Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Len Brown: Year of the game changer

As Len Brown marks one year in office as the first mayor of the Auckland Super City, Bernard Orsman looks back at what's been achieved and forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown doing one of his monthly Mayor in the chair sessions at the Highbury Shopping Centre, Birkenhead. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Auckland Mayor Len Brown doing one of his monthly Mayor in the chair sessions at the Highbury Shopping Centre, Birkenhead. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Len Brown is seated on a foldaway director's chair at the Highbury Shopping Centre in Birkenhead, legs crossed, hands clasped over the knees.

A snappy suit and purple tie is the biggest giveaway that the diminutive figure in the chair is the Mayor of the Super City.

Among the lunchtime crowd, Brown is stationed between a $2 shop and a sushi bar as part of his "Mayor in the Chair" regular chats with locals around the newly merged city.

Before leaving to meet Birkenhead business owners, Brown will have spoken with a dozen or so people about a litter problem in Pt Chevalier, a mother who wants her teenage children made aware of separating food for green waste and 19-year-old idealist Ben King's support of the Occupy Wall St protest movement. And, of course, better public transport.

Brown is following a passion and love for people in the community - the Southside kid who became a lawyer and religiously follows former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's catch-cry "sweat the small stuff".

At the Auckland Town Hall, where the carpets are plush, big-name art hangs on the walls and the couches are leather, there is no way Brown wants to be buried under a mountain of paperwork.

The biggest risk of the Super City, says the politician elected on a platform of inclusiveness, is to lose community links and support. That's why he tries, but usually fails, to get out into the community two or three times on most days - days that start at 6.30am and rarely end before 10.30pm.

"I see my need to deliver the vision and manage the politics to drive Auckland forward as an international city equally balanced with the need for me to maintain very strong connections with mums and dads and people in the street."

Approaching the first year as mayor of a medium-sized Pacific-Asian city of 1.4 million people, Brown has toned down his extrovert, sometimes cringe-inducing style that won him adoration as Mayor of Manukau but tripped him up in an emotional chest-thumping, head-smacking display over his credit card use in June last year.

The new-style mayor no longer wears his heart on his sleeve to the same extent. He is less "waddup?" and more circumspect, albeit with a flinty edge pointing to frustration and anger not far below the surface.

Brown has good reason to feel good about his first year. As he says, it's a unique opportunity to set the culture and values of the new organisation and present his vision to make Auckland the "world's most liveable city".

"There is no manual for the Super City. It is a completely unique experience. There is no one who can tell me how to do it, who has been there and done that before. I'm the game changer."

After his big win over the Right's John Banks, Brown got down to the mechanical business of undertaking a "seamless change" from eight councils to one. Under his consensual style, every one of the 20 councillors across different political hues were given something to gnaw on, the 21 Local Boards were put to work and the seven council-controlled organisations told to toe the party line and hold open meetings.

Libraries, rubbish collections and other council services have continued without disruption, a credit to the Auckland Transition Agency and the leadership of council chief executive Doug McKay.

But it did not take long for the mettle of Brown's leadership to be tested. First came the Turua St heritage uproar in St Heliers, followed by the establishment of the Maori Statutory Board. Brown says Turua St was about the "ethics of politics". Instead of backing the community, he backed the process. The developer had consent to demolish the houses and Brown stood by the decision against the wishes of the community and some councillors. He did the same for Westfield's expansion of the St Lukes shopping mall.

The Maori Statutory Board is one of Brown's low points. He says he could have better managed the way the board's budget was sprung on councillors in February. The drama caused a huge kerfuffle and prolonged an unpopular measure imposed on the Auckland Council by legislation.

Brown showed a pragmatic streak when faced with his first budget and a projected rates rise of more than 8 per cent. Instead of following the instincts of the Left - he is a longtime member of the Labour Party - he found $81 million of efficiencies, cut $400 million of capital works and drove down rates to 3.94 per cent.

It surprised some on the Left and silenced the conservatives on council, including the Citizens & Ratepayers bloc, who have dominated local body politics in the past. It stamped Brown's desire for a collaborative approach of doing politics.

Where Brown has really stepped up in the past year has been setting out his vision for the city as prescribed in the Super City manual; one voice, one vision, one plan for Auckland.

Brown's vision is breathtakingly bold and ambitious, the biggest line in the shifting sands of Auckland since "Robbie's" rapid rail, scuppered 41 years ago by a National Government. The vision is built around a huge transport programme that includes a $2.4 billion inner city rail loop, rail to the airport and a new harbour crossing with rail to the North Shore.

His draft Auckland Plan continues with the former regional growth strategy for a compact city to put the brakes on urban sprawl. Associated city centre, waterfront and economic development plans point Auckland down the Melbourne path of laneways and an event-based city.

Brown's commitment to raising Auckland's economic fortunes include plans to boost tourism, go down the high-tech path and build a cruise ship terminal and international convention centre, coupled with a social agenda to boost education, housing and public transport in the poorest parts of South Auckland.

It was this big-picture vision Brown was elected on - to sort out Auckland's transport and infrastructure problems and turn Auckland into the "world's most liveable city". But it is this vision which is turning into Brown's biggest challenge, particularly when it comes to the Government.

