Rebels at the gate

By Geoff Cumming

The final touches are being put to the Super City but fringe-dwellers are still battling to opt out.

Retired schoolteacher Simon Breeze fears 'North Rodney' will lose its identity if it is swallowed up into the Super City. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Retired schoolteacher Simon Breeze fears 'North Rodney' will lose its identity if it is swallowed up into the Super City. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Easter, among other things, represents the last chance for many Aucklanders to escape city life before winter sets in.

For many, relief lies 60km up the road at Warkworth, gateway to the bays, beaches, holiday homes, vineyards and cafes that rub shoulders with farms and lifestyle blocks on this sheltered coast.

Auckland's playground, they call it. Latterly, locals have taken to calling it "North Rodney".

The locals will tolerate this holiday weekend invasion with their usual bemusement before rural tranquillity is restored. Many, after all, have a passing acquaintance with the city; it's a relationship they grudgingly admit to.

Margaret Baker left Auckland 15 years ago and bought a bush block when Matakana was "just a backwater".

She doesn't dislike Aucklanders she stresses as we talk beside Warkworth's tree-fringed river, she dislikes Auckland. "I don't go there very often - all those high-rise buildings, it's like a foreign country."

She's dismayed by North Rodney's transformation from dairying to an increasingly crowded, semi-rural character, and Matakana's transition to a mini-village with movie theatres and cafes.

"Matakana's gone now," she says. "Auckland is like a disease - it just creeps after you."

What has finally influenced her decision to move further out is North Rodney's inclusion in the Super City. "I was thinking of going to Port Albert but now even that's in the Super City - I might have to go to Kaiwaka."

Baker is one of a hard core of locals engaged in a quixotic struggle to prevent this still largely rural area being ruled from Queen St.

The Northern Action Group (NAG) claims at least 80 per cent of locals are behind the campaign to opt out of the Super City and join forces with neighbouring Kaipara District Council.

But an act of Parliament last September set in stone the Super City's northern boundary 30km further north. It follows the regional council boundary, a line stretching from just north of Te Hana to the coast.

What no politician has sufficiently explained to the locals is: Why?

Why does the single council, which Rodney folk thought was needed to solve urban Auckland's problems, have to control the lives of people so far removed from the city?

Asked by the Herald to clarify the Government's thinking, Local Government Minister Rodney Hide released this statement: "The decision to include rural areas in the northern and southern boundaries of Auckland recognises the need for a governance model that ensures that the strategic direction and long-term interests of the whole region are enhanced.

"Arguments for the inclusion of rural areas in the northern and southern boundaries of Auckland take into account the wider interests of the entire region over the long term. I am confident that the current reorganisation plans will bring tangible benefits to all of Auckland's communities."

Hide says the guarantee of a ward member for rural Rodney will help to "find the balance between the interests of the region as a whole and local needs".

The Super City legislation passed last year forced the hand of the Local Government Commission when it set the ward boundaries for the new council.

Politicians now maintain it is too late to revisit things; that leaving North Rodney (the area north of Puhoi) out of the Super City would have a domino effect on the council's population-based wards.

That hasn't stopped NAG and the Wellsford Community Group petitioning Parliament to amend the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act so the Local Government Commission can revisit the boundary issue.

Last week, NAG chairman Bill Townson and Wellsford group spokesman John Turner addressed the local government committee, which is considering the two petitions. More than 6000 locals signed them - nearly half the area's 14,000 eligible voters, says Townson.

The two groups have found support in the neighbouring Kaipara District Council which voted last week to investigate a local bill to shift its boundary south. How far south? "As far south as we can," says chief executive Jack McKercher.

His council was already lobbying to expand southwards to encircle the Kaipara Harbour, which McKercher says has not been well-managed.

While it envisaged an eastern boundary based on catchment lines, he says the council has warmed to the idea of expanding eastwards to take in the coastal area from Puhoi to Mangawhai.

"If the people of Warkworth want to be part of the Kaipara, we can make that work."

The odds are stacked against them. The third Auckland law reform bill, due to go back to Parliament next month (May), places a moratorium on any further reorganisation proposals for the region for the next three years.

