The Project Auckland series looks at the challenges facing Auckland as it seeks to become a world-class city.
Unification provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform Auckland into a prosperous global city that offers unparalleled quality of life, with a vibrant culture, pure environment, and strong social cohesion - a city that truly deserves the title "world class".
To deliver that vision, the new Auckland Council, its controlled organisations and its community-focused local boards have collective and mutual responsibilities to deliver unified leadership, clear strategy, people focused organisational capacity, inclusive democratic processes, highly effective administration, strong implementation capability and world class social, cultural and physical infrastructure.
Of these opportunities, infrastructure is perhaps the easiest part to get right. It requires achieving agreement about the kind of city we want to have, how and where it should grow, shaping land use patterns to lead that growth, determining the best way to fund the necessary investment and deploying public and private capital to make it happen.
The development of a unified spatial plan, supported by a prioritised and funded infrastructure plan is the critical first step.
In reality, this should not be too difficult. Auckland has had a growth strategy in place since 1999. Its regional transport strategy has remained substantially unchanged in the last decade.
The problem of the past has not been the lack of an agreed vision for the city, but the failure of the structures, policies, funding and investment to deliver on that vision. Statutory documents such as the Auckland Regional Policy Statement which have controlled land use and development have sought to "accommodate" growth, not lead it.
In the past, development of regional infrastructure (including water, transport and energy facilities) was to be consistent with, but not necessarily lead, the strategic direction, and then only in a manner which avoided, remedied or mitigated any adverse effects of those activities on the environment. Apart from the desire to achieve urban intensification within the Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL), policy provided direction on what must not be done, rather than what should be done to achieve sustainable regional growth.
The new Auckland Council legislation requires a much more proactive policy direction into the future. At its core is the development of the spatial plan to set a long-term strategic direction integrating social, economic, environmental and cultural objectives. More specifically, by law the spatial plan is required to recognise and describe Auckland's national role and visually illustrate how Auckland will develop in the future. It will identify existing and future locations and mix of residential, business, rural production, and industrial activities, as well as critical infrastructure, services, and investment.
It will identify recreational and ecological areas that should be protected, including environmental constraints on development, and landscapes, areas of historic heritage value, and natural features.
It will set out policies, priorities, land allocations, and programmes and investments to implement the spatial plan. It should will also map new and protect existing provision for infrastructure including water, electricity, telecommunications, transport and aggregate supplies.
Most importantly, rather than vague wish lists of promises that characterise the mayoral election debates, Aucklanders are hearing on a daily basis, that the legislation requires the spatial plan to provide an evidential base to support decision making. Because of its significance, the spatial plan will not simply be the creation of the mayor but will need to be developed in a transparent and consultative manner involving local government, community and stakeholders from all sectors of society.
Central government commitment in supporting and funding nationally significant regional priorities will also be essential.
A huge volume of infrastructure catch-up such as the retrofit of the Newmarket Viaduct and the Victoria Park Tunnel is already under way. Beyond catch-up, some important new investments such as the double tracking of the western ring route, electrification of the rail network, and new rolling stock and signature stations at Newmarket and New Lynn will lead a continued renaissance of commuter rail services.
Major city shaping decisions are already fairly obvious. A few, like completion of the western ring route are already on track to be delivered. Like similar developments in competing cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, this will drive significant residential and employment opportunities to south and west Auckland. Other key priorities to be developed in the spatial plan will be the construction of the inner city rail loop, transport connections across southeast Auckland, and the location timing and format of the next Waitemata Harbour crossing.
Equally critical will be capitalising on the potential of ultra fast broadband. Interestingly, even back in 2006, the census showed that more people worked from home in Auckland than took a bus train or ferry to get to work.
High speed connectivity could be transformational in the development of the new city and will have to be seriously factored into the spatial plan.
USER PAYS FUNDING ONE OPTION FOR COUNCIL
Far more controversial and problematic is how mayoral contenders plan to fund their visions of rail connections to the airport, the North Shore and between Avondale and Southdown. While there is no doubt that rail to the airport is commonly seen as the hallmark of a "global city" and has popular public appeal, funding realities suggests this will be a long way into the future, if ever. The bottom line is that the level of demand is nowhere near that needed to justify an economic case for rail to the airport within the life of the next spatial plan. On the other hand, a high speed, high frequency express bus service is an obvious no brainer. Similarly, the Northern Busway has more than adequate capacity to serve North Shore commuters to the city and home again for some decades to come.
The most significant challenge facing the new council will not be so much identifying a potential range of investments that will drive the future growth of the city, but finding the means to fund the investment. Although it is clear the government will have to help co-fund future investment, the state of the nation's books means that going cap in hand to government will not be the sole panacea. Council debt in the form of infrastructure bonds, and public private partnerships will provide a means to finance capital investments and properly deliver improved intergenerational equity in paying for long-term infrastructure investment. But the bottom line is that these are all forms of debt and will have to be supported by a revenue stream to repay that debt into the future.
Options to fund new transport investment, for example, could include a transport-targeted increase in rates, a regional fuel tax, or use of tolls to both manage traffic demand and raise funds for new investment. None are politically popular, but continuing on as we are is no longer an option. An average toll of $1 for every commuter on every on ramp to the motorway (which might be, say, $2 in the peak drive times and free off-peak) could raise between $200 million and $300 million per annum. That's enough to fund significant investment in improved road, rail and other transport services across the region. On the other hand, the same amount could be raised by increasing the price of petrol by 20 cents a litre or increasing regional rates by 20 per cent. At this price a $1 toll seems more palatable. But that will be up to Aucklanders to decide. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as free water, transport, electricity or internet. All infrastructure needs to be paid for in some fashion. At least user pays funding means those who use the most, or waste the most, pay the most.