From the outset, one of the major worries about the Super City framework was the ability of the 21 local boards to respond to their suburbs' particular needs. People's desire for their area to decide its own priorities and character would become impossible if they were to become mere supplicants to the Auckland Council. In that context, the decision of the Otara-Papatoetoe and Mangere-Otahuhu local boards on the swimming pools in their suburbs is particularly welcome.
The two boards have opted out of the council's move to charge adults for a swim. Instead, dips at the Papatoetoe Centennial Pool, Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa and the Otara Leisure Centre will be subsidised from the boards' funds until July, when they envisage a target rate will cover the cost of free access. The boards say their decision is based on public surveys on the council's decision to charge all those aged over 17 to use its network of pools. "Our people say they do not mind a target rate to cover the cost of free access and we will ask the council governing body to authorise that special rate," said the Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board chairman, Leau Peter Skelton.
When Mayor Len Brown sought to make all of Auckland's municipal pools free, the idea did not fly. There was good reason for this. Extending the benefit that applied to the former Manukau City's pools was simply too expensive, not least in the additional maintenance costs that would flow from increased use. Additionally, for most Aucklanders, swimming is available at very good beaches close to their homes.
The best that Mr Brown could achieve was a free pass to all Aucklanders aged 16 and under to the council's 24 pools. This was an acknowledgment of the importance of children becoming safe and confident around water. But it also meant adults in the former Manukau City area were on the verge of losing their free swims. Like other Aucklanders, they would pay at least $3.10 for every dip. The intervention of the two local boards means that will no longer be the case.
Importantly, not least for the local board members' chances of re-election, the gauging of local opinion should have been comprehensive. Additionally, the boards should have spelled out the fact that before the target rate, the money spent on providing free swims was money that could not be spent on other amenities.
Other local boards have other priorities. But it is easy to see why people in the Mangere-Otahuhu and Otara-Papatoetoe areas regard the continuation of this policy as important. Compared with much of the rest of Auckland, they are a relatively long distance from the city's beaches. Therefore, free public pools have proved popular. They provide a healthy and fun activity that is supervised. The health aspect was emphasised by Mr Skelton, and is underlined by Counties Manukau Health Board figures that show 48 per cent of Mangere's adult population is obese.
The pools initiative is particularly encouraging because local boards have been shortchanged in some other aspects. They have not, for example, been given a strong hand in the contentious area of heritage protection. Yet they will always play a pivotal role in ensuring the council remains within reach of its citizens. No public body is better placed to assess the needs and priorities of its community, and each must be able to respond to these.
The free adult access to pools in one part of Auckland reveals a pleasing willingness by two local boards to plough that path. It also provides welcome evidence that the Super City does not mean standardisation must ride roughshod over diversity.