Incumbent Wellington mayor Justin Lester is facing off against veteran councillor Andy Foster and first-term councillor Diane Calvert for RNZ Morning Report's Wellington mayoralty debate.
Local body voting papers start arriving in letter boxes at the end of this week, and on 12 October we'll know who's going to be in charge of our local councils and boards.
Today, Morning Report turned to Wellington. There are some big concerns for Wellington voters, and transport is chief among them along with earthquake-prone buildings, and increasing housing supply.
Watch previous debates on RNZ:
- Christchurch mayoral candidates on Morning Report
- Auckland's two mayoral front-runners on Checkpoint
- On Thursday Corin Dann will host a Morning Report debate between Auckland candidates John Tamihere and Phil Goff
Morning Report host Susie Ferguson: Let's get started, ata mārie, kia ora, good morning. Justin Lester, let's start with you - what mark out of 10 would you give yourself your first time as mayor?
Lester: I’d give a solid seven … we've got a council that's working together, we've drafted a 10-year plan and plan we focused on delivering that and I want to acknowledge Andy and Diane, they've contributed to the council, it’s worked well together.
What are your top five achievements?
Lester: Top Five achievements, ah, well the first would be that it’s a council that's working effectively. The council was perceived to be toxic when I came in and we changed it on day one, so I was really proud of that. We secured three $3.4 billion from government - the last major investment in transport was 40 years ago, 1978, my birth year - and I'm glad that we've achieved that, now it’s about delivering it. We've got a resilient city and building, at four weeks we had a massive earthquake I was worried that we'd see, you know, Wellington grind to a halt. But through calm, stable leadership I think we got through that okay. A couple more - we've had a big focus on inclusion and diversity, that's been a strong focus for me. I want to be a city that welcomes everybody that supports and embraces diversity and we saw the benefits of that in the outcome after 15th of March – which was a tragic incident, but when we had those thousands of people streaming to the Basin Reserve that was probably my proudest moment as mayor. And finally, I guess, I've taken on the arts portfolio. I'm really committed to Wellington remaining and retaining the status of the cultural capital of New Zealand.
Okay, Diane, what mark would you give Justin out of 10?
Calvert: I probably give him I probably give him six. But it's more important that what, what, where he's going for the next three years, which is why I'm standing.
Okay. We'll talk about that in a second. Andy, what would you say? Mark out of 10?
Foster: I'd probably be a bit harsher than that, I give him three or four.
Three or four, why?
Foster: I described this council last year when we were we were talking about how we were going as a bit of ‘smile and wave’. It's a lot more style than substance ... the three things which will really make that work in a successful triennium were getting the town hall under way - it's kind of, just about, you know, on the go – the movie museum and Convention Centre - we've got the Convention Centre, lost the movie museum for the moment and hopefully that can be recovered - and then Let's Get Wellington Moving. Now, to me, Let's Get Wellington Moving simply, as a package, is unworkable, unaffordable, and it's just not going to deliver what Wellington wants.
Okay, well, let's start with transport. How are we going to sort out the mess with the Wellington buses, and indeed restore faith in public transport? Justin Lester, is Wellington stuck?
Lester: Well, the regional council’s got to focus on delivering better for public transport. A year before they made the changes I was campaigning and lobbying them to make sure they paid the bus drivers effectively, that they supported the bus drivers, they didn't listen unfortunately and we've seen some problems.
This isn’t just about paying bus drivers though, is it, this was the huge overhaul that is now having to be scaled back and changed.
Lester: So, they've gone to a hubbing model and are scaling some of that back, but the main issue now is a shortage of bus drivers and that's been an incredible shambles and it's been unfortunate. We will support them as best they can. There's only one group that can improve the bus network and that's the Regional Council. But the lesson you learn from it is it needs to be a regional Transport Authority. We do that for economic development and for water, it's absolutely ridiculous that as mayor of the city and as city council we have very little say in how they operate the bus service.
Okay, Diane, what's wrong with that idea? Would you like to see a sort of an Auckland transport style model for Wellington?
Calvert: Well, that's gonna take probably five years if it ever occurred, so I want to get on and get something workable now. Waikato and Hamilton city have got a really good working model, basically it's a shared governance model where you‘d have the representatives from Greater Wellington from the Wellington City area, equal representation from Wellington City Council and also NZTA because they fund about quarter of the bus fares. So we need to be together, making the decisions together, and taking responsibility for them - but if we're going to take responsibility as a city council, we need to be at the decision-making table.
Okay, Andy, how would you clean up the mess?
Foster: Well, as the others have said, a lot of it is the regional council’s to fix up. We did have a really good relationship - I've been on the regional transport committee on several occasions and we did have a really good relationship across the region and with regional council. But I think the one thing that we can do which we really need to get on with - and I've proposed it many times and finally we’re about to get on with it is bus priority. [If] we actually put bus priority lanes in the right places, we can actually get the bus system working much more efficiently, more reliably, that's one thing we can do as a city council.
Okay, but does that mean this is this is partly your fault? Do you take some responsibility here?
Foster: Well, the regional council actually never really asked us. We said ‘hey, can you tell us where the buses are getting delayed’ and they just, silence. Now they’ve started to engage with that, and particularly now got much better data with the Snapper information they've got now, they've got much better data about where the delays are occurring in the system and when they're occurring.
Calvert: When I stood for councillor for the first time in 2016 I went to a number of different committee meetings, transport Committee, which Andy chaired and also the Greater Wellington Regional Council which Paul Swain chaired and I saw them in action, and both came and gave respective reports to each of the various council committees - verbal not written - and backslapping. And, you know, if you hadn't seen the writing on the wall then I don't know where you were because I could see it myself and I’ve advocated-
Foster (talking over her): Some of that was written actually as well-
Let her finish...
