Viv Beck, the voice of business lobby group Heart of the City, is at the sharp end of Auckland's struggle to recover from Covid lockdowns and a plague of road cones. By Clare de Lore.
It's Friday, November 13, and Auckland's Queen St should be buzzing with early Christmas shoppers, office workers on their lunch break and students heading into their end-of-year exams. Instead, as a fresh Covid case comes to light, the CBD is effectively plunged into lockdown, with the Government warning people to stay away from the centre of the city. An estimated 100,000 workers heed the call, along with thousands of shoppers and other visitors.
Reflecting on the short but sudden shutdown, Heart of the City boss Viv Beck describes it as "gut-wrenching, a blow to confidence and confusing", and she rates the official response to the outbreak at 6 out of 10.
Heart of the City's members are drawn from the thousands of businesses that operate in the area contained within the innermost boundaries of Auckland's motorway network. Retail turnover and pedestrian counts in the area are 25 per cent down on this time last year. Beck lives in nearby St Marys Bay, with husband Paul Quinn, a businessman and former MP, and their 17-year-old son, Rene. She is a first-generation New Zealander, the daughter of an Austrian mother and Dutch father who came to New Zealand in the 1950s. She has a degree in economics, has run her own business, has worked in senior roles at New Zealand Post and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was acting director of the Auckland Art Gallery before taking up her role with Heart of the City five years ago.
In 2007, Beck co-wrote, with Karin Kos, a book called Julia Makes Her Move: First Steps into Leadership. Leadership is a recurring theme in the op-eds that Beck has penned throughout 2020 on subjects ranging from the lockdowns to the controversy over road cones in Queen St.
She's talked about as a future candidate for the Auckland mayoralty, a suggestion she quickly dismisses, citing the apolitical nature of Heart of the City. Whatever her private aspirations, Beck is an increasingly visible and vocal presence in Auckland's Covid era.
What was the effect of the call for people to keep out of the CBD on Friday the 13th?
Gut-wrenching. People understand we are faced with a health pandemic, so there is a sense of realism that this can happen and they will be asked to work from home if they can. But in terms of business, the impact is in the millions of dollars. We know consumer spending in our area is down anyway, but in level 1, things were picking up, although still without international tourists, conventions and the like. Add to that Friday's cancellations or rescheduling of events, not just for the Friday but also the weekend – think of the perishable stock that couldn't be used – and it was a huge blow. Fortunately, with the news at 2pm [that there would be no change in alert level], some businesses were able to maintain their position. For others, though, there was lost stock and a knock-on effect over the weekend. On Friday and Saturday nights, people were out and about, but the foot traffic was lower. That takes a toll and there is a cumulative effect.
You rated the response 6 out of 10 – what needs to happen to improve matters?
The border-testing systems and processes are vital. Failure at the border is how the virus gets in, and there is talk of tightening up on testing. It is important to get this right in terms of recovery, because we are looking to the return of international students, for example.
Initially, this latest case seemed like a community outbreak, but was quickly linked to the existing defence cluster. That must have been a relief.
The testing by scientists, the fastest turnaround ever, to sequence and get an exact match to the defence cluster was outstanding. Full credit to those scientists. And the sooner we get a vaccine, the better.
What could have been done differently to lessen the blow for businesses?
Testing, speedy contact tracing and clearly defining the affected area are crucial. I'd have loved to have ring-fenced the area. If warnings are nuanced, instead of losses in the millions, you could be talking about a lower cost. It is about doing a few things faster, because everything affects confidence. We need clarity about what is meant by the CBD – there was confusion about that and I have heard of people wondering if they should leave their homes in the city because of the latest case. I have now got a better line of communication into Wellington and I want to talk [to officials] about the effect of all of this. People staying home regardless of alert level is a major problem.
Is the die cast to some extent in that people who commute to the CBD for work have now experienced working from home and many may wish to continue doing that?
I think there will be some enduring change in terms of flexibility. In terms of the immediate recovery, we have a lot of investment in the city centre. For example, more than half of people are coming in by public transport now, for the first time since the 1950s. So think of the waste of investment if people remain all over the place working remotely. The recovery would be a lot harder, because the centre is geared to numbers. If you don't have tourists, students, workers – the 130,000 people a day coming into the businesses – plus the people who stay in our hotels, the effect on our city and economy is going to be much bigger.
How do you sell the benefits of returning to work in the city?
I talked to a partner in a law firm who said their young people want to come back to the office because they learn from people in a stimulating environment, rather than sitting at home by themselves. You can't put too high a value on face-to-face contact and the influence that has on innovation and idea generation.
And living in the city?
The number of people living here has been growing in recent years – in 2013, there were only 31,000. That growth, to nearly 40,000, has been linked to the growth in employment over the decade. It's vitally important to have a city centre that is good to live in as well as do business in and commute to.
Complacency about mask wearing and use of the Covid tracker app has been growing since the more-relaxed level 1 – what's your position on those?
It is sensible to use masks on public transport and I am interested in the Bluetooth [Covid card] trial. Only one in six people were scanning in with the app when a couple of million have downloaded it; we need to know we have the best-possible system. For our recovery, we have to know we can have traffic across the border and manage this.
What's going on regarding the roadworks in the city that are disruptive and making the city unattractive?
We think there needs to be a change in how roadworks are managed and we are talking to the council about it. We support the City Rail Link, but its above-ground management is important, as is how we support affected businesses. I am also keen to see collaboration and dialogue across central and local government and organisations like ours. We need to make our city attractive. Domestic tourism – for example, people coming for the America's Cup – is important for recovery. The first races are in mid-December and many of the road cones around the waterfront will be gone, followed by more by Christmas and others in time for the later races.
Are you concerned about empty commercial and retail spaces in the CBD?
Yes, we're getting a few empty tenancies, and one of the things we're keen to do is use them for pop-ups for artists and so on. During the second lockdown, I heard from one business about a fabulous sculptor, and it was suggested that it would be great for him to be sculpting in one of these otherwise-empty spaces. There was an ideal place in High St for his wonderful exhibition of pounamu. It was a beautiful setting. It was very moving: at 7 am on a Saturday, we had a lovely blessing from Ngāti Whātua, and Anton Forde, the artist, spoke.
You're a frequent writer of op-eds on the state of Auckland, and a recurring theme is the need for strong leadership. Have you been asked to stand for the mayoralty?
I have been asked, but I love my job and there is more to achieve. We are not a political organisation, so I just want to be able to work with the new Government and Auckland Council constructively to get the best result.
What do you do when you're not working?
I haven't had much time off work for a while, but I like to walk. We used to love travelling but haven't done much of that because there hasn't been much downtime for quite a while. But I do love meeting friends and I like reading. I read books that take me to the places I have been to and loved and places I hope to visit some time. I now travel around the world through my books.