new auckland

Speedway and Eden Park winning the politics

Auckland Council looks close to granting the Eden Park Trust its $100m wishlist as a behind-the-scenes political struggle linked to the future of speedway and Western Springs risks embarrassing Mayor Phil Goff.

The first step came this morning, with Regional Facilities Auckland granting the speedway company a one year extension to its contract to use Western Springs, an announcement Goff endorsed.

Separately, the Eden Park Trust held a confidential workshop with councillors yesterday, its second this year, to push its case for Auckland Council to pay up. It wants councillors to not only to take over a $40m loan its predecessor had guaranteed at the time of the 2011 Rugby World Cup preparations, but to pay $6 million a year the stadium needs for turf, big screen and maintenance upgrades.

This morning Goff went public with the fact Auckland is likely to pay, but claimed the deal won't cost ratepayers because he would personally favour a condition that any funding from the Council would be paid back by the Trust should it sell the Eden Park land.

Goff also revealed this morning on TV Three's The AM Show that the Eden Park Trust was now likely to take an appeal to the Environment Court to seek changes to conditions in the Unitary Plan that it claims prevent it from holding rock concerts.

That would be a costly legal exercise, but with the new funding from ratepayers the trust might feel comfortable spending its other resources on a bid that it views as critical to its financial viability.

Eden Park Trust had as a director until last year the public relations operator Michelle Boag and has used the services of the right-wing PR man and commentator Matthew Hooton. It has taken the fight for funding and planning concessions to its opponents, including hard-hitting claims in its annual report.

Long-term, Goff favours a new stadium downtown, and he also voted to build a new speedway stadium at a park in Manukau to help move the motorsport out of Western Springs, freeing that venue for, first community events and concerts and later a new purpose-built international cricket facility.

But Goff lost a crucial vote on moving speedway to Colin Dale Park late last year. Now he and the new RFA chairman Andrew Barnes look to have been out-manoeuvred again by a group of councillors who appear to favour leaving all venues, Eden Park, Western Springs and other stadiums run by Regional Facilities Auckland just as they are.

That political push is counter to the Mayor's long-term wishes and to the RFA plan for developing Auckland's stadiums - and is likely to be down to this being a local body election year.

Leading members of the political push against Goff include councillors Daniel Newman, Wayne Walker, John Watson and Christine Fletcher, who has allied herself directly with Goff's mayoral challenger John Tamihere. On the fringes of the opposition to the Mayor and surprising some onlookers is the centrist Orakei ward councillor Desley Simpson.

A petition with reportedly 30,000 signatures to keep speedway from having its lease ended at Western Springs - and the Eden Park Trust's sustained public relations campaign to blame Auckland's Unitary Plan for its inability to hold concerts - have proved politically sensitive.

Who wants to be the one ending the generations of speedway at Western Springs? Who wants the blame for Eden Park not being able to upgrade its facilities and being financially imperilled?

One view puts the political kowtowing to the speedway and Eden Park lobbies down to electoral timidity and that had these issues been in play three months after an election things would have been different.

One small player in all of this seems to have been overly influential: Auckland Cricket. While its national body does not favour Eden Park and would likely back a new stadium at Western Springs for cricket, Auckland Cricket is a beneficiary of Eden Park Trust, gets two well paid directorships and discounted use of Eden Park's number two ground and facilities.

One of its directors on the trust is Nick Albrecht, a key figure in the Communities and Ratepayers local body political group which is linked to the National Party. He is said to have been influential in supporting Eden Park and questioning a cricket move to Western Springs.

While Albrecht is attributed with outsized influence, others believe the wider trust might contemplate letting Auckland Cricket leave so the valuable number two ground on Sandringham Rd could be sold for property developments. It could be that Goff's attempt to link Auckland Council funding to being paid back when land is sold has this possibility in mind.

These are all long-term considerations. Even if an alternative venue to Eden Park could be agreed and built somewhere like in the CBD, that would take the best part of a decade and Eden Park would be needed for major rugby test matches in the meantime, and would need to be kept to a passable standard.

And even if the RFA can succeed in having the speedway move next year, the funding and development of Colin Dale Park would take some time and any cricket stadium at the vacated Western Springs would be years away.

However the decisions have been hastened by the imminent expiry (now delayed) of the speedway company's deal to use Western Springs and by Eden Park's loan needing to be taken over by the council in September.

Probably the best solution at present, and a politically attractive one, is to do the minimum: the temporary extension for speedway at Western Springs; a commitment to take over the loan at Eden Park and to advance the first of the $6m a year demands from the Eden Park Trust; and a hold put on the big strategic plan from the RFA for use of Auckland's sports stadiums.

Until, at least, after the election in October. 

The likely Environment Court case seeking to allow Eden Park to hold concerts as a right, rather than as now being allowed up to six as a discretionary activity that needs public notification, is another matter again.

First, it would be necessary to seek a change via the council itself. While Goff says that as the regulator of planning, Auckland Council cannot express a view on Eden Park's bid, his council officers would need to make an initial decision either to grant the trust's wishes or to block them and thus allow such a court appeal to proceed.

While Mt Smart, set in industrial land, has concerts as a primary activity, Eden Park does not. So even if it is allowed more concerts as of right it would continue to face tighter planning conditions than its rival.

Another complicating factor for the Eden Park bid for concerts is that industry figures doubt the trust would be able to attract all the events it claims, even if given a planning carte blanche. This is because one of the two big promoter/ticketing companies Ticketmaster, owned by Live Nation, has an exclusive arrangement with Mt Smart and also Spark Arena. Eden Park is aligned with the other major agency, Ticketek.

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