Faced with rising anger over a lack of open consultation about major projects, the Auckland Council needs to pull its head in critics say. Jane Phare reports.

Casual golfer Geoff Senescall never imagined that he'd one day be leading the charge against the behemoth that is the Auckland Council. But he, and others who regularly use the Chamberlain Park public golf course, became angry enough to form an incorporated group, Save Chamberlain Park, get a petition going, attend meetings, raise money through crowdfunding for legal action, and engage lawyers.

Quite how or why it's got to this point Senescall is not sure. He uses words like "gobsmacked" and "astounding" when recalling his group's reaction over an Albert-Eden Local Board plan to redevelop the 18-hole golf course.

It's a familiar story across the 4900sq km that is the Auckland region. Poke around your backyard and not too far away will be someone, or a group, taking the council, or their local board, on.

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And invariably it's the consultation process, or lack of it, that has caused the outrage. People feel broadsided by plans of which they know too little too late, and resort to protest and, in some cases, legal action.

Exactly how to communicate with a 1.6 million, multicultural audience of all ages, both young and old, is no easy task. And, to be fair, those with the loudest criticisms of council's lack of consultation and engagement with communities couldn't come up with straightforward solutions either.

But there are common themes that run through the criticism: that council officers have too much power and have agendas of their own; that due to the size of the Super City many councillors don't know about, or agree with, what's going on; that the majority of Aucklanders don't know what's going on either and by the time they do, it's almost too late; that information on the council's website and feedback/consultation documents are weighted heavily in favour of the outcome the council wants.

There's no shortage of information on the Auckland Council website which also links to the council's "have your say" shapeauckland.co.nz website. If you look hard enough, you can find what you want. Or, as Rachael Shadbolt, general manager, accommodation, for Hospitality New Zealand puts it: "If you dig and click, and search and scroll" on what she describes as an "incredibly un-useful website".

The council probably won't argue too much with that. It's currently doing a major revamp of its website and Karl Ferguson, the council's director of communication and engagement, admits the concerns are legitimate and that the website is "not fit for purpose".

The changes are rolling out now and will be complete by the end of the year, he says.
Ferguson says communicating with 1.6 million Aucklanders is "a challenge," particularly as the region's population is growing by 40,000 a year and is increasingly diverse. Responding to feedback from the local community is why the Albert-Eden Local Board came up with the plan for Chamberlain Park in the first place.

The council is committed as an organisation to reach all Aucklanders, he says.
"I think it would be fair to say we are not there yet but we're very focused on it."

Ferguson trots out figures to prove the effort council makes to communicate with its population: 90,000 followers on Facebook, 60,000 on Twitter, 14 different versions of its monthly Our Auckland magazine, which is delivered to most households, and more than 2 million visits to the digital version since it as launched 18 months ago.

It's also translating its consultation documents into different languages. Feedback from the annual budget shows increases in feedback from the Asian (32 per cent), Maori and Pacific (both 7 per cent) communities and a decrease in feedback from Europeans (66 per cent, a drop from more than 80 per cent in the past).

But the issue appears to be not so much about the effort the council goes to to communicate, but whether or not it's effective and if the consultation process is fair.
Shadbolt is furious with the council over what she sees as an unfair process before this month's introduction of a targeted rate on commercial accommodation - a tax on motels and hotels in the region, describing it as "box-ticking".

She says small motel owners felt left out of the consultation process. "The only people who could give an oral submission were the major stakeholders. But the general public or individual moteliers were never given that opportunity."

And she accuses the council of sending out information about the targeted rate, dubbed the "bed tax," that was loaded.

"It certainly pointed the Auckland ratepayer in a direction that the council preferred. Who wouldn't tick a box that says 'don't raise my rates.'?"

Auckland lawyer Will Mckenzie, who's been helping Friends of Fowlds Park fight Albert-Eden Local Board plans for the park, is more forthright.

"I can't believe some of the questions (on consultation documents). They're laughable," he says. "If you presented a survey like that in a course at university you'd not only get a zero, you'd probably get kicked out for being a fraud. You need to get people's opinions, not put the opinions in people's head."

