Auckland Council officials showed off some of the city's worst streets this week as part of a blitz aimed at cleaning up sites and ending commonplace filthy environmental practices.
James Yang glides his white tradie's van onto the wrong side of Hermes Rd, Flat Bush, pulls up and jumps out to take on two Auckland Council regulatory compliance officers - it could be something out of a comedy if it wasn't so serious.
Walking that very street at the same moment is mayor Phil Goff, with the council's top compliance team, to show the Herald the disgusting state of many building sites, in an area where homes go for $1m-plus.
Numerous notices have been issued to clean up the Hermes Rd sites, council staff say.
And here's Yang, who says he is connected with two of those sites where there are issues, arriving on Wednesday afternoon and taking on the officers.
"It's not my rubbish!" he complains, pointing to the lounge chair and cardboard box, sun-bleached on the dry berm with other rubbish.
"People just dump rubbish here!" he complains loudly, gesticulating at a vacant lot opposite, strewn with household items.
But bylaws and compliance senior project specialist Doug Glazebrook is having none of that. "You haven't got a tidy site, so people think it's a good place to dump rubbish," he says.
In the once-rural area where two-level brick homes with yawning double garages are being built cheek-by-jowl, people do fly-dump, Glazebrook acknowledges. But he wants action on at least two Hermes Rd sites which Yang says he is linked to: "One's mine, one is my friend's and I'm helping him."
Yang continues arguing the toss with Glazebrook's colleague, regulatory compliance unit senior project specialist Gurveer Bhandari. The more quietly-spoken Bhandari points out some of the things that are wrong:
• The green and yellow portable toilet has been put down on the council berm, when it should be on the site. It will have to be shifted.
• There's metal site safety fencing across the footpath, making it impassable. It must be moved to within the construction site boundary.
• Empty drink bottles and cardboard boxes litter the site and berm, and must be collected and disposed of before they blow away.
• The vehicle connection between the street and the site must be "stabilised", as Glazebrook puts it. Aggregate must be placed there to soak up and remove much of the clay, dust and dirt from vehicle wheels before they hit the streets.
• The site must be fenced to prevent sediment run-off into the gutters, the stormwater system and ultimately the Manukau Harbour.
"It's not my house, it's my friend's. I'm just giving him some help," pleads Yang, saying he was born in "Mainland [China]."
"Not one thing should leave these sites," says a frustrated Adrian Wilson, another member of the council team.
Wearing SPF50 on his hairless head as the temperature hits the mid-20s, Wilson seems to relish what Goff has called a "blitz" on filthy building sites.
Inspectors are now using a new purpose-built application on the GoFormz software platform developed last winter. It's able to issue notices within 20 minutes, Wilson says. And it's not just one-man-band builders who are the targets; big-name group builders also have non-compliant building sites.
"And it's often their subcontractors," Wilson says. "Where's the place on this site to lay down goods?" he asks at a McQuoids Rd site, a block away from Hermes Rd.
The compliance officers then see what they call a "stuffed" rainwater garden berm on McQuoids Rd, littered with drink bottles and food wrappers, its culvert not working because a concrete beam has built in the wrong place, preventing runoff from getting to the stormwater system. There are dead plants, and rather than being an eco-warrior, the supposed garden is a desolate sight.
Glazebrook says 12 abatement notices were issued on McQuoids Rd sites alone since last winter. That makes it one of the city's worst streets for non-compliant construction sites, with some nearby streets.
If no action is taken, prosecutions and fines follow. Work can be shut down and Goff says there can be charges of $750 a day if no action is taken.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars" has come into the council since the blitz last year, Goff says. But he'd forgo the money in return for better environmental results.
On the other side of Auckland, on the North Shore, Long Bay has become a lightning rod for campaigners protesting against the building boom's damaging environmental effects, but Goff says the problem goes further.
"The issue is not just Long Bay. There's a general problem of non-compliant building sites from Paerata in the south to Hobsonville in the north." Long Bay gets noticed, he suggests, because there is an active group monitoring its problems.
Auckland Council has previously said plumes of sediment discharging into the Long Bay-Okura Marine Reserve is a "typical occurrence" after significant rain.
There's a general problem of non-compliant building sites from Paerata in the south to Hobsonville.
This isn't just an issue involving specific ethnic groups, builders, developers or subcontractors, Goff stresses. "Botany is part of multicultural Auckland. The person on the ground - it doesn't matter whether they're Asian or any other ethnicity. These are bad habits."
Wilson concurs: "It's no one ethnic group in particular, that's the problem."
The officers tell the Herald that many tradespeople "scarper" when council officials arrive, because they are on visitor working visas, and not authorised to work.
"We're not looking to shame but to change behaviour," Goff says. "To speak softly but carry a big stick. It's all very well for us in the cities to tell farmers 'stop putting sediment into the harbours' but we have got to walk the talk ourselves."
Frank Xo, president of the NZ Chinese Building Industry Association, is disappointed in Flat Bush: "I know there are reputable builders there but many of the Flat Bush builders are equal to cowboys and now we're worried they're moving to South Auckland and Hobsonville. The barriers to getting into the industry are so low and many of them are not professionals. They just don't know about compliance. They think it's okay. They come in here without knowing about health and safety either."
The association worked with the council last year to produce compliance brochures in Mandarin. "This sort of behaviour is unacceptable," says Xo, whose association has 100 business and personal members, and promotes environmental compliance heavily in the Asian-language media.
David Kelly, chief executive of Master Builders, says his organisation is producing written material in Mandarin. "We have quite a few Asian members who are very good builders. I support the council's initiative. Builders should contain within the site any impact. Builders need to be responsible for looking after the environment along with everyone else. There's no excuse for uncontrolled runoff."
Outside 15 Hermes Rd, Goff's frustration boils over. "I'd look at that as a layperson and say it's a shambles. There's rubbish blowing all around as well as the section, when it rains ... we've had one day's rain in the past three weeks so it's not at its worst. What we're asking for is environmentally responsible developers.
"It might have been acceptable once upon a time but the accumulated impact of this on our streams and waterways and harbours is unacceptable."
For the Long Bay campaigners, the council's bad-site blitz gets a cynical reaction.
"We haven't seen any evidence of a crackdown," says Bruce Usher, convenor of the Long Bay Okura Great Park Society.
Society executive member Pat Baskett complained last year: "The Okura estuary is already suffering the effects of developments in the wider catchment and sediment is likely to have caused the death of pipi and cockle beds. These form the basis of the food chain on which the birds depend."
Auckland needs more houses, but residents also want clean streams, rivers and beaches. The council officials hope their crackdown will allow both goals to be fulfilled, and that in building an expected 300,000 homes in the next 30 years, we can have the best of both worlds.
CRACKDOWN IN ACTION
• Auckland Council usually issues about 600 abatement notices and 200 infringement notices a year.
• In the last year, that rose to 1600 abatement notices and 681 infringement notices.
• About 60 per cent of those slapped with an abatement notice comply in 7 to 10 days.
Source: Auckland Council
COUNCIL POLLUTION HOTLINE: Telephone 09-377 3107