Rodney Hide: Brown does more with less

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Mayor  Len Brown has achieved a lot for Auckland in a short time. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Mayor Len Brown has achieved a lot for Auckland in a short time. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Auckland Mayor Len Brown is doing a fantastic job. His focus is where it should be: the future of the entire Auckland region. And he's delivering. You can't ask for better than that.

His big achievement is the Auckland Plan. It paints a bright and exciting future for Auckland and confronts, and deals with, the big challenges, such as where to put the extra one million Aucklanders expected over the next 30 years.

Decades of poor planning and failure to invest in proper infrastructure have left Auckland groaning with 1.5 million people. Imagine another million. There have been years of hand-waving and finger-pointing by city and regional leaders, but next to no action. That's all changed.

The plan confronts Auckland's future head on. It details how to accommodate the extra million Aucklanders and how to provide the schools, the transport, and the other infrastructure needed to support them.

The plan highlights the issues. For example, Auckland needs an extra 250 new dwellings each and every week to accommodate growth but Auckland is averaging only 50.

These are the issues Brown is dealing with.

Putting it together required Brown to reach across the largest and most diverse constituency in New Zealand. He's also had to apply a steely focus to the future and the big picture. That's hard in politics, especially in local body politics where the concerns are all in the here and now and very often in the local neighbourhood.

If that wasn't enough, Brown also had to get 23 government departments and the Cabinet to confront Auckland's future. Central government is a big funder and provider of Auckland infrastructure and services. The Auckland Plan required a process that brought central government to the table.

That has happened. A unified and organised Auckland has forced central government to spell out how it sees Auckland developing over the next 30 years.

Contrary to public perception, the Government and the Auckland Council agreed on 98 per cent of the Auckland Plan.

The overwhelming agreement enables major progress and the small disagreement is well understood and will be resolved politically.

The disagreement is over the rail loop, transport spending in general and the amount of land to free up for housing. The agreement is over everything else. For example, the Government has to build new schools and the Auckland Plan enables the government and council to agree on their location. The Government remains closely engaged with the council through the plan's implementation and evolution.

Considerable credit must go to Prime Minister John Key. Successive prime ministers feared the political might of a united Auckland. They preferred Auckland fragmented and divided and therefore politically weak. Key held no such fear.

Mayor Brown has achieved a lot for Auckland in a short time. What's more, he's done so with 2000 fewer managers than the previous eight councils that ruled Auckland. That's right, 2000.

In 2009 when the transition began, there were 10,000 staff across the eight councils. There are now 8000. The cut was not from front-line staff and service delivery but to management as duplication was eliminated in establishing the one council. The savings total $94 million in wages alone every year. It works out to more than $1 billion in savings over 10 years.

On top of that Brown made further annual savings of $81 million in his first year and an extra $40 million every year from his second year. In addition to the more than billion-dollar savings achieved through transition, Brown is likely to save another $1.7 billion over the next 10 years.

These savings have been made with service levels maintained and sometimes improved. The Auckland Council is doing more with less.

The hikes in rates have been reined in. The average rate increase across Auckland for the past eight years was 5.7 per cent. The previous eight councils were planning to hike rates by a weighted average of 6 per cent for 2011-2012. Mayor Len Brown paid for the transition costs, had the Rugby World Cup, and cut that rate hike to 3.9 per cent.

That's a big saving. In his second year the rate hike is 3.6 and for the years beyond it's 4 to 4.9 per cent.

I expect further efficiencies and the out-years to be cut to below 4 per cent.

But get this: the eight councils and their subsidiaries were investing $1 billion a year on capital in Auckland. It wasn't near enough. Len Brown is investing $2 billion a year.

Auckland now has a lower rate track than before, but those lower rates are supporting a 200 per cent increase in investment in much-needed infrastructure. That's exactly what Auckland wants and needs.

Brown is relishing the job of being Auckland's first mayor. And he's doing the business.

My only wish is that he had found a job for his defeated opponent John Banks.

In my experience an unemployed John Banks is a jolly nuisance.

- Herald on Sunday

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