Townson says locals were never properly consulted about the single council - a model radically modified from that proposed by the Royal Commission into Auckland's governance.

The select committee which heard submissions on the proposal last year recommended that the northern boundary be set at Puhoi. But the Government rejected that recommendation and opted for the regional council boundary further north.

An infamous public meeting at the Ascension vineyard, which locals say was "stacked", was used to justify the decision.

What's happened since - the news that unelected arm's length organisations will wield the real power - has only hardened opinion against the new council.

"The whole Super City thing smacks of greed and power - it's alien to what small communities stand for," says Margaret Baker.

She fears for the future of the native bush areas she has protected on her land. "I don't think the Super City will care about little bits of bush.

"I don't think the Super City will care about the coastline. I think it's all about big business. They don't have the needs of small rural communities at heart."

The arguments for including North Rodney in the new council revolve around connections and interconnections. Auckland residents have holiday homes on the coast and go to its bays and vineyards for recreation. Locals, meanwhile, go to Auckland for work, to shop or for entertainment.

The Auckland Regional Council's parks - Mahurangi, Tawharanui and Scandretts - also came into the decision.

More important to Super City proponents is a belief that how this area grows and develops could help or hinder the plans: Where housing goes influences roading and other services; lifestylers commuting to work contribute to motorway snarls and may undermine public transport improvements.

The Auckland Regional Council and other environmental groups often clashed with Rodney District Council over its planning decisions and rules - such as those allowing beachside sprawl at Snells Beach and Algies Bay, now a sizeable suburb complete with The Warehouse.

Omaha and Pakiri were other flashpoints.

Without the ARC as watchdog, it's feared small, rural councils will be unable (or unwilling) to manage growth in a way that fits with the aims of the big city neighbours.

The distrust argument is returned in spades by the rebels at the gate. Baker cites the latest big subdivision proposal at Omaha, alongside a wildlife sanctuary.

"This is where the people who will run this council go for their holidays. It smacks to me of agendas," he says.

"The sort of people who set up developments and rape and pillage the countryside tend to be city people. They tend to be National supporters."

Baker's language is powerful but she's really quite friendly. "People have slagged us off as nutters. We're not nutters; we are people who actually give a shit. It's been an extremely undemocratic process."

There are, nevertheless, some in North Rodney who believe the Super city will be best placed to guide development. Lawyer Colin Binsted lives at Rainbow's End, a settlement of about 50 houses overlooking Sandspit.

A few years ago the residents teamed up to oppose a 20-unit subdivision billed as "visitor accommodation" and took the developer to the Environment Court.

Binsted says the developer's real aim was to "flog off" the units but the visitor accommodation tag was used to get around Rodney District Council restrictions on rural land development.

He fears North Rodney will be more vulnerable to greenfield developments if it stays out of the Super City. "I'm very passionate about protection of the rural and coastal area from subdivision and the ability of the local authority to defend its district plan against wealthy people who want to change the plan.

"The super city will have a rating base of one million people to defend its planning laws whereas an enlarged Kaipara District Council would have a rating base of only 40,000.

"I think it's up to North Rodney people to convince big city people of the value of these coastal and rural assets."

In the Rainbow's End fight, Binsted's allies included his neighbour Simon Breeze, but on the Super City issue they disagree. Breeze, a retired Auckland schoolteacher, fears the area will lose its identity and locals their sense of belonging.

"Yes, we'll have a rating base of one million but there'll be one million people making demands.

"Aucklanders are smart cookies - they are always looking for ways to circumvent the regulations to make a buck."

He says locals are better placed to make decisions about housing, roading and town planning. "They are in contact with the people here - I personally know three of the seven councillors.

"The power to control things has been taken away from the people and given to faceless bureaucrats."

He expects more developers to chance their arm under the Super City "because money doesn't just talk, it shouts, it screams".

"A lot of these people have very deep pockets. We had to raise $60,000 to go to the Environment Court - the other side employed lawyers at $500 to $600 an hour."

When we visit Townson, he is working on his sea plane. He built it a few years ago and then sold it. When he bought it back last year it had been modified. Now he's putting everything back the way it was to get it flying again.

