Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Cost-cutting a fast-growing issue

Keeping the berms cut is core council business, says Cameron Brewer, but he says the mayor and most councillors don't want to know. Image / Bromhead
Keeping the berms cut is core council business, says Cameron Brewer, but he says the mayor and most councillors don't want to know. Image / Bromhead

Who'd have thought a pleasantly warm and moist spring would work against Mayor Len Brown in the final stages of his re-election campaign? Unfortunately for him, the sultry weather has made the grass along the council-owned footpaths sprout forth with great gusto in recent weeks, reminding voters within the old Auckland City boundaries of a particularly short-sighted act of cost-cutting by the new regime.

To save $3 million, councillors voted to cease cutting the grass berms from July this year, and instead bully and shame ratepayers into mowing the council's grass.

At the time the mayor was hacking away at his budget so he could honour a pledge to keep rates increases down to the rate of inflation. What's now rubbing salt into the wounds is that many of those in the old city being asked to mow to help Len keep his promise have seen their own rates rocket by as much as 10 per cent, two years in a row.

At yesterday's final council meeting before the election, Orakei councillor Cameron Brewer upset the end of term celebrations by trying to raise the "disgusting" problem of "shin-high" grass across the isthmus.

He was quickly ruled out of order, and afterwards issued a statement declaring "the mayor and majority of councillors don't want to know about it. In fact they just laugh when people like me try to bring it up".

He said keeping the berms cut was core council business, and it was not necessarily the wealthier areas affected, but more often "outside multi-dwelling rented properties that don't have a lawnmower, or outside the homes of the elderly and many others who for various reasons can't mow the council's berms easily".

He's right. I'm one of those without a lawnmower, for the simple reason I don't have any lawn.

I did have an ancient push mower which I used to drag out, but in the end rust, and the roots from the council's tree, won.

A kind neighbour now helps out, but the increasingly untidy streetscape across the isthmus is evidence that's not a long-term solution.

About 40 per cent of householders in the old Auckland City boundaries did not cut their berms.

With plans to squeeze 400,000 new homes within Auckland boundaries over the next 30 years, an increasing number of citizens will live in homes without lawn. Yet the current policy expects the lawnless to buy a mower to tend a strip of land overw hich they have no legal rights.

Auckland Transport, which polices the berm beat, has issued a short list of "exceptions" and invites malingerers like myself to write in, with an accompanying medical certificate, to seek an exemption. Lack of a mower doesn't qualify.

When I checked last week, 16 "special circumstances" applications had been received, of which eight had been granted, four declined and four were still being investigated.

Of those accepted, four involved berms that were too steep (more than a 1:4 gradient) or oversized, one was not accessible to the property and three involved medical certificates, presumably declaring the person might expire mid-mowing.

As chance would have it, I seem to have gained an exemption without asking. A few weeks back, two council contractors appeared wielding weed-eaters and reduced my berm to bowling green height.

They said my property and the one opposite were on their list, but they had no idea why.

On checking, I'm assuming we qualify for special treatment, being adjacent to a shopping centre. I'm not complaining.

The old Auckland City was the only council in the region to mow berms, and Auckland Council says to extend the same service throughout the Super City would cost an extra $12 million to $15 million a year.

But that, presumably, is only if everyone across the region suddenly stopped doing what they'd been doing for years.

Yesterday, Mr Brewer mocked Mayor Brown pushing through support for the $30 million whitewater rafting facility in Manukau City, while treating berm cutting as "no longer core council business".

Better, perhaps, to point out that within an overall 10-year budget of $58 billion, surely there's a place for keeping the council's berms tidy.

Many Aucklanders will keep mowing inside and outside their gates but others will not. Already the streets are becoming scruffy. What happens after Christmas when knee-high berms become a fire hazard? Will the lame, the mowerless and the recalcitrant be dragged before Judge Lester Levy and sentenced to a week on the road gang?

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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