The way the council's consultation documents are "disingenuous" steer those responding towards the result the council wants, he says.

Geoff Senescall, chairman of Save Chamberlain Park. Photo / Michael Craig
Geoff Senescall, chairman of Save Chamberlain Park. Photo / Michael Craig

Certainly those trying to save Chamberlain Park's golf course feel the local board has an unfair advantage because they control the information about plans on the council website.

Ferguson disputes that the consultation documents are unfair. "I don't the way a question is framed limits people's ability to respond." It is rare to simply receive a yes or no comment, he says. "They tend to make a comment about what we've asked."

He thinks the problem is not so much that residents feel left out, but that they don't like the outcome. "The needs of new Aucklanders are different from perhaps the needs of longer-term residents. The challenge for the council and the whole community is how we meet all of those needs."

It was the consultation process - or rather the lack of it - that infuriated Senescall, chairman of Save Chamberlain Park. Senescall isn't the confrontational type. He'd rather be getting on with his day job, running a financial communications consultancy, and looking forward to a game of golf with mates. Instead he's spending hours, which have stretched into years, fighting the council and the local board who, he says, are hard to deal with.

"It's like you go into this big black hole. It doesn't seem like anyone wants to listen. It's not until you shake the tree really hard that anyone does anything more than provide lip service."

Mckenzie doesn't think the council really wants to listen or consult. He, like others, thinks the councillors have no power. Instead council officers "run the whole show and just do what they want. They don't want the councillors or the public messing up their system".
But he thinks Aucklanders pushing back will make a difference.

"Council are the 800lb gorilla and they've been stomping around a bit. But I think a few court cases and a few dongs on the head might bring them under control."

Mckenzie has dealt with Auckland local authorities for the past 25 years because of his involvement with sport . Before the Auckland Council was formed, he says, he found council officers to be "reasonable, conservative, public-service types".

The formation of the Super City changed all that. " It was like their egos were on heroin. They honestly believe that they are the elite, that they are world leaders in their field."

Auckland lawyer Doug Cowan is involved with both Save Chamberlain Park and the Titirangi Protection Group, fighting to stop Watercare building its new water-processing plant at Waima. Watercare backed off plans to build the plant at Oratia after strong opposition from locals but now faces similar opposition in Titirangi.

Cowan says those involved in the protest groups have a "real problem" with the consultation process.

Referring to the council's website, he says the language is loaded and that the status quo is never an option - as is the case with Chamberlain Park golf course. "They'd already made up their mind early in the piece what they were going to do with it."

In the case of Titirangi, the group is making sure its own consultation process works, doing a mail drop to reach older residents who are not on social media and don't know about Watercare's plans.

McKenzie and others think the council is rushing, that not enough time, thought, and consultation has gone into some fairly major projects.

"They're only seven years young," Mckenzie says, "and there are no easy answers. I think it will take us 50 years to work it out."

Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, agrees the council at times moves too fast. "It's about telling the story softly, gently, taking your time," he says. "If people are informed, they have a choice. But if you don't do that, you end up with everybody disgruntled and suspicious."

Before the formation of the Auckland Council, Aucklanders were able to present their case to their local council, he says.

"That's gone. What's missing is that ability to get close enough to the decision-makers so that the other point of view is heard."

And he doesn't think the local boards are doing their job to represent the views of local residents. He says they are underfunded, haven't "matured" into their role and are not effective in getting feedback or engaging people.

"Because people don't feel engaged, they react - and they go straight to war."

Auckland councillor Christine Fletcher agrees the council needs to go back to grassroots consultation. "We also need to accept that to do things properly and thoroughly it may take a little bit longer."

Fletcher, a former MP and Mayor of Auckland, says it was easier before the Super City to communicate with people. Now there is a "bewildering" amount of information on the council website and an element of "consultation fatigue".

She questions what determines "good feedback" as claimed by local boards. "Some would argue it's a good response, others would argue that given the size of Auckland it's a minuscule response."

So how do you communicate with 1.5 million people and get them on on side with plans for the region?

Will Mckenzie admits that the sheer size and scale of the council means it faces a difficult task to communicate with, and engage, the population. But Fletcher warns that if the council doesn't consult effectively, the backlash will continue.

" It's a very litigious environment that we're in right now. To a degree I think the council has created that."

She points to the Auckland Unitary Plan as an example of too much happening too quickly.

"People are only coming to grips with it now. And of course it's all over Rover, it's a bit late to change things."

Ferguson says thousands of Aucklanders did respond to consultation over the Unitary Plan but the challenge is that as the region grows, different people want different things. Younger Aucklanders preferred more modern compact housing near a transport hub and others valued heritage suburbs.

"The challenge for Auckland was to weigh up those competing needs. Both of those points of views are legitimate."

So is the Auckland Council working?

" I would say not and I was a great fan of amalgamation," Fletcher says. "Arguably it's too big. I think it is probably timely for the Government to go back and revisit it and look at the fine-tuning that is required."

Grant Duncan, associate professor at Massey University's school of people, environment and planning, voiced concerns in an article he wrote last year for Policy Quarterly. He questioned whether Auckland Council is now simply too big to be efficient, democratic and sustainable.

The council has to improve its reputation with the people of Auckland and improve local engagement and participation, he says.

"Given the scope of the unitary planning process, it is simply impossible for councillors to be 'across the details' in their own wards, let alone the region, and hence unelected officials are likely to exercise greater influence."

"It's long-term fate hangs in the balance," he says. "The task ahead is not for the faint-hearted."

Auckland Council versus Aucklanders

Plans to redevelop the 18-hole Chamberlain Park Golf Course

The background

The Albert-Eden Local Board has a multimillion-dollar master plan for 32-hectare Chamberlain Park that includes a 9-hole course and driving range.

The plan has caused strong opposition from golfers. Save Chamberlain Park argues the park is a regional asset, not a local reserve, attracting more than 50,000 rounds of golf a year played by people from all over Auckland, and from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

The outcome

If mediation fails, Save Chamberlain Park will head to court.

Plans to redevelop Fowlds Park in Mt Albert

The background

Local residents objected to Albert-Eden Local Board plans to install artificial turf playing fields. Friends of Fowlds Park and the Tree Council lodged appeals to the Environment Court.

The outcome

After two rounds of mediation, the council is working on a new proposal that may include the use of hybrid turf - a carpet which allows real grass to grow through.

Watercare's plans to build a new water-treatment plant at Waima, a suburb in the Waitakere ward.

The background

Watercare (a council-controlled organisation) backed off plans to build its new plant at Oratia in the face of fierce opposition from locals. They now plan to build it at Waima, which will entail having to clear protected native bush.

The outcome

The Titirangi Protection Group is fighting to stop Watercare and is considering going to court.

The targeted accommodation rate

The background

Earlier this month the Auckland Council passed a targeted accommodation rate - a tax of hotel and motel rooms. The hotel, motel and hospitality industry are opposed.

The outcome

The hospitality industry is considering going to court.

The Auckland Unitary Plan

The background

The Auckland Council introduced the Unitary Plan, or new planning rulebook for the Super City , causing dismay among many Aucklanders, who strongly objected to various aspects, mostly to do with greater intensification.

The outcome

Lobby groups, including Auckland 2040, and individuals challenged some of the new rules for intensification and heritage in the courts, and lost.

Ports of Auckland (100 per cent owned by Auckland Council) plans to extend Bledisloe wharf

The background

The Ports of Auckland caused outrage when Aucklanders discovered a non-notified plan to extend Bledisloe cargo wharf 100 metres into the harbour. A lobby group, Urban Auckland, took legal action claiming the Auckland Council acted unlawfully in granting resource consent.

The outcome

Urban Auckland won a historic victory after the High Court ruled consents for the project were invalid. Ports of Auckland stopped work on the Bledisloe extension, but came up with a fresh proposal for a 65m-piled extension. In the meantime it is completing a 300-metre extension and reclamation at Fergusson container wharf.