Accounts of hardship related to CRL construction in Albert St give cause for concern and not just for those directly impacted. There are key principles at stake: fairness, transparency, action and the value of small business.
The City Rail Link will transform the way Aucklanders get around the city when complete, but construction has been going for more than three years and the finish line is several years away.
There is no doubt that a project of this scale and duration is challenging but businesses facing severe hardship because of delays and lack of care for their needs must be looked after. These are hardworking people who are just looking for a fair go.
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It is inconceivable that struggling businesses were initially fobbed off with a suggestion to take legal action.
There are understandably concerns about setting a precedent with compensation. However, there is no precedent in New Zealand for this situation and I believe it is rather a question of human decency as people face severe hardship through circumstances well beyond their control.
It happens offshore. In Sydney for example, a business assistance programme was established for small businesses as the delays with their light rail project took a toll. In the case of Seattle's light rail project, a fund was set up years before construction started.
There are various ways support could be provided on a case-by-case basis. Eligibility criteria could include factors such as proximity to construction, level and length of impact, size of business and proven turnover loss with rent used as a basis for calculating support.
The amount payable per business could be capped and international experience indicates it would cost a miniscule fraction of the total project cost.
Surely the Government would prefer people stay in business rather than go bust and need unemployment and family support benefits?
Over the past six months, the organisation responsible for delivering the CRL, City Rail Link Limited, has been engaged in circular public dialogue with its sponsors, Auckland Council and the Government, each pointing to the other to explain the lack of action.
CRLL says it can't do anything without the authority of its sponsors. Its sponsors say you need to talk to CRLL. Auckland Council changed its position in support of a hardship fund so in recent times, it too has been deflecting to the Government.
Deflections escalated to a new level over the past two weeks. The Government says CRLL is negotiating with businesses in Lower Albert St on a case-by-case basis and looking at options such as taking over leases and relocations. CRLL says it has had conversations with one retailer.
This is not transparent or fair. The businesses that have spoken up have heard nothing, other than what they are drip fed through the public dialogue. There is no fair process or transparent criteria to determine who may be eligible for support and no timeframe for resolution. This is unacceptable for a public entity charged with delivering a $4.4 billion project.
The way large, long-term projects are planned is critical and it appears the Government has at last started work to determine how businesses could be supported for the remainder of the CRL and across other major public works projects ahead. This is vital and could involve a range of things, including taking over leases and relocations.
However, it does not solve the plight of those who have unfairly born the brunt of the first years of construction. Urgent action is required to put this wrong right. Given all reasonable steps by several parties have so far fallen on deaf ears in Wellington, we have set up a petition that will go to Parliament in early November.
We will also be urging the re-elected Mayor to step up Auckland Council's action as 50 per cent sponsor of this project. It was positive that the council changed its position; now it has to show it has the teeth to get a result.
Small and medium enterprises make up 97 per cent of New Zealand businesses and are the backbone of our economy, contributing 28 per cent of GDP, paying taxes and employing 30 per cent of the workforce.
The way the Albert St businesses have been treated is deeply disturbing and other businesses should watch closely. The City Rail Link may one day be a feted engineering feat but we do not want to set a record for the number of businesses ruined as it munches its way up to K Rd and beyond.
An effective mechanism to support businesses through large infrastructure projects must be delivered quickly as the CRL has major works ahead. And in terms of those already in need of urgent relief, it's time that David got a fair go from Goliath.
• Viv Beck is the chief executive of Heart of the City