

The other international survey that regularly ranks Auckland near the top is the Demographia International Housing Affordability survey.

That's not such a badge of honour obviously - although it is a survey you wouldn't want to rank near the bottom of either.

It confirms what any young house hunter already knows - buying a house anywhere in the central Auckland suburbs is extremely unaffordable relative to the average income.

There has been intense media scrutiny of this issue for years. It is a conversation which is famously a key feature of Auckland social life - by which I mean barbecues.

Debates about property tax and housing density are important but more broadly it doesn't really seem surprising that one of the world's more liveable cities would have a premium on its central property prices.

In the end price is always about supply and demand, and Auckland has population pressure. Also, Auckland is a funny shape - squeezed on to an isthmus that limits the scope for a full 360 degree sweep of central suburbs.

The fact Auckland has seen intense gentrification of its inner suburbs in the past 30 years is far from unique, in fact it is more of the norm in big Western cities.

One of the problems here has been the reluctance of residents and planners to give up on the Kiwi dream of a standalone house with a bit of lawn and a garden.

Other international cities have either accepted a culture of higher density living already or they have transport systems that enable a rapid commute from the outlying suburbs.

And that requires a city to bite the bullet and spend on rail infrastructure - something local and national politicians have never been bold enough to do over the years.

There is a sense of momentum now with the Super City but it is threatened once again by a stand-off with central government.

Len Brown and his council are getting serious about encouraging quality high density housing around key transport hubs. It is a policy that makes sense but risks alienating existing residents already feeling hemmed in by population growth.

The policy works better if you can add to the transport hubs which is why the mayor wants to see a rail loop as part of the plan.

But central government is also getting enthused about fixing Auckland. You'd think that would add to the momentum for change, but it seldom does.

Get ready for another round of stultifying conflict as Auckland City and central government argue about policy on an ideological front.

John Key suggested last week that councils are too expensive, too slow and may need to cede control of resource consents to central government.

It sounded like a declaration of war. Let's hope it was just a threat.

On the lengthy time scale required to see big change through, political cycles are never long enough for one policy or another to gain ascendancy.

Aucklanders will sigh as politicians bicker again and get on with it as residents of all good cities do.

All the best cities have their own charming dysfunctionality - try living in Rome or Paris in the summer when the rubbish collectors go on strike.

The traffic and housing problems in Auckland are serious but they aren't the worst in the world.

Without political consensus for big change we'll be living with them for a while yet.

Maybe that's okay. Organic growth is messy and sometimes ugly but is often more vibrant.

Hopefully we'll see some political compromise with the big decisions tackled, growth steered in a controlled fashion and opportunity for those who live here to have a say.

History suggests you shouldn't hold your breath.

But this isn't a column about fixing Auckland anyway.

This is a column about remembering that it is a great city that isn't so badly broken really. Finish your coffee and get out to the beach, the traffic won't be that bad.

- NZ Herald

Liam Dann

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann is the Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, overseeing all our business content in print and online. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy.

Read more by Liam Dann

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