Brown and the Government have different agendas for Auckland. Public transport versus roads. A compact city versus land development.

The mayor received a strong mandate for change and is as "confident today as when I was elected" that his top priority, the rail loop, will be built in seven years.

But it is hard to see that happening given the strong likelihood of National being returned to the Treasury benches next month.

As one senior council insider says, post-election it will be interesting to see if National ministers soften or harden their line over what is clearly an ideological difference between Auckland and Wellington.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce has made it crystal clear that while the Government accepts the loop is the next big rail project in Auckland, no economic case for the 3.5km tunnel has been made and he has virtually ruled out Brown's idea of road tolls and congestion charges to finance it.

This has been the story of the past 12 months. Government ministers not afraid to speak their mind when it suits their political ends without a second thought for the authority and mandate of Brown.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the shafting Brown received following the Rugby World Cup opening night debacle when Cup Minister Murray McCully rode into town and announced that the Government was taking control of the wider waterfront before telling the mayor.

As Herald correspondent John Armstrong wrote, McCully slayed the myth during the creation of the Super City that the mayor would be the second most powerful politician in the country.

Paul Holmes had a similar take, saying Auckland's Prague Spring was over with John Key and McCully stripping Brown's power in one fell swoop.

Instead of being honest about having the feet cut from under him by Wellington, Brown's modus operandi has been to take the punches and go down the diplomatic road of quietly working behind the scenes in the belief that the case for the rail loop and other projects will become overwhelming.

Asked about being bashed by ministers, Brown raises his arms and gives an unconvincing laugh.

"I don't feel that way at all. I enjoy a very good working relationship with this Government. We have our differences. That's inevitable. The Government are looking out for the nation's interest, not looking after the interests of this city."

Prime Minister John Key declined to be interviewed about Brown's first year in the job and the Government's relationship with Auckland, but in a written statement he said Brown has proved to be a passionate advocate for Auckland's interests, the mayor and the council had done a good job establishing the new set-up and he was in regular contact with the mayor.

Key, who said at the council inauguration 12 months ago that Auckland and Wellington would not always agree, says he is not concerned about the relationship between the Government and Auckland Council.

"One of the Government's aims with the reforms... was to give the city a single, stronger voice. I don't think there is any doubt that Auckland now has a stronger, unified voice and that voice is being heard in Wellington."

Key reiterated that issues would arise between the Government and a large and complex new organisation such as the Auckland Council, but "that does not mean that we can't enjoy a constructive relationship".

The time for talking vision is passing and over the next year Brown must start implementing his plans so he has something to present to voters in 2013.

Fortunately, the rail loop does not require great wads of capital upfront. The first stage involves land purchases around three underground stations between Britomart and the western line, consenting and designations. These costs can be met from the Super City's annual $3 billion budget.

It will be another three or four years before the big bills come in, which is when Brown wants to introduce tolls and congestion charges as alternative funding sources to rates and receive some form of contribution from the Government.

He has floated the idea of a referendum on tolls at the 2013 local body elections to seek a mandate that will strengthen his hand with the Government.

There is a big funding shortfall for the rail loop and other big projects, Brown says, and Aucklanders know they are going to have to pay the piper.

He also knows that one way or another the big projects will require significant funding from the Government, which is not going to roll over and say yes to everything.

"The Government is in a hell of a difficult situation. It will spend about $9 billion on Christchurch. It is still dealing with a recession and record levels of debt. I have been, and continue to be, moderate in my requests for Government support, but that will not stop Auckland delivering," Brown says in a defensive tone.

His other big challenge, and one that carries greater immediate political risk, is the creation of a single rating system from next year. Going from the current medley of eight different ratings systems to one, with revaluations, business differentials, uniform charges and user charges thrown into the mix is scary stuff. The trick will be minimising the number and size of rates increases.

As Brown acknowledges, the winners will be silent, the losers very noisy. The last thing he wants is a repeat of the regionwide rates revolt that occurred when the Auckland Regional Council introduced a single system in 2003 that pushed rates bills up to 467 per cent in some suburbs.

The mayor has to be mindful of people like Maria Brown, who turned up at the Highbury Shopping Centre for no other reason than to say hello.

"He's the man for me. He's a family-oriented person. He just gets on with people. I'm glad he became the mayor of Auckland."

Len Brown's report card
Highs

Inauguration night
"The spirit of Auckland was so alive in the Town Hall ... such a great start to the city."

3.94 per cent rates increase
"The councillors were a bit surprised we were able to get down there."

Release of Auckland Plan
"There was a real great buzz there."

Wynyard Quarter opening
"Standing on North Wharf and people standing around me saying 'we love this'."

Lows

Rugby World Cup opening night
"Things were a bit fractious around the edges."

Murray McCully taking control of the waterfront
"I was disappointed about the lack of communication, but ultimately it made no difference."

Maori Statutory Board
"We could have managed that better."

Read more online
The deadline for making submissions on the Auckland Plan has been extended to Monday afternoon. To see the plan and have your say go to: theaucklandplan.govt.nz

- NZ Herald

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