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Herald on Sunday editorial: Cities need mayoral contests

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Len Brown currently faces no heavyweight rival. Photo / Doug Sherring
Len Brown currently faces no heavyweight rival. Photo / Doug Sherring

Nominations are now open for council elections and our two largest cities find themselves with practically no mayoral contest. Auckland's Len Brown currently faces no heavyweight rival and Christchurch's Bob Parker has withdrawn, leaving the the way open for Labour's Lianne Dalziel. Voters have a right to be disappointed.

Auckland's election is, or should be, the first test of its constitution as a "super city". Christchurch, of course, is at a crucial point in its earthquake recovery. Both cities would benefit from a good debate about the way things are working.

There is still time for challengers to come forward before nominations close on August 16 but the scale and cost of a mayoral campaign means that serious contenders are leaving it late.

Restaurateur John Palino has personal wealth to put into his Auckland mayoral bid but he did not make himself known until May, and only seems to have gained any sort of traction since National MP Maurice Williamson decided against standing.

Palino offers a view of Auckland quite different from that presented by Brown and the council in its published urban plans. Palino believes those plans are trying to reshape the city too much. He likes it the way it is and believes problems such as traffic congestion and housing can be fixed without changing its character.

While the mayor's vision is to contain urban sprawl and avoid the fate of Los Angeles, Palino, an American, has questioned whether outward expansion is really more costly to service than intensified development of existing suburbs.

It is an important question, sharpened by the alarm in many of those suburbs when the council produced its draft building specifications for intensification, called the Unitary Plan. Brown has promised the council will revise some of the details and he must now be relieved the Government did not agree to the plan becoming operative before the election.

But Brown has done well to win the Government's endorsement for the centrepiece of his plan, the underground rail link in an inner city loop that will enable trains to be more frequent and reliable.

He deserves credit too for suggesting alternative ways of meeting the city's share of the cost. A charge for existing roads, as foreshadowed in recent days, requires political courage. It was too much for the Government this week and a general election is still a year away.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee's outright dismissal of the ideas of the mayor's "consensus building group" leaves many asking yet again, why did the Government set up a super city?

Clearly it is not prepared to give Auckland more autonomy than local government normally enjoys in New Zealand. The city might now speak with one voice but still must ask permission to do anything differently.

Government's rule has been even heavier in Christchurch, necessarily so. But while Parker has risen to the challenge of events, his council has not. The loss of building consent accreditation was the last straw for all concerned. The city needs new leadership but choice would be nice.

One-sided contests usually mean a low vote, an uncertain mandate for those elected and tentative leadership. Local government may be our weaker tier of elected public administration, but its services are as vital as any we receive. One-sided or not, the election deserves our keen attention and a considered vote.

- Herald on Sunday

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