NB: Upon reflection I have modified my original post in response to critical feedback, which you can read about in the comment thread below. Most of this feedback suggested that the message of the post was obscured by my personal frustration with Cameron Brewer, which I have accepted. Hopefully the revised post better reflects the issues that are important, rather than my opinion on the personalities driving the issues.
Let’s start with a question: Should property owners on Queen Street be allowed to use their properties for the highest and best use (as defined by their customers), provided that in doing so they don’t cause much (if any) harm to other people?
Most Aucklanders would say “yes” when confronted with such a question. Some of my ACT Party friends would nod sagely before launching into a spiel about how property rights are the yarn that knits successful societies together; bless their capitalist socks. National Party people would say yes and then try to shut down anything remotely fun. Labour Party people would say yes and then tax all activities to within an inch of their life. But I expect the predominant answer would be “yes”.
Cameron Brewer, however, seems to be saying “no” when it comes to respecting the rights of property owners on Queen Street. At least, that’s what I have concluded in the wake of his recent crusade against small shops. Things kicked off in somewhat Animal Farmish fashion back in April with this NZHerald article, in which Mr Brewer criticised “little shoebox shops selling absolute rubbish.” It appears that all shops are created equal, but certain ethnic small shops are less equal than others.
Brewer’s comments were quickly rebutted from a number of angles. Auckland Council’s Ludo Campell Reid was first out of the blocks in this Herald article, where he was quoted as saying:
Smallness is not necessarily a bad thing. Executed well this can be a great way for independent operators to enter the market,” he said. “They can create a sense of vibrancy and uniqueness and can play a positive role in developing an authentic and bespoke offer – a point of difference. I am assuming that this trend is market-led following an increased demand from smaller tenants. The owners of these properties are therefore merely seeking to meet market demand.
A wonderfully enlightened NZHerald editorial (maybe John Roughan was sick?) followed up the next day:
… there is a limit to the ability of a council to influence the quality of shops. A regulated minimum size such as Mr Brewer suggests would run the risk of leaving much more space standing empty. It is better to leave the shops to find their own scale and character. The high rents being charged are a good sign. It seems unlikely immigrants are paying those rates just to prove they are setting up a business here. They could easily find cheaper leases for that purpose.
More likely, Mr Brewer is witnessing a development long common in “world-class city centres”. New arrivals colonise central areas that have lost commerce and population to suburban centres. The inner city becomes a new place of language schools, apartments, ethnic restaurants and grocery stores, nightlife and entertainment.
Queen St reflects the times. It always did, always will and still it holds a central place in Auckland’s identity.
At this point I thought that the “Sanity ” versus “Brewer” boxing match had finished with the latter being cleanly knocked out 2o seconds into the first round. But now it seems that Brewer has somewhat unfortunately hauled himself up off the canvas and thrown himself back into the ring for more punishment. Cue small-shop article #2.
This second NZHerald article manages to highlight, again, all the reasons why Brewer was wrong in the first place. If I was to try to spell it out clearly: Small shops are a natural market response to a) high land values that encourage people to economize on space and b) consumer demand for the sorts of things that small shops can sell efficiently. And when one travels around a bit (I mean further afield than Remuera) then you see that small shops are at the heart of successful, vibrant cities worldwide.
What annoys me most about the whole episode, however, is that Brewer’s is not just wrong: He’s apparently hypocritical. For those who don’t know, Brewer purports to represent Auckland’s “Residents and Ratepayers”. Last time I checked, those very small shops on Queen Street paid a shed-load of rates. Not only that, but the small shops are trying to meet the needs of inner-city residents. Yes that’s right, small shops and their customers are ratepayers and residents too, not rubbish peddlers.
But why, you might reasonably ask, is Brewer on a crusade against small shops? Why is he advocating for regulations on minimum shops sizes? Regulations that would ultimately serve to de-value the affected properties and prevent them from meeting the needs of local residents?
The only rational reason I can see for why Brewer would assume such a position was because he’s what I call an “opportunistic dictator”. He’s opportunistic because he’s trying to suggest (somewhat bizarrely) that small-shops demonstrate that Len Brown has failed as Mayor, thereby undermining the latter’s political support. But he’s also a dictator because he’s wandering around imposing his values on other people. He’s saying that the sorts of shops that we like are not the sorts of shops that he likes. And his response is to regulate small-shops out of existence.
To sum up:
Small shops are good for Auckland’s economy and society. They are a natural market response to high rents and consumer demand. Small shops support businesses and jobs and ultimately make many people happy. Just because you prefer to shop elsewhere does not mean that there is no place for small shops in Auckland.
And with that off my chest I’m now going to go spend some of my not-insignificant disposable income at the smallest shop I can squeeze my not-so slender Anglo-Saxon frame into.