Townson is taking the same methodical approach to turning back the single council - he sees a way around every obstacle.

"Our approach is to discredit the basis on which the select committee decision was overridden and get back to normal procedure under the Local Government Act which culminates with a binding referendum.

"That hasn't been done here - they have taken away our democratic rights."

If the Government uses the excuse that southern Rodney would lack the population needed for a Super City ward and that it's too late to re-do the ward boundaries, Townson has a solution: put south Rodney into a rural ward with Franklin.

"The real issue is representation. From having one councillor for 5000 people under the proposed larger Kaipara council we would have one representative for every 60,000 under the Auckland council."

He doesn't believe the ward system will adequately serve the area's interests. "We're too far removed from the centre of power."

Townson and wife Mona first came to Scotts Landing, an idyllic peninsula jutting into the Mahurangi Harbour, 35 years ago.

It's a place where resources are shared - the chainsaw, the ride-on mower, the slipway on his property are for the neighbours' use. The couple fear this sense of community will be lost.

He rejects suggestions that a bigger rating base will mean more money is spent in the area.

"Our experience with the ARC was that they spent very little of the money they take from the area in the area - it is spent on regional parks and urban transport for the people of Auckland.

"We really don't feel the people of Mission Bay will be too keen on paying for a sewage scheme for Wellsford."

But surely, with the final piece of reform legislation just a month away, he is tilting at windmills?

"We're not going to give up. Even if we get turned down by the Government we'll go to the Ombudsman. There's more things we can do yet.

Does he really think it be stopped?

"I think so - I thought we had a slim chance right from the outset.

"I'm going to fight probably till I die. People up here are so incensed by the fact they have been stuck in against their will.

"What we want is a binding referendum."


A line in the sand

Outsiders could be excused for dismissing the depth of feeling in North Rodney because the messages have been, well, confusing.

Working out who wants to hop into bed with who reads like a script from Desperate Housewives - a script laced with wounded pride, cross-town rivalries, suspicion and petty jealousies.

The Northern Action Group (NAG) based around Warkworth and Matakana, wants Puhoi as the cut-off point in its divorce from the Super City.

It sees North Rodney's future in the arms of neighbouring Kaipara District Council - a council with none of the swagger and ambition of the Super City.

The Wellsford Community Group's petition has the dividing line at Dome Valley, leaving trendy Matakana and Snells Beach folk in the clutches of the Super City.

But spokesman John Turner says his group would be quite happy for the coastal area to come in with Wellsford in an enlarged Kaipara council.

It's just that Wellsford was quicker out of the blocks in opposing the Super City and launched its petition before NAG was up-and-running.

The Rodney District Council wants all or nothing: if the whole of Rodney can't become a unitary authority (with environmental and district council responsibilities), there's no point in leaving bits out of the Super City, it argues.

But it seems no one in North Rodney has faith in the Orewa-based district council - its track record is scandalous, say locals.

Sitting out in left field is the Kaipara District Council, which wants a council formed around the catchment of the Kaipara Harbour. It was initially lukewarm about extending its proposal as far east as Warkworth and the coast but is warming to the concept.

"The people of Snells Beach wouldn't normally go for coffee in either Dargaville or Helensville," says Kaipara chief executive Jack McKercher.

"South of the Dome, people look towards the Hauraki Gulf; it's part of Auckland's playground.

"But if the people of Warkworth want to be part of Kaipara, we can make that work."

McKercher says the Kaipara Harbour's future is his council's big focus.

"The harbour hasn't been particularly well managed and it's at a tipping point.

"If it's not well-managed there will be no snapper in New Zealand waters [a reference to Niwa's recent finding that 98 per cent of snapper on the North Island west coast were juveniles in the Kaipara]."

McKercher concedes that reaction in Helensville in the southern Kaipara to the harbour council idea has been mixed and residents may be inclined to go with Auckland.

He believes the union may take six years to consummate.

"Ideally, we would like to go right around the Kaipara Harbour but it may be something we do in stages.

"It's a political process."

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Dec 2014 14:27:53 Processing Time: 538ms