• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland liveable again

Auckland. Photo/Getty Images

Making Auckland a liveable city is an unenviable task, writes Bill Ralston, but it's clear the mayor needs more power.

Why is Auckland such an unholy mess? Work takes me back for a few days every month from the peace and quiet of Hawke’s Bay, and every time I land there, I am struck by the natural beauty of the city’s siting, on a narrow strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. The place should be idyllic but somehow, when it comes to major projects that should improve quality of life for Aucklanders, something always goes awry.

One hundred years after they should have done it in the first place, the city leaders are building an underground railway, the City Rail Link (CRL). This entails ripping up the heart of the inner city, making it virtually impassable for already heavily congested traffic. What was a $3.4-billion project in 2014 has already reportedly blown out in cost by another $500 million and is likely to be a billion dollars over by the time it is finished in 2024 – or sometime long after I’m dead and buried, probably.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The CRL, if ever finished, should carry some 54,000 passengers an hour, if people can be persuaded to divorce themselves from their cars. Unfortunately, a quick look at the gridlock on the Southern Motorway indicates it will take a lot to convince folk to leave their cars at home and take a train, because so many seem content to sit in their stalled vehicles for hours at a time.

A several-billion-dollar project to build tramlines (“light rail”) from the city to the airport may take some of the pressure off clogged traffic, but the scheme seems to be stalled in the Never Never Land of council and Government planning. Besides, the city is enormously spread out and many suburban dwellers would, in all likelihood, have to take a bus to get to the tram route, which seems a little silly.

Aside from the transport dilemma, Auckland has plenty of other, very expensive problems to fix. Its Third World sewage system renders many of its otherwise beautiful beaches unswimmable for health reasons in summer. Eden Park is loaded with an unsupportable level of debt and an equally unsupportable level of loathing from its neighbours.

Part of the city’s problem is that it is hovering dangerously close to its debt ceiling; if breached, it would push up the amount of interest the city pays on its loans, which, in turn, would put the brakes on further development.

All of which makes me wonder why Phil Goff, John Tamihere and John Palino want to be Auckland’s mayor this year. I was foolish enough to stand for council at the last election but, luckily, I lost. Auckland appears to be almost ungovernable, with shifting coalitions of rambunctious councillors thwarting the mayor’s plans to improve the city. Each councillor seems a tiny warlord of their hunk of Auckland, and their focus is almost entirely on their own patch at the expense of Auckland as a whole. Goff is an enormously experienced politician but he must be tearing his hair out at the leaden weight of the intransigent council he is trying to drag forward.

It is nearly 10 years since the Government amalgamated the city’s various councils into one amorphous, unworkable blob, and it is time that central Government moved to fix the problem it created. To my mind, the best solution would be to further increase the executive powers of the mayor to enable him or her to push through major projects over the clamouring of partisan councillors.

Auckland could be a nice city if they only finished it.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.