new auckland

Auckland governance: Efficiency over democracy?

Critics say the Auckland Council's current governance review is a waste of time and money, and is unlikely to result in real change. Has the push to make the "Super City" more efficient stripped its citizens of democratic representation? 

George Wood decided at the last Auckland Council elections that he could do more good for his patch as a local board member than a councillor, so he duly stood for election and won a place on the Takapuna-Devonport board. It was a step down from his former role at the big table, which in turn had been a step down from wearing the mayoral chains of the former North Shore City. But he could see work that needed to be done, and thought he'd be more effective sorting out issues such as Lake Road's traffic jams from ground level. 

How wrong he was. "Unfortunately my position on the board leaves me largely powerless to make any change," he says. 

Wood is discovering first-hand what a report into Auckland's governance said last year: "A fit-for-purpose support model has proved elusive, and the organisation has struggled to balance the need to provide consistent, timely and efficient advice, while also tailoring that advice to reflect the different needs and preferences of 21 local boards."  

The council has since formed a "Governance Framework Review" body to report back by August 24, which will look at the balance between board and council work. Even that is fraught, with board members complaining that councillors aren't taking their participation in the committee seriously enough - resulting in Mayor Phil Goff two weeks ago urging them to turn up to meetings. 

Newsroom's Tim Murphy wrote of an example of just how dysfunctional the city has become in his story over the lengthy debate over a small patch of land in Brown's Bay. But while small issues are wasting the time of the full council, big issues that matter to locals don't appear to be making inroads there. 

"Unfortunately my position on the board leaves me largely powerless to make any change."

Wood: "There's no point in doing another governance review. They've only chosen a small number of people to do that work - their recommendations will be rubberstamped and we will move on. People are starting to wonder what it's all about and start totting up the cost - it's projects like these that cost a lot of money. These things are not helping to deliver services."

Wood says board funding is being cut by slight of hand. He gives libraries as an example - boards are told that as part of cost cutting exercises, library budgets are being cut so staff will have to go, and opening hours cut back. Local boards can fight back to ensure libraries stay open but they have to do it from their own meagre budgets, when libraries are supposed to be centrally funded. 

However, being dictated to by Auckland Transport is what really hurts, and here's where the tangled mess that is Lake Road comes in. It's an urgent issue that affects every resident on the Devonport isthmus, as well as anyone who tries to navigate the thin strip of road in. 

"Money was put aside a long time ago to widen Lake Road - $53 million from North Shore City," says Wood.

"It was one of those projects that was unceremoniously removed from the budget; the money has dissolved into nothing. The former council fixed Esmonde Road to Hauraki Corner and was prepared to continue to Belmont. But something had to go to build the inner city rail link.

"Devonport people pay through the nose for their ferry compared to what others pay for public transport. Now Auckland Transport has come back with three options [for Lake Road] and the top end solution will cost $70m. Auckland Transport only has so much funding to go round and trying to cajole them into doing something is hard work." 

Constantly peaking congestion: Lake Road is a nightmare. Picture: George Wood

Meanwhile as residents sit stalled in their cars, at all times of the day and through the weekend, "We are the people in the firing line," says Wood.

"We stood for the local board saying 'we are going to get some funding for Lake Road' but unless you can find some other funding from somewhere .... the only thing you can do is propose a targeted rate. People would go spare if you rated them for a project that's already on the books." To do the minimum amount of work to fix the problem would be $10m, and a mid-range option has been costed at $40m, but "the only way forward is to do it properly - do it once and do it right", he says.

Effectively, local politicians have been stripped of power in favour of a model that gives it to a council-controlled organisation, which makes decisions based on its plan for the wider region.

The fact Parnell now has a $12m rail station is of no comfort to Devonport residents who have no access to a railway line.

"Local boards don't have the wherewithal to do the job," says Wood.

That's something that really irks Professor Ian Shirley, a local government expert who was involved in pre-amalgamation projects on merging the region's councils. He is a former Professor of Public Policy at AUT and founder of The Policy Observatory. He believes Auckland has the most poorly-represented structure for regional governance in Australasia. 

"Not only do councillors fail to represent the different cultural and social groups that make up greater Auckland, but the small group of elected councilors are expected to serve nearly twice as many people as any other local authority in the country," he says.

"There are not enough councillors to serve the current population let alone the projected population over the next 20 years." As well, decisions being made for Auckland's future are not being made by its people.

"The reality is we have now set up silos like Auckland Transport with their own legislation which are not really under the control of Auckland Council at all," he told Newsroom. "How do you get people involved if you are just operating at a distance?"

"We don't need another review."

"Nearly two decades of conducting research on the government of Auckland has made me increasingly disenchanted with the way central government continues to screw over Auckland," he wrote earlier this year for The Policy Observatory. He also singles out CCO's, which operate at arms length to the council, as a barrier to democracy for their failure to engage Aucklanders. And he says the last thing Auckland needs is yet another review of the governance system. 

Governance, he says, wasn't the problem for Auckland at the time of the merger in 2009 - it was an obsession for politicians and bureaucrats based in Wellington.

Shirley says Auckland's big issues, including housing and the widening disparites in income and wealth, can't be addressed by council policies alone.

"That is patently evident when we consider who drives policy choices such as the ‘gung ho’ approach to immigration, the demolition of state houses, the stark inequalities between different communities and neighbourhoods across Auckland, the gridlock on regional motorways and the environmental decline of the polluted harbour. 

"What we need is central government action to address the major deficits in the region, and a commitment by Wellington to fulfil its role in the so-caled partnership with the local and regional government of Auckland."

Auckland Transport has just released a report on the options for Lake Rd which you can read here.

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