Council 'pioneering new ground'

By Fran O'Sullivan

Doug McKay. Photo / NZ Herald
Doug McKay. Photo / NZ Herald

Auckland Council boss Doug McKay has more important things resting on his shoulders this week than worrying about complex issues like winning Aucklanders' approval for city's draft spatial plan.

"We're delivering the third biggest sporting event in the world at the moment in this country," says McKay. "And a lot of that responsibility sits with Auckland, given the last games are here."

"We're doing things in that sense that we've never done before. We've been handling up to 250,000 people a day on game day. We're running double-headers at our stadiums on Saturdays and Sundays.

"There's a lot of firsts every way you look at it. We're pioneering new ground all the time. Every week it seems we've got another new milestone to meet."

McKay takes the challenge in his stride. The interim chief executive of the Auckland Council had already earned a big reputation as a corporate transformation agent before taking on his role.

After a year spent bedding down the largest amalgamation in Australasia he is now turning his sights to his second year's priorities.

He has three aims:-

* Complete the transition phase and deliver the single rate for all of Auckland;

* Deliver the long-term plan which is due by next June;

* Finalise the Auckland Plan to set the vision for the next 30 years.

McKay says delivering the long-term plan will force the Auckland Council to state just how it will fund some of the big infrastructure projects. It will have to be very clear about where the money is coming from.

Reaction to the Auckland Plan - or spatial plan - has been very constructive. "We are looking for serious challenge or critique because we want to reflect that in the final report."

Points of disagreement with Government were identified early and still remain. McKay narrows these to two issues - the form of urban development and a difference of view on the timing of some key infrastructure projects like the inner city rail link.

Like any CEO, McKay has had to deal with the issues.

He cites the furore over the opening night for Rugby World Cup ("we're clearly over that now"). There were early challenges to accommodate staff. Five hundred staff didn't have a seat to sit on on Day One. Some local community events have dropped through the cracks between the council and CCOs, but McKay says "as we discover them they will get a home".

All of this is relative small beer in the private sector. McKay relates that when he goes out to visit businesses they ask him, "what do you think of your major achievements?"

"I tell them about the savings and they go, 'why don't we know more about that?"'

McKay is referring to the fact that the Auckland Council managed to keep its rates increase down to 3.94 per cent; versus what it would have been "if we hadn't got $81 million worth of savings".

He says further savings will obviously be enjoyed over the next few years as management settle into the real work of integration.

He was proud to support the Christchurch earthquake recovery efforts by putting 300 people down in Christchurch.

But now, he says, a lot of Christchurch people are considering Auckland as an attractive home for their insurance payouts. "You can't get insurance there."

McKay admits the challenge of amalgamating seven councils and a regional authority into one new Super City was "at the challenging end of corporate transformation. It was complex. It was massive.

"There is a heck of a lot we can be very proud of. We did the largest capital raising this year in New Zealand - $500 million."

McKay says the credit rating agencies are very impressed with the results the council has been able to achieve.

He has also landed a lot of the legacy projects he inherited from the previous councils.

"It doesn't bother me at all that we have completed the Art Gallery, the Wynyard Quarter, the events centre, Eden Park. All these were legacy projects but I think it is fantastic that we are standing on the shoulders of others. And we are completing their visions and their plans.

"We have to be sure we can pay for them and get them to standard.

"We have done a lot of delivery in the last 12 months. So we haven't been disrupted through the amalgamation programme."

The billion dollars capex line in the council's first budget was the largest single capex item that Auckland has ever had. Some $640 million investment was spent on new electric trains for Auckland. "It was nine years in the making but we were able to do the deal with Government and double the scope to get electric trains running across all of Auckland," says McKay.

The Auckland Council is New Zealand's first large-scale foray into this type of public governance, although other countries have amalgamated cities into one unitary authority. Toronto, Luxembourg and Brisbane are among the areas that have undergone a similar transition. The amalgamation aims to bring better decision-making to the region, reduce duplication of services, and engage more effectively with diverse communities.

McKay - who was appointed the council's transitional chief exective on a two year contract - says he's "reasonably happy with the progress we have made to date."

Asked if he was thinking about extending his contract beyond the two year term, McKay replied: "I am here for the transition. But certainly I wouldn't want to put continuity at risk. In particular, I have a high calibre executive leadership team in place. Keeping that team working well is a reason why you wouldn't want to put continuity at risk.

"After the Rugby World Cup I'll turn my mind to it seriously. But right now I am just too busy to even think."

McKay's highlights

1 Savings made: increases to rates were 3.94 per cent, compared with what would have been a 9.3 per cent increase from the legacy councils. The 3.94 per cent increase includes the largest capital investment budget in Auckland's history of nearly $1.1 billion

2 "The calibre of management we've managed to lure to the new organisation, including top people who would never have been attracted to a career in local government in the past."

3 New democratic and commercial structures in place and operating, comprising:

* 170 politicians in new roles

* 27 committees, forums and panels

* An Independent Maori Statutory Board

* 7 service delivery and asset management companies (6 of which are in New Zealand's top 30 companies in terms of size)

* 56 new directors and chairs

- NZ Herald

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