Friday, November 25, 2022

Josh Van Veen: Wayne Brown’s first month

Wayne Brown has been Mayor for a month, and already he has done more to change Auckland than Phil Goff did in six years. The changes began even before Brown was sworn in. Only hours after the election results were announced on 8 October, the Chair of Auckland Transport Adrienne Young-Cooper resigned. It set in motion a radical change of direction at the Council-Controlled Organisation (CCO), encouraged by an open letter from the Mayor-elect.

Much to the frustration of some, AT’s executive leadership has instructed staff to be less preoccupied with ‘active modes’ such as walking and cycling. In practice, this could make Goff’s Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway null and void. Under the Pathway, adopted by the Council in August, transport emissions must be reduced by 64% before the end of the decade. This ambitious target was always fanciful, given that emissions were forecast to go up by 6% under the current 10-year Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP).

Indeed, one of the most important decisions that the Governing Body will make under Mayor Brown is the future of the $37 billion RLTP. Under legislation, the RLTP must be updated every three years, with the next review scheduled for 2024. While the AT Board ultimately approves the RLTP, it is developed in collaboration with the Council and a final draft must be ‘endorsed’ by the Governing Body, subject to public consultation.

There will be enormous pressure on the Council, from both activists and central government, to do more for climate change. Earlier this year the lobby group All Aboard Aotearoa challenged the legality of the existing RLTP on the grounds that it violates the Council’s climate change policy. But in a ruling by Justice Venning, the High Court found no legal requirement for the RLTP to be consistent with past Council statements and declarations. The decision gives the new Governing Body freedom to rethink Auckland’s approach to transport planning.

Brown’s main criticism of AT is that it has spent too much time on “changing how Aucklanders live” rather than meeting their needs. In fact, when AT commissioned market research for the RLTP planning process in December 2020, it found that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was ranked the lowest priority. Aucklanders’ top three priorities were more reliable public transport, building new roads, and increasing the capacity of existing roads.

But many of those providing advice to decision-makers believe there is a moral imperative to push back against ‘car dependency’. The RLTP allocated $1.4 billion to cycling and micromobility projects, with AT officials now advising that the real cost of fully implementing their plan for a strategic network of cycleways is at least $5 billion. Without this strategic network, we are told, ‘mode shift’ from cars to cycling will never happen. And without that mode shift, Auckland cannot halve carbon emissions.

The problem is finite money (and space) for new infrastructure. Lower than forecast revenue and cost escalations have led to funding gaps in the RLTP that are making it difficult for AT to keep public transport running, and to finish the projects it has started. There is also a cultural problem. Few Aucklanders are prepared to give up driving as a primary mode of transportation. Yet, technocrats have been motivated by a delusional belief that there is a democratic mandate for prioritising mode shift over reducing travel times.

Only virtue-signalling politicians desperate to be on the “right side of history” have been naïve enough to go along with it. Brown has none of these pretensions. That is the new mayor’s greatest strength. His clear-eyed pragmatism over the next three years will give Auckland an opportunity to overcome a decade of policy inertia – if councillors back him. The difficulty is that too many of those on the Governing Body are stuck in the Goff era.

The new committee structure unveiled by Brown earlier this month has given significant power to councillors who are ideologically opposed to his agenda. Look, for example, at the new Expenditure Control and Procurement Committee. Brown established the Committee to review wasteful spending by Council officers, CCOs, and the Ports of Auckland. The Committee has been given until 31 March to recommend a savings package that will give the Council room to avoid big rate rises.

Former National Party MP, and staunch fiscal conservative Maurice Williamson (Howick) is to lead the Committee. He will be backed by two other centre-right members, Greg Sayers (Rodney) and Daniel Newman (Manurewa-Papakura). The left-wing but fiscally conservative Mike Lee (Waitemata) can also be relied on to advocate for big cost savings. However, they must contend with four centre-left councillors and two unelected members of the Independent Māori Statutory Board who support a big Council.

Whatever the Expenditure Control Committee finds, expect the centre-left faction to defend the empire-building of senior managers and bureaucrats. The CCOs Tātaki Auckland Unlimited and Eke Panuku are likely to be held up as “essential service providers”, without which the SuperCity could not function. The over-staffing, inefficient contracting, and wasteful projects that Williamson has in his sights will be untouchable for some reason or another. He is up against a sclerotic bureaucracy, protected by layers upon layers of opaque decision-making, at arm’s length from democracy.

But ultimately, the realignment of transport priorities in the Super City is where Brown can influence the most spending. If he is to fix Auckland, the Mayor will need to ensure that his office has oversight of the RLTP planning process. He should lead it, not Council officers. Public consultation at the end of a bureaucratic process is not enough. Only by getting down into the weeds, and challenging the technocracy head on, can the Mayor finish what began with Young-Cooper’s resignation. He has made a promising start.

Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. This article was originally published by The Democracy Project HERE.


Anonymous said...

Mayor Brown better order loads of Round Up, Auckland CCO's are full of weeds.
Well rooted and well fed they will take heaving dosing to kill them off!
Once their gone however,the path will be clear for better roads.

Anonymous said...

In reading this "enlightening" article, the comments "Goff Years" and what supposedly/apparently occurred under Goff's watch, can one blatantly assume, that the reason for "rigid, potentially unmoving Council Bureaucracy" has established itself, during Goff tenure, that "maybe" it was done deliberately, on the basis of a change of People elected to Council, have differing views & opinions, so they would face "an obstinate bureaucratic staff".
Worth thinking about?
Would be interesting to know what Tania Tapsell/Rotorua found when taking over from another Helen Clarke area Politician!