Michael Barnett: Remove roadblocks to progress

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Let's focus next year on delivering solutions to Auckland's big issues such as improving transport.

Auckland faces a congestion crisis in the city centre if we don't invest in better rail and bus systems. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland faces a congestion crisis in the city centre if we don't invest in better rail and bus systems. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Removing roadblocks to allow for decisive action on Auckland's critically important economic growth agenda is emerging as the top issue facing the city in early 2013.

I have said a number of times recently that I represent a business community who believe that Auckland would be in much better shape to perform its role as New Zealand's only city of global scale if decision-making was accelerated on delivering solutions to Auckland's big issues.

Transport and a national convention centre are the stand-out examples, but there are a number of other issues where a change of culture to focus on solutions and action is badly needed.

The recent transport report showing Auckland faces a looming congestion crisis in the city centre if we don't invest in improving rail and bus systems once again reinforced what has been abundantly clear for a number of years. We need more people out of cars and into public transport. In order to do that, we need a good and efficient network.

In the last decade more has been done in Auckland to fix the problem than in the past 50 years.

However, we need to face up urgently to the fact that Auckland's population is growing at twice the rate of the rest of New Zealand and we need some courageous decisions that will encourage investment in a much improved and more efficient public transport system.

It is very clear that the principle of turning the end-of-the-line Britomart rail station into a through stop on a loop line, so doubling the number trains that can travel on the rail network, has been sold to the Auckland public and has strong support as part of the city's transport solution.

Whether the extended rail line should go closer to Auckland University or Auckland City Hospital to maximise the number of passengers the rail service will attract is important detail for transport experts to sort out.

But this doesn't detract from the core facts about the project - we know its approximate cost and it is widely seen as part of the long-term solution. While there is also debate on when is the best time to build the rail link, the view within business is that it needs to happen sooner rather than later. It therefore doesn't help that a central government agency becomes a roadblock to its progress.

If the brains trust for transport decisions resides in Wellington then that's fine. But if that is to be the case they should be putting forward solutions to Auckland's transport problems not telling Auckland it is wrong and putting in roadblocks.

By putting political parameters around our decision-making, all we end up achieving is to deny ourselves the chance of making progress to confirm a solution and accelerate action.

I represent a group of business leaders who strongly support the principle of the city rail link and accelerating other long-agreed key transport projects. If it is going to require new faces at the table with central Government to explain their urgency to helping drive Auckland's economic growth agenda, then we would welcome a meeting with Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee to find a solution.

Likewise the National Convention Centre. We need to separate out the politics around the decision-making and focus on why the convention centre is needed, its urgency and the "game changer" solution SkyCity has put on the table.

The Green Party is not without some justification in focusing on whether the right and proper processes have been followed by Government in supporting the SkyCity proposal.

They are not focusing on the need or the solution. We should not lose sight of the fact that SkyCity has offered a solution for Auckland.

Ten years ago the business community agreed New Zealand needs a national convention centre capable of hosting conferences averaging 3500 delegates. The call to action has been raised as a top priority at every growth forum Auckland has ever had, and been reinforced by uncontested research confirming multimillion-dollar benefits and data showing the "spend" per conference attendee is $650 a night - double that of the average tourist.

Nothing has changed. We need to sort out the politics around the decision-making and move on. SkyCity has offered to build a convention centre essentially for free.

They are a solution provider - offering to supply a critical piece of infrastructure that Auckland and New Zealand badly need if we are to lift our ability to compete internationally.

Another endless discussion centres on the high value of our dollar and the harm this causes to our export earnings.

A Chamber of Commerce survey confirms widespread agreement that we shouldn't be printing money as a way to force down the value of the dollar. But equally there is a lot of agreement that we could be doing much more to help exporters to improve their efficiency and compete better in a world of constant currency fluctuations.

There is much more that businesses can do themselves to better manage exchange risk, but there is also a lot that the Government and other institutions could contribute - from lower interest rates, reduced cost of local government, reduced port and cross-border compliance costs, lower resource consent costs.Extracting these solutions requires committed decision-making and action.

My point: it is pointless to continue having endless discussions on the problems we have without putting solutions on the table.

Auckland's success can never been measured by debating our problems and pointing out what is wrong with particular proposals. Success can only be measured by the solutions we put forward and the actions we take to deliver them.

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

Opinion page pause
The Opinion pages are taking a break and will resume on Monday, January 14, 2013. Contributed opinion will continue to appear on the letters page.

- NZ Herald

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