Aucklanders have won the battle of the berms but AT's orders to mowing crews show it up as a bad loser

Poor old Auckland Transport. With its catalogue of past calamities - Rugby World Cup opening, Snapper card, real time indicator board - you might have thought by now it would have perfected the gracious "whoops, we cocked up again" mea culpa.

The berm cutting fiasco suggests otherwise. Bad loser to the end, AT has finally caved in and admitted it was all bluster. It has no power to force neighbouring residents to mow AT's adjacent roadside berm. It now says that where necessary, it will do the job itself. But the apology comes with a nasty sting. AT pledges that if you force it to mow the berm outside your house, it will do a crap job of it!

Why? Spokesman Alan Wallace explained to councillors on Tuesday that if AT did too good a job of mowing the berm, it wouldn't "incentivise" the adjacent residents to mow the berms themselves. What AT plans to do is to tell its mowing contractors to raise the mower blades when cutting berms outside the properties of refuseniks to ensure the untidy look remains intact. Talk about petty.

What will happen is that on traffic islands, roundabouts and berms adjacent to shopping centres, where AT accepts full responsibility for grass cutting, the contractors will be told not to let grass grow higher than 75mm, and that when they cut, to trim it back to 20mm. However, when cutting the grass outside the homes of refuseniks, contractors can wait until it grows to 100mm, and are instructed to raise the blade height to a shaggy-looking 50mm.


Councillors were told no cost savings are involved. It's all to do with "incentivising", and, dare I say, punishing.

Of course Mayor Len Brown and a majority of councillors are also to blame. In the development of the 2013/14 annual plan, the politicians who represent wards from outside the old Auckland City jumped at the chance of grabbing the $3 million a year that the ratepayers of old Auckland City put aside for communally financed berm mowing.

When the new do-it-yourself policy came into effect last year, the mayor and his suburban allies tried to make it a moral campaign. Good, salt-of-the-earth, community-minded citizens from the outlands versus lazy, selfish old Aucklanders.

They deliberately ignored the fact that a large majority of residents in the old Auckland City used to mow their berms anyway. And, under the new regime, have kept doing so. But a few, like myself for instance, have no lawn, and so, no mower. Others live in apartment blocks or are too frail to help AT out.

After a summer playing tough, AT has finally conceded the buck stops with it. But the mean-spirited way it has gone about it just leaves a nasty after-taste.

For a number of correspondents, it's not just the battle that has bemused them, but the word berm itself. When, I keep being asked, did a grass verge become a berm? More than one Wellingtonian suggested it must be an Aucklandism. Just the opposite, it seems.

Harry Orsman, who edited the 1997 Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English, cites examples dating back to NZ Army use in World War II. Thanks to the search engine attached to the National Library's Papers Past collection of old newspapers, the earliest New Zealand reference I could find is a Wellington Evening Post story of June 14, 1922, highlighting a major road building programme in Pennsylvania, USA, complete with "a berm of 3 feet on either side ..."

Indeed all the early newspaper references are from the same paper. In September 1926, the Post reports on a Lower Hutt mixed industrial and residential development, detailing that "along each side of the new subdivisional roads, between footpath and frontage, a grass berm is being provided, for planting avenues of trees".

In February 1937, "Jemima" writes to the same paper inviting all "to come and see the glorious profusion of grasses, mustard weed and gorse which adorn the road surrounds opposite Kelburn School; also the beautiful three-foot grass berm where the bus stops". Perhaps tongue in cheek she adds, "These choice verdant bits of Nature draw comments of wondering awe from all Kelburnites, but they mean one must wear gumboots on wet days." Another wet summer in the capital?

As for "berm", I could track down no Auckland usage around the same time. But we're certainly making up for lost time now.