Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Auditor-General's warning on ratepayers' $200m investment in Westgate-Massey North project

The Westgate Library to built in Massey, Auckland .
The Westgate Library to built in Massey, Auckland .

The Auditor-General has told Auckland Council to keep closer tabs on a major project in West Auckland costing ratepayers $200 million.

In a long-awaited report into the Westgate-Massey North project, Lyn Provost urged Mayor Phil Goff and councillors to get more involved after highlighting a lack of transparency, openness and governance.

"In my view, the risks involved with this development warrant greater involvement by Auckland Council's governing body in overseeing this project, including its costs," said Provost, who tabled her report in Parliament today.

Auckland Council has taken on a greater risk at this stage in the project by the postponement of these payments
Lyn Provost, Auditor-General

Provost said Waitakere council's 2009 budget for the project of $205 million was essentially the same in April 2015 but did not include work by Watercare Services or council's contribution to relocating power lines.

The developer, New Zealand Retail Property Group, had paid about $3 million of $11.3 million owed to Auckland Council for its share as at last September, she said.

The report also outlined arrangements for postponing and offsetting some of the development contributions payable by New Zealand Retail Property.

"Auckland Council has taken on a greater risk at this stage in the project by the postponement of these payments," Provost said.

The project stretches back to 1999 when the former Waitakere City Council had a vision for a new town centre at Massey North. Just prior to being wound up in 2010, Waitakere council committed funding for road works and other costs, including a new library and public square.

"It is too early to definitively determine the extent to which Waitakere City Council's vision for the town centre will be achieved and the ultimate cost to be borne by ratepayers to achieve that," Provost said at the end of her report.

Provost said councillors had been concerned about the project and should not have needed to resort to her to get answers. She had also received complaints from the public unable to access information about the project.

"Auckland Council could have made more information about this development available," said Provost, saying it was important for local authorities to strike the right balance between commercial sensitivity, maintaining legal privilege and being open with ratepayers and elected representatives to provide transparency and demonstrate value for money.

"Such openness allows public discussion and debate, and is essential to supporting public sector accountability."

Provost "encouraged" Auckland Council to consider releasing all or some of a report by law firm Meredith Connell into the project. The council has put a redacted version of the report on its website.

Council's legal and risk director Katherine Anderson said the council accepted the conclusions and recommendations in the report.

Goff, who has promised to improve transparency and accountability at council, was not immediately available for comment. On the election hustings last year, he described satisfaction with council's performance at "rock bottom".

Former councillor George Wood said he felt important information had been improperly withheld from him about the project.

"I hope that this is a major learning curve for Auckland Council and that elected members must in the future have all available material made available to them when requested," said Wood, who is a now a member of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board.

- NZ Herald

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