On November 1st last year Auckland Council came into being and we saw the seven former councils plus the Regional Council disbanded. It is interesting to note what I said on October 31st last year, looking ahead towards what this new era for Auckland would bring:
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.
In a general sense, I have probably been somewhat pleasantly surprised by the way the Council has worked over the past year. The ‘big picture vision’ for Auckland has been turned into something fairly concrete – by way of the Auckland Spatial Plan. For transport, we’ve seen something of a mixed bag but it comes out slightly on the side of positive. In terms of ‘day to day’ activities, by most accounts things have transitioned fairly smoothly – although much of the most difficult work is yet to come with contentious issues like rating and the long-term plan.
If we focus on transport, there have been a number of really great positives:
- The ongoing strong support of the Council for the City Rail Link as the key transformational transport project for Auckland. The Council confirmed this project as the top priority transport project for Auckland and continues to push for it as strongly as possible.
- Auckland Transport has generally been surprisingly responsive and willing to engage with the public. They opened up their meetings, they publish their board agendas (an increasing amount of which isn’t in confidential), they have engaged via social media like Twitter and so forth.
- In key plans like the City Centre Master Plan we can see a more nuanced approach to transport, as a key balancing act between shifting people while not destroying the quality of space, than I’ve ever come across before.
- Thanks to the hard work of Auckland Transport (and other involved agencies) we have ended up with the fantastic surprise of ending up with far more electric trains than we’d originally envisaged.
- Setting aside the disastrous opening night of the Rugby World Cup, the transport planning seemed pretty good – especially on the last weekend highlighting that key lessons (such as closing Queen Street to cars) had been learned.
Of course there have been a few low-lights:
- The short-comings in the original business case for the City Rail Link which gave the government leverage to criticise the project and shed doubt on its cost-effectiveness. Lots of hard work has happened since then, but we’ve been playing catch up over the past year.
- The failure of Auckland Council to make more tough decisions in the Auckland Spatial Plan over which projects are priorities and which ones aren’t. This can still be remedied as the Plan is only in draft form.
- The disastrous opening night of Rugby World Cup, which seemed largely due to extremely poor communication and co-operation between some of Auckland Council’s CCOs and the lack of a “Plan B” when things started to go wrong.
It will be an interesting next year. We’ll have a finalised Auckland Plan, we should start making real progress in getting consents for the City Rail Link and resolving remaining areas of difference with the government (assuming the government doesn’t change) about its funding, we’ll be getting pretty close to completing the infrastructure side of electrification, we’ll see integrated ticketing implemented fully and we’ll hopefully see more comprehensive improvements to the bus network.
How do you think Auckland Council’s first year has gone? What have been the successes? What have been the failures? And what do you hope to see from the Council over the next year?