Auckland mayor Wayne Brown says work will start this term on turning port land into a vibrant area like the Viaduct Basin with a mix of open space, restaurants, apartments and businesses.
In his first full interview since winning the Auckland mayoralty a month ago, Brown spoke candidly about his plans for Ports of Auckland, learning about the public transport crisis and a $270 million hole in the budget and the one thing he loves about Auckland Transport.
Speaking at his office on the 27th floor of the council headquarters in downtown Auckland, Brown summed up the first few weeks running the Super City as akin to “the guy jumping off the tower and it falling down behind you”.
“I expected it to be slow, bureaucratic, bloated and in financial difficulties and it met all of those, and it’s more financial difficulties than I thought,” he said.
Brown said he had inherited some surprises that no one was aware of during the election campaign, including three years of major disruptions on the rail network.
“It’s like every time you lift a stone here, slaters run out in every direction.”
The Herald canvassed three major issues with the 76-year-old engineer and businessman, who promised Aucklanders that his experience of fixing big, troubled and complex organisations made him the right person to be Mayor of the Super City and “Fix Auckland”.
Number 1: Council finances
When Brown said Aucklanders are sailing into an economic and fiscal storm at his inauguration 10 days ago, he did not know the city was facing a $270 million budget hole.
“I didn’t have the number but I knew it was grim and the body language [from council staff] wasn’t good,” he said.
Now that the figure of $270m is in the public arena, Brown is assuring Aucklanders struggling in a cost-of-living crisis that the prospect of 12 per cent rate rises is “not acceptable and will not happen”.
He’s talking about a “hard-nosed” examination of the council, council-controlled organisations (CCOs) and Ports of Auckland, but aware he has to bring the 20 councillors and members of the Independent Māori Statutory Board with him - with a proviso.
Councillors and local board members with wishlists for things like new heated swimming pools may find they have a different wishlist from the mayor’s.
“My wishlist is not to put further loads on ratepayers if I can possibly avoid it,” he said.
Brown is also open-minded about selling the council’s 18 per cent shareholding in Auckland Airport, worth about $2 billion - “it’s not like we get anything back from it”, he says about its pause on dividends and need to raise more capital from shareholders.
If Brown does try to sell the airport shares, he is likely to face strong opposition from left-leaning and some centrists councillors.
Brown has also indicated in a drive to find savings he’s willing to cut funding to the 21 local boards, although he is keen to give the boards more powers and more say over how they spend their funding allocations.
The big unknown for Brown’s first budget is the long-signalled cost blowout in the $4.4b City Rail Link.
After speaking with Transport Minister Michael Wood on the CRL - the council and Government are jointly funding the project - Brown said the minister is similarly in the dark over the new cost.
Brown said he had been raising concerns about the new cost for six months, saying the horrible thing now is not knowing.
“I think we have been told it [the new cost] is coming out just before Christmas. “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas’,” he said.
Number 2: Ports of Auckland
Brown has backed away from his election pledge for the Ports of Auckland board “to deliver $200m of rates … plus $200m of dividends” a year, saying last week that is no longer possible through port operations.
In his interview, Brown said he still intends to deliver $400m from the port land, but it would be progressive and take time.
“There is plenty of value down there. It is not being extracted by having cars on it.”
Brown is referring to Bledisloe Wharf, where giant ships currently unload 240,000 cars, plus commercial vehicles, trucks, buses and even trains in a year.
The mayor has asked Ports of Auckland chairwoman Jan Dawson to work with stakeholders to come up with a plan and timeline to develop a 16ha area from the Ferry Building to Bledisloe Wharf by March 31 next year, including moving the car trade to Northport, south of Whangārei.
She has responded by saying a working group will be set up but raised a number of issues around moving the cars identified in a 2017 report.
They include increased costs likely to be passed on to consumers, building new port infrastructure, higher carbon emissions, significantly reduced dividends to the Auckland Council and the impact of 10,000 jobs in Auckland.
Brown said the claims are “complete rubbish”, saying when he chaired an Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy in 2019, the car exporters said it would cost an extra $100 per car to move the cars to Northport.
He said the cost of parking a car on Bledisloe Wharf should be $500, which is $400 more than using Northport.
Brown was also scathing of Ports of Auckland’s payment’s to the council, saying last year’s rates of $970,000 was less than the money it gave away in donations and sponsorships and planned dividends of $17m, $21m and $25m over the next three years are “way short of the mark”.
“I won’t even remotely accept that,” he said.
Brown said the port’s new chief executive, Roger Gray, is doing a better job than his predecessor, but his pledge of getting towards a dividend of $50m a year is “less than Bonus Bond returns” on land he values at $6b.
The mayor’s vision is to turn port land into a vibrant area like the Viaduct Basin with a mix of open space, restaurants, apartments and businesses.
Asked where things will be at the end of his three-year term, Brown said: There will be work in train making use of the vacated land. Hopefully there won’t be a pile of empty containers in front of Parnell, hopefully the containers will be on trains not trucks,” he said.
Number 3. Public transport
“I have inherited, again, some surprises. Nobody was aware of the fact they were going to dig the rail up until midway through the elections,” said Brown, saying the council family does not have open disclosures.
When it comes to shutting down three rail lines at different times over the next three years, Brown said he wants to know if it is “absolutely, absolutely justified”, saying other countries do not shut down a network but do it progressively.
“If it is absolutely unavoidable, how do we speed it up,” said Brown, who is not overly confident Auckland Transport can provide buses as an alternative to trains when the city is short of 500 bus drivers and services are being cut.
Looking out, Brown said Auckland Transport will not be getting any money for unwanted cycleways, but he does want them to spend money on roads through the use of dynamic lanes - changing the direction of centres lanes at peak times.
Dynamic lanes are used on the Auckland Harbour Bridge and Whangaparāoa Rd, the only road in and out of the narrow peninsula.
Brown said dynamic lanes, which do not involve civil works and do not cost much, should be provided on busy feeder roads, such as Dominion Rd, Mt Eden Rd, Remuera Rd and Pakuranga Highway.
“The best things in Auckland Transport are, number one, the Northern Busway, so we want the eastern and western ones under way,” he said.