Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

An open letter to the new Auckland Mayor

Housing in Albany. Photo / Michael Craig
Housing in Albany. Photo / Michael Craig

Dear Mayor,

Congratulations on becoming the second mayor of the Super City. When you start next month you are going to need to be all over transport, housing, the port, the city's books and the bureaucrats. It's a huge challenge, but these are exciting times for Auckland.

These are the big issues facing Aucklanders.


The housing crisis is Aucklanders' number one priority for the new Auckland Council, according to a Spinoff/SSI poll. Spring has pushed prices to new highs. Quotable Value figures show Auckland has hit the $1 million asking price. Auckland is not building enough homes and has a 40,000 shortfall. Every week, the city grows by more than 800 people and it is estimated the city needs 13,000 new homes a year to cope with growth. Despite a pick-up in construction, just 9622 homes were built in the last financial year. Things have to change.

There is no silver bullet and it will take a concerted effort by council, central government, developers, iwi and community housing agencies to get on top of the crisis.

The council has an important role to play. For starters, it can streamline the consenting process and make it faster and cheaper for all involved. Council has made improvements in this space, but there are still too many tales of the bureaucracy dragging the process out and costs up. Council needs a more "can do" approach and less red tape.
The just-passed Unitary Plan presents opportunities and pitfalls. Set your sights on higher density housing along arterial roads and transport routes. The plan caused a lot of division, but most people support the idea of apartments close to public transport and main roads.

Keep a close eye on the heritage and leafy suburbs. Good developers will respect the values of these communities, but there's a heap of cowboys out there who give intensification a bad name. And watch the planners. Too often, they wave through controversial plans without giving the public a say. You don't want to find yourself talking a protester down from a kauri tree in Titirangi.


Traffic congestion on the Auckland Harbour Bridge at 10.45am. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Traffic congestion on the Auckland Harbour Bridge at 10.45am. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sainthood awaits anyone who can unclog Auckland's roads and build a decent public transport system. The closest anyone came was Robbie, who championed rapid rail but got knee-capped by Wellington.

Ironically, you inherit Robbie's dream with work under way on the City Rail Link - New Zealand's biggest transport project. Hats off to Len Brown for making it happen against the odds. New electric trains and soaring patronage made it a no brainer.

But the cost, now up to $3.4 billion, is a worry. If the cost continues to rise, it will take scarce resources away from other transport projects, of which there is precious little wriggle room in the 10-year budget.

Which brings up a new funding model for transport. Rates and debt can no longer be the main sources of funding for transport. A Treasury report to Government paints a gloomy picture of transport assets deteriorating from 2018 and the need for alternative funding sources.

A new transport strategy out this week mentions "network pricing" alongside traditional funding sources, but John Key has assured motorists tolls won't happen any time soon. Transport Minister Simon Bridges is showing a refreshing willingness to work with Auckland on transport issues.

There's also the Government's modest $1 billion infrastructure fund and lots of talk of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Asset sales are another option, but a one-off sale of say the airport shares will leave a hole in council's operating budget.

The list of transport projects needed to be completed is too long for this letter. Besides, you will have your own list, whether it is light rail, fast-tracking a second harbour crossing or a busway out west. A good start would be getting buses and trains to run on time.


On the one hand the city's books are rosy. There's an accounting surplus and council's AA credit rating is better than any bank or company in New Zealand.
On the other hand, ordinary Aucklanders have been hammered with a combined household rates rise of 16.8 per cent in the past three years. The council has borrowed heavily since amalgamation with debt nearly doubling from $3.9b to $7.4b.

Council's debt ceiling is getting dangerously close to a level that could trigger a credit rating downgrade.

Chances are you got the message to hold rates around 2-2.5 per cent, keep debt under control and cut fat.

That is easier said than done. Council officers have already found $200m of annual savings and wringing more savings will take real resolve.

One area Aucklanders really want action on is staffing numbers and costs, which have climbed to about 10,000 and $800 million respectively. In its first full financial year the council had 7200 staff and a $615m wages bill.

If you want an example of bureaucracy gone mad, a workshop in April on revising the Auckland Plan next year tied up 37 middle managers, most of whom had the words "adviser", "strategic" and "analyst" in their job titles.

Another area you need to keep close tabs on is the clunky IT system, which has cost ratepayers $1.2b with NewCore, the project considered key to delivering better services (and savings), blowing out in cost from $71m to $157m.

There is also the embarrassing matter of council paying $104m for a city skyscraper to house staff and finding it faces a repair bill of $31m.

The Port

A straddle Carrier lifts shipping containers at the Fergusson container terminal at the Ports of Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson
A straddle Carrier lifts shipping containers at the Fergusson container terminal at the Ports of Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson

The people versus the port has hardly been out of the headlines in the past four years.
That's partly down to the Herald campaigning to stop any further harbour reclamation for port use.

To recap, port opponents won a historic victory in the courts last year for two large wharf extensions that the port company wanted to fill in over time. The ruling came as a huge relief for thousands of Aucklanders who marched or took to the harbour in boats to protest.

Ports of Auckland took reclamation off the table while a major study of Auckland's port needs was carried out.

The report was delivered in July this year. It found the port will have to move over time but will require extra berth space at Bledisloe Wharf in the short-term.

Within hours of the report being released, the ports company flagged fresh plans for a 40m extension beyond the tip of two concrete piers at the end of the wharf.
The headline in the Herald? "Port of War'.

As mayor, you can follow in the footsteps of your predecessor and take a softly, softly line, or stand up to the port company. The council owns 100 per cent of the port. You have the power to issue a directive and, if necessary, replace the board.

If you are really brave, you will begin the process of moving the port to create something truly wonderful for the city.

Council's image

Auckland Councilors in chamber prior to their vote to censure Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Auckland Councilors in chamber prior to their vote to censure Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey

When only 15 per cent of Aucklanders are satisfied with council's performance and only 17 per cent trust council to make the right decisions, there is something terribly wrong.
Call it what you like, a failure of leadership, a lack of transparency and accountability, poor communications - Aucklanders have a very poor opinion of council.

There is a widespread feeling that the bureaucrats are running council, and running rings around the elected representatives.

There is a widespread feeling that the seven council-controlled organisations (CCOs) are out of control.

The balance between strong political governance and a responsive, high-performing bureaucracy is out of kilter.

Council officers and subsidiary organisations are making decisions that catch elected representatives unaware. When Ateed set up a posting in London the mayor was taken by surprise. No one told him about the port company's wharf extensions. He learnt about it from the Herald.

In fact, councillors read the Herald to find out what is happening at council.
Restoring public confidence in council must be a high priority. The same goes for greater transparency and accountability. You must exert authority over the council bureaucracy and keep them on a short leash.

And finally, Auckland needs a fresh direction.

Good luck

- NZ Herald

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Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Super City reporter Bernard Orsman has been covering local government issues in Auckland since 1998. He covered the Auckland City Council beat through the Christine Fletcher, John Banks and Dick Hubbard terms before turning his attention to the creation of the Super City. Bernard was previously based in the Press Gallery at Parliament for nearly six years. He joined the Herald in 1990 after a stint on New Zealand News UK in London. Bernard studied politics and mathematics at Victoria University before graduating from Wellington Polytechnic School of Journalism.

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