There's more than one game in town

The battle for Auckland will continue long after the Cup fanfare is over, writes Bernard Orsman.

Wynyard Quarter. Photo / Natalie Slade
Wynyard Quarter. Photo / Natalie Slade

The first year of the Super City has been something of a window into the future of Auckland. The city has a new mayor who rose from the streets of Otara, a council of mixed political hues and has gone on a flag-waving frenzy for the Rugby World Cup.

Tongans led the way, giving the world a taste of the city's Pacific flavour, the waterfront has come to life and success is in the air after a near disastrous opening night ceremony and reports of Party Central sucking the life out of many restaurants.

The Cup has been the catalyst for many projects in the city, most noticeable the first stage of Wynyard Quarter, which opened in August to rapturous applause. This is the just the beginning of an exciting waterfront plan, aptly headlined "Where the city meets the sea".

Auckland Art Gallery director Chris Saines summed things nicely up by saying the glittering expansion of the art gallery heralds a renaissance for the city, already thrilled by the new Wynyard Quarter, Q Theatre and Te Wao Nui, a New Zealand precinct at Auckland Zoo. The refurbishment, with its dramatic atrium and soaring kauri canopies, has the aura of a gallery in a fancy pants city.

Inside the grand design, Aucklanders are seeing philanthropy first-hand with 15 works by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Dali and Cezanne as a promised gift from American billionaire Julian Robertson and, outdoors, the $30 million-plus gift of the Hauraki Gulf island of Rotoroa by Neal and Annette Ploughman, a private couple who made their money through New Zealand Towel Services.

"Auckland, it is our time," has been the message all year from mayor Len Brown, who will have been in office for 12 months on November 1. After his big win over the Right's John Banks, he quickly got down to the mechanical business undertaking a "seamless change" from eight councils to one.

Under Brown's consensual style, every one of the 20 councillors was given something to gnaw on, the 21 local boards got up and running to different degrees of success and the council-controlled organisations were told to toe the line and hold open meetings. Council services have continued without disruption, a credit to the Auckland Transition Agency and the personable, but tough and intelligent council chief executive Doug McKay.

The governing body inherited some curly tests, such as the demolition of art deco homes in St Heliers and the establishment of the Maori Statutory Board, but came through relatively unscathed.

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 found $81 million of efficiencies, cut $400 million of capital works and drove down rates to 3.9 per cent. In political terms, it silenced his Citizens & Ratepayers opponents, who had called for a rise of less than 4 per cent.

On the surface these wins look good, and they are. But Brown was elected on a much bigger platform - to sort out Auckland's transport and infrastructure problems and deliver on a vision to turn Auckland into the "world's most liveable city".

The Mercer Quality of Living Survey already has Auckland handily placed fourth behind Vienna, Zurich and Geneva, while it is 10th on the Economist's list of the World's Most Liveable Cities.

Brown has spelt out a bold vision, 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. Less ambitious, but key to the city's economic fortunes, are a cruise ship terminal and international convention centre.

Brown's vision is also about going down the Melbourne path for the central city with laneways and events, as well as revitalising the suburban and rural town centres of Hobsonville, New Lynn, Onehunga, Tamaki, Takapuna, Warkworth and Pukekohe.

Brown, a Labour Party member, also has a social agenda with plans to boost education, housing and public transport in the poorest parts of South Auckland, and an economic agenda with pie in the sky goals to lift the region's GDP by 5 per cent a year and exports by 6 per cent. The plans are set out in the draft Auckland Plan and associated city centre, waterfront and economic plans, blueprints for the city over the next 20 to 30 years, which Brown is required to produce under the Super City legislation.

Unfortunately for Aucklanders, Brown launched the documents in the middle of the Rugby World Cup and submissions close two days after the tournament winds up.

There are worrying signs that Brown's vision is in trouble and he has a mountain to climb putting together a 10-year budget to fund, among other things, his most cherished project, the $2.4 billion rail loop. The loop does not divide the council, or the city's business leaders, but it has drawn a blank from the National Government, crucially Prime Minister John Key and Transport Minister Steven Joyce.

The battle for Auckland does not end there. Several cabinet ministers reportedly lambasted Brown and councillors over a priority in the draft plan to continue with the former regional growth strategy for a compact city to put the brakes on urban sprawl. They claim it pushed land and housing prices up and want it abolished or made more flexible.

Key and Joyce have made it clear that central government will not pick up the tab for the rail loop with Joyce virtually ruling out road tolls as a means of Auckland paying the bill. A lukewarm Treasury/Ministry of Transport business case is another setback to complete the project by Brown's deadline of 2018.

The Government has treated Brown like a kid brother and undermined his authority. As Paul Holmes wrote after Murray McCully stepped in to take control of the Rugby World Cup: "Brown has been entirely humiliated. He has lost his power in one fell swoop."

Brown's response 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 becomes overwhelming.

This approach might produce dividends over time, but Brown does not have a lot of time. On October 27, he will unveil a draft 10-year budget, which must spell out how he is going to pay for the loop. The word is there will be a reference to road tolls with sums attached, but the detail will be missing.

Whether Aucklanders, or the Government, buy into the document is a moot point. Brown has already thrown in the towel on completing rail to the airport by 2020 and rail to the North Shore by 2025 by saying there will be no money in the 10-year budget for these projects.

Another challenge carrying greater political risk is the creation of a single rating system from next year. Going from the current medley of eight different rating systems to one, with revaluations, business differentials and uniform charges thrown into the mix is scary stuff. There will be winners and losers. The trick is minimising the number and size of rates increases.

"Fundamentally, it's a new game for everyone," chief finance office Andrew McKenzie warned councillors this month. Once the Rugby World Cup is over, there most certainly is a new game in town.

- NZ Herald

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