And so, a year and a half after the Royal Commission into Auckland’s local government reported back its findings, the Super City begins. It’s goodbye to Auckland City, Manukau City, North Shore City, Waitakere City, Rodney District, Papakura District, Franklin Districts and (perhaps the only one I’ll be sad to see go) the Auckland Regional Council – and hello to the new Auckland Council. Over the past 18 months I have taken an intense interest in how this whole process has panned out. From my initial thoughts on the Royal Commission’s report, to concerns I had about uneven ward sizes and my fluctuating opinions on the creation of the Auckland Transport CCO (first I thought it was a good idea, then a bad idea, now I’m back to thinking that it’s probably OK) it has been interesting to closely follow this process in Auckland’s history.
Overall, thanks in large part to the results of the election a few weeks back, I now feel confident and hopeful that the local government amalgamation will turn out to be a good thing for Auckland. I hope that it will provide us with a ‘fresh start’ of sorts – a chance to finally tackle regional issues in an integrated manner, to finally take on central government and get a better deal for the city and a chance to generally speak with one voice. Of course I still have many reservations: who will play the environmental watchdog role that the ARC has importantly done in the past 20 years? Will the Auckland Transport CCO be an open, accountable and transparent organisation – or will it operate in secret and be dominated by 1960s-mentality road engineers? How will we be able to integrate our land-use and transport thinking when they’re now located in two completely separate agencies? How much staff knowledge and expertise will be lost in the transition process? And so on.
However, I’m hopeful that things will be better with this new structure because, quite frankly, the old structure didn’t work very well at all. The city councils were too big to be local, but too small to speak with much weight to central government and think regionally. The ARC was hamstrung by efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to destroy it (ARC Chairman Mike Lee has written an excellent history of the ARC here by the way). In transport matters, the councils rarely agreed with each other, or with the ARC, or with ARTA or with NZTA on what their priorities were – with the result being that generally not much got done outside state highway upgrades (because NZTA could just get on and do them without having to worry about what the councils were doing). ARTA was rarely able to improve the cost-effectiveness of its bus services through extending bus priority measures – because they weren’t responsible for those: that was up to the city councils. The city councils couldn’t really see the direct benefits of bus lanes, just the noise made by those moaning about them, so were (and remain) incredibly reluctant to expand them.
So, apart from the oversight provided by the ARC on planning and environmental matters, I don’t actually think I will miss much at all when it comes to the old local government system. But the big question remains about the new system: while it might be difficult for it to be much worse than what we had, is it likely to be any better?
On transport matters, the signs are promising. Auckland’s new mayor and council seem highly willing to take their transport vision to the government and demand to be heard. It would even seem as though the government has got the message – and is making the most positive noises towards rail transport heard since it took office. But it’s not just the big expensive rail projects where I’m hopeful the new system can deliver better outcomes – it’s also the small stuff. It’s things like Auckland Transport having an incentive and the ability to improve bus priority measures because enabling buses to go faster will increase patronage, lower operating costs and improve their bottom line that will make a huge difference. While the early signs aren’t great, I’m confident that Auckland Transport will (eventually) become a pretty open and transparent agency: plus having all transport aspects thrown together into the one organisation will hopefully mean better consideration of public transport in all transport projects.
But these improvements aren’t just going to happen magically. There will undoubtedly be internal upheavals within the council’s structure for a few years yet, there will be the incredibly difficult process of working out how to fairly pay for all these grand ideas without pushing rates through the roof, there will be attempts by staff to establish opaque fiefdoms and much much more. If the new Council wants to achieve its very very admirable transport goals, then it will need to be on the ball and keep pushing things along every step of the way. I think it should have very detailed and well thought out plans for what it wants achieved by the end of 2011, 2012 and 2013: both in terms of taking steps towards the “big three” rail projects, but also in terms of maximising the benefits of integrated ticketing, electrification and ensuring we have a number of good “quick wins” along the way.
I do think we have the opportunity to make a fresh start on Auckland, to give the city a better and brighter future – not just transport wise, but generally. It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure.