Editorial: Brown's bold moves risk reversal later

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Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The more alienated [his] opponents feel, the more likely it is his policies ... will be overturned by a successor. One of the features of the Super City set-up designed to get Auckland moving is the executive powers granted to the office of the mayor. Ratepayers are now, for the first real time, getting the opportunity to see this clout in action. In outlining a new rating system, Len Brown has shown he is ready to use his authority to plough his own furrow, whatever the bureaucratic counsel or reception for that policy. Yet as much as this removes the roadblocks historically associated with decision-making in the region, it could also signal policy volatility as political fortunes wax and wane.

The new rates system replaces the medley of eight rating arrangements under the councils that preceded the Super City. Mr Brown wants an overall rates increase of a commendable 3.5 per cent next year, but new property valuations and the changed system mean individual increases - and decreases - will vary widely from this. At the heart of the new system is the planned uniform annual general charge, the fixed rate applicable to every rateable property, which ensures all ratepayers make a minimum contribution to fund services.

It is here, in particular, that Mr Brown has stamped his mark.

Council officers worked out that a uniform annual charge of $450 would cause the least amount of overall change because it was close to that under the previous councils. But unlike many former mayors, Mr Brown has not tamely accepted such advice. Instead, he has proposed an annual charge of $350. This will mean a small drop in rates for low-income households and a large increase for high-income homes in areas such as Mt Eden, Remuera and the eastern suburbs.

Perhaps nothing less should have been expected from a mayor leaning to the left. But that will not stop the questions in thousands of households that can expect an average 14 to 16 per cent rise in rates. Efficiencies were always touted as a major benefit of the amalgamation. Many ratepayers will be justifiably disappointed that, in this instance at least, this has not translated into a financial benefit for them. Even the sizeable $48.9 million set aside in a rates remission policy, which will apply where the rates increase is above 20 per cent, or $400 for a household, will offer only temporary consolation.

To his credit, Mr Brown has resisted substantial change to the business differential, another factor in the final rates make-up. He proposes collecting the same proportion of business rates across the region as was taken previously by the former councils. This may well be a recognition of the crucial role that business must play in driving Auckland forward. If so, it is welcome.

The mayor's willingness to use his powers has not passed unnoticed. A group of seven councillors has written to him saying the use of his executive powers has made them feel marginalised and disconnected from decision-making. They also said Aucklanders were increasingly concerned about affordability and that the ambitious plans of the mayoral office could not be achieved through ever-increasing costs on young families and those on low incomes.

Clearly, there is an element of points-scoring in some of this. But the more alienated Mr Brown's political opponents feel, the more likely it is that his policies on issues such as rates will be overturned by a successor. His executive powers are an understandable response to historical inadequacies in Auckland's governance. But if they are misused or used too aggressively, they will be the catalyst for sharp policy switches that will impede, rather than improve, the region.

Mr Brown must tread a fine line if he wants his vision to survive his time in the mayoral chair.

- NZ Herald

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