Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Time to take Auckland seriously

Auckland's mayor is ready to up the pace for action on the transformation of the city writes Fran O'Sullivan.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / NZ Herald
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / NZ Herald

Auckland Mayor Len Brown is obviously no stranger to the motto "pressure makes a diamond" as he prepares to step up the revolution to transform Auckland.

On November 1, Brown will be one year into the job as the first elected Mayor of Auckland. He is now arguably New Zealand's second most powerful politician. The irony is not lost on the former Manukau City mayor, who initially campaigned against Auckland becoming a Super City but ended up running the show.

But after nearly a year spent evolving multiple plans - The Auckland Plan (or spatial plan); a draft city centre masterplan, and waterfront and economic development plans - he wants to "go short on decision and long on action".

Most of the recent political argy bargy has concentrated on thorny issues. Do Aucklanders really want to live in high density neighbourhoods? Can Auckland really afford the three gold-plated public rail projects that Brown successfully campaigned on last year?

The expansive plans are so breath-takingly audacious that Brown will have to find a further $20 billion to cover the costs of unfunded transport projects, according to NZ Council for Infrastructure executive director Stephen Selwood.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce has taken issue with the cost-benefit calculations for pet Brown projects like the proposed CBD rail tunnel. But Brown is not deterred. He believes commonality is slowly being achieved. The fact that the NZ Transport Agency invited him to join its delegation to China to study rail tunnel operation is a signal the two sides are getting closer.

Irrespective of the Government's position, Brown plans to launch a public debate in Auckland ("after the election") on funding options such as congestion charges and tolls.

The blunt political reality is that Auckland Council will soon have a common plan. Government politicians from the Prime Minister down will have to treat Auckland seriously.

The old divide and rule game doesn't work so well with eight councils now rolled into one Super City. "They will have to talk to Auckland," says Brown.

The mayor believes significant economic growth targets in the Auckland Council's plans will not be achieved if it adopts a purely domestic focus.

At Villa Maria Estate three weeks ago, Brown charmed guests at a Future Cities Global Forum dinner. They were clearly impressed by the goal to improve Auckland's OECD ranking by 20 places, double annual productivity growth and double average export growth over the next 30 years.

"Currently we generate about nine per of New Zealand's export economy but we can do better," Brown told forum guests. "Innovation is the key, the future is unlocked, and my door is always open.

"If we succeed, this economy will be unrecognisable in 30 years time. Evolution won't do it. This requires a revolution. Creative, intelligent disruption. I'm guessing you are here tonight because you want to be part of that revolution.

"Council could opt to butt out and leave market forces to their own devices but such a transformational shift in our economic performance will require us to leverage commercial industries to earn more, increase skills, use resources more effectively and make better use of comparative advantages."

They nodded agreement as Brown said Auckland hadn't sufficiently capitalised on it strengths in the way some small countries have, such as Singapore, Finland, Switzerland and more recently Israel and Slovenia.

Auckland's standard of living has attracted quality immigrants - more than 50 per cent have either a university or advanced vocational qualification.

The nation expects Auckland to be more of an economic powerhouse. It is under-performing. The missing link is innovation.

Last week, Brown joined Science and Innovation Minister Wayne Mapp to announce a new innovation precinct at Wynyard Quarter. It is being promoted as another step along the way to Auckland "becoming an innovation hub for the Asia-Pacific".

"I've taken a lot of inspiration from Sir Ray Avery and his work and advocacy in the area of maintaining IP here rather than losing it," says Brown.

Avery, a pharmaceutical scientist and social entrepreneur whose groundbreaking work has improved the lives of millions of poor and vulnerable people, came up with the idea of a Knowledge Bank.

To Brown, it is a way of maintaining Auckland's intellectual property and ideas and using that as the base for start-ups and for capital investment. He stresses if Auckland is to be a high tech innovation city, "it needs pace".

Here's some specific areas where Brown wants to step up the pace.

High-speed fibre-optic broadband. "I'm pleased with the Government's statements but we need it in five years not seven. We don't want a Digital Divide where some parts of the city are getting fibre and others are not. The council is working with Crown Fibre Holdings, Government and Industry to ensure an earlier rollout."

Power and energy - "I've always been focused on ensuring it's not just coming from the South but we get it from the North for diversity of supply."

Free WiFi in the central city - "We've shown how it's been rolled out during the Rugby World Cup. It's a work in progress. But I think we can now see what's possible and I am quietly confident we can work towards free WiFi citywide. But again we need the parties, the players."

Brown relates that when he meets up with the council's Youth Advisory Panel they ask him, "Why should I stay in Auckland?"

'It's critical that we provide them with a sense they can get all their career options here, so they don't have to travel to Australia or America.

"The Government and the country share a concern that we are leaking our best talent overseas.

"So we need to be developing an economy in Auckland that ticks all the boxes for this generation coming through. So when they come out with their top class degrees they are genuinely enthused about staying in Auckland because they see it's a world class city - it gives them great opportunities for their careers."

The mayor's boyish enthusiasm about Auckland "being on the edge of the ideas debate" is palpable.

With his trademark staccato style, Brown states "We. Are. Fresh.' ( He hits each word with the intensity of an amateur rap musician).

"Over the decades we have just not rated on the international city-ometer ... but now people are looking to us for our ideas."

Brown is also looking to other nations like China as a source of infrastructure investment and capital for high-tech companies.

The Government's decision to change the law so the Auckland Council can borrow in currencies other than the New Zealand dollar, clears the way for it to seek longer-term offshore funding - a move the council estimates will save about NZ$10 million a year.

He notes that Fonterra already has significant interests in China which Auckland can leverage.

The marine sector is also starting to interface strongly with China. So are the wine growers and export education institutions - the kind of companies which Brown will take with him on his China mission next April.

There are some niggles.

The punch-up with the Government after the Party Central fracas on the opening night of the Rugby World Cup still irks.

Says Brown: "When you sit on Wynyard Quarter and look back at the city at night, you know all this works. We are developing a Major Events Strategy - the city is up for it.

"We've got to be clear this is what we want to do - but on our terms."

- NZ Herald

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