What a shame for Aucklanders that University of Auckland administrators seem deaf to the warnings from their health experts about the growing obesity epidemic. If they had, it might have saved ratepayers $60.7 million.
Last week, Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health, declared it "shocking" that 10,000 more New Zealand children were officially obese or overweight compared with 2012 and that the lack of prevention programmes and policies was "clearly failing this generation of children". At the same time, his university bosses were selling off the university's only outdoor sports field complex, the 20ha Colin Maiden Park in St Johns, to Auckland Council.
Professor Swinburn's warning that "New Zealand's weight problem has now overtaken smoking as the biggest contributor to the burden of disease," seemingly went unheard. As did his assertion that "in 2006, overweight and obesity cost the health system $624 million and a further $100 million to $200 million in lost productivity, yet the investment in prevention is tiny".
Instead, vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon said the university was not in the business of owning and running parks.
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Auckland Council and the university - both publicly funded bodies - are refusing to release any details of the massive deal, claiming "commercial confidentiality".
However, back in March, council economic development manager Harvey Brookes told councillors the university had given it until the end of April to signal if it wanted to buy the existing park and sport grounds as a going concern. He said the university was "motivated by realising the highest value". The sale was to help fund the university's planned new campus on the old Lion Brewery site in Newmarket.
The usual scourge of extravagant spending, councillor Cameron Brewer, was all for it. He said "a few million to secure this park would be money well spent". A few million perhaps. But $60.7 million? The unconditional deal, announced last Wednesday, is an unbudgeted item that will have to be squeezed into the 2014-15 draft annual plan.
There's no doubt that it was vital this valuable piece of open space and parkland remain in public ownership and available to the people of Auckland forever. But it was in public ownership already, owned by a public institution charged with producing young Aucklanders with healthy minds in healthy bodies. An institution, incidentally, that pays no rates on this land, or the other large tracts it occupies.
In March, when the university first offered the land to the council, the draft Auckland unitary plan had just been released for public discussion. Colin Maiden Park was zoned for terrace housing and apartment buildings and mixed use. As a result of local outcry, this was changed to Special Purpose - Tertiary Education zone in the notified version. But this would not have prevented the university seeking a later plan change back to intensive housing. It's this potential for intensive housing that has forced the price up.
In 1944, Auckland University College bought 48.5ha of farmland at this Tamaki site for $28,400. When Colin Maiden became vice-chancellor in 1971, his aim was to build more student facilities, and ensure that sporting facilities became an integral part of a tertiary education. He backgrounds his efforts in a memoir written in 2006-2007, and viewable on the Auckland University Rugby Football Club website. With the funds from the sale of some of the neighbouring land plus a $1 million injection from the Auckland Education Reserves Endowment, University Park at Tamaki was opened in 1978, with facilities for rugby, soccer, cricket, hockey, softball and athletics and, says Sir Colin, "a splendid clubhouse". On his retirement in 1994, the complex was named after him.
Sir Colin was behind other student facilities such as as the Maidment Theatre, the indoor recreation centre on the main university site and improved halls of residence. Along with the dedicated sports fields complex, he saw such facilities as core requirements of a first-class university. As they should be. But vice-chancellor McCutcheon sees it differently. He's now tossed the university's responsibility for providing sports facilities over to Auckland ratepayers - and wants top dollar as well, based not on its value as open space, but as a place for intensified housing.