Calvert: I've advocated strongly for the last several years with Greater Wellington, I've written directly to ministers, I've helped set up community meetings. I've been to the Transport Select Committee and I've seen it and you didn't have to be a transport planner to know that it was a disaster waiting to happen.
So it sounds like she's done more than you have, Andy?
Foster: Oh look, I disagree. I think the real issue has been in the implementation. We did have a really good relationship with regional council and we did communicate effectively between the two of us, so-
Lester: Can I just round it off?
Justin, well, I was going going to ask you, you’re wanting to increase wages for the bus drivers and lower the fares. Is that actually possible to do and is it in your gift?
Lester: Yes, it is possible to increase the wages because it's happened before, and they had better wages previously so that's absolutely possible. What's happened is you've gone to a public transport operating model that was in a new tender system that's driven the cost down, so that's where the savings have been made, I believe. And in terms of lowering fares, yeah, absolutely, because if you increase passenger numbers then you spread that across - the costs, across – a greater number of people. And we have the highest fee box recoveries – that's the amount of income you get from passengers – in the country by some distance, much higher than other cities, higher than Auckland, higher than Christchurch, and Dunedin, everywhere else. So in Wellington, you can afford to have cheaper prices. And just finally, the good news is Regional Council - it'll have new leadership. We’re going through an election, three people have stood down there, two potentially reelected but they'll have some new leadership.
Let’s Get Wellington Moving
Okay, well, let's talk tunnels as well, who's tried driving through the Mount Vic tunnel at rush hour on a Friday recently?
Foster: Yes, (laughs). We all have, clearly it's very unreliable, there’s significant congestion there and we need to fix it.
Foster: Well the first thing is we don't wait until we've got a mass transit system. So at the moment the Let's Get Wellington Moving package has the tunnel and the Basin Reserve being fixed after the mass transit so-
When would you put the tunnel in?
Foster: Well, I think you do it straight away, you go to Phil Twyford with the rest of the region, who would support us in doing that, and say ‘Phil, we want a new package and that includes getting on with it right now, not waiting for a mass transit system’.
Calvert: Yeah, we have to get that done now, I mean at the moment in the current plan, the government's only funding 50 percent when they should be funding 100 percent because it's State Highway 1, and that's where the money should be going.
Lester: So the modelling shows, absolutely, you need a balanced network. So we've seen in the northern part of the city we've got a wonderful mass transit system, it's called our trains, and we see what happens when that grinds to a halt. Earlier this year the trains were out and the entire city north of Wellington CBD: gridlocked. I've got a picture of it on my phone, it’s just red everywhere. And public transport usage in the north of the city is 46 percent, and in eastern and southern suburbs it's as low as 23 percent, so you need balance – so you need that mass transit.
So mass transit would take pressure off, take people out of their cars, so they wouldn't be going through the tunnel, that’s what you’re saying?
Lester: Yes, you need to do a tunnel as well, but the first – absolutely first – priority needs to be the Basin Reserve congestion. So it's grade separation at the Basin Reserve east and west, north and south. That needs to be the first priority, we all agreed that and we've got a really good design so I'm looking forward to getting that under way.
But has this whole not rather stalled, Andy?
Foster: Well, yes it has and what we've got at the Basin Reserve, the first bit that's going to be done is simply at grade so the biggest solution is going to wait – again, until after the mass transit. But I think in terms of the mass transit it’s going to put a billion dollars on the city's debt, it's going to cost the average resident residential ratepayer about four $400 to $500 a year to run and it's only predicted to take about 5 percent - this is LGWM’s own numbers – that's 5 percent of the people coming into the central city by 2036 will come in by mass transit. So it's been all that money for very small proportion of the people coming in.
Lester: I'll tell you what will stall a transport programme in a city - Andy was involved and was a transport portfolio holder for the Basin Reserve Flyover-
Foster: Which you voted against-
Lester: We've had five years of nothing since because that project failed - it went to the High Court, went through a board of inquiry and it failed at a court of appeal. Going back and trying to relitigate it-
Foster: If you’d actually voted for it and supported it, it might have got somewhere.
Lester: We've got a much better design and a much better outcome which will be a legacy for the city and I'm proud of that fact, but relitigating this now we've got unanimous grounding from cabinet, the regional council and the city council-
Foster: It’s about which ones you do first, Justin.
We can't hear when you talk over each other. Diane, let's talk about Lambton Quay, you are on board with the idea of pedestrianising it?
Calvert: Yeah, I think it will be good, we can still keep the buses going up and down, because that's where the choke points are. If you look at the stats and the information that's come out of Let's Get Welly Moving – which, to be fair, is still being drip fed to us ... we haven't all been presented [with the information] – but if you look at the public transport bus movements and that Golden Mile area I think it's about 30,000 a day or...
And the impact on business would be entirely positive? There wouldn't want any issues around infrastructure going in and that would that would potentially tick it off?
Calvert: Well, we need to work with them, so we can't just go and say ‘this is a good idea’, but we need – really need – to work with them. And we need to make sure that people can get to them, even if is ... car parks nearby.
Okay, just a few quickfire questions on this kind of stuff – clearly this is going to cost money, what rate rise would you commit to Diane?
Calvert: I'd commit to a 4 percent maximum rate rise
Lester: We try to keep rates in and around 3 percent but for Let's Get Wellington Moving, we've got to pay for it so we've said ‘this likely to be a transport levy’ and that's likely to be about 1 percent.
Okay, and Andy?
Foster: At the moment in council's budget we're looking at 70 to 80 percent over the next 10 years, I want to halve that, but these guys if they’re going to halve it-
What rate rise would you commit to?
Foster: Well I'd say between three and four, but if you want to do that you're going to have to take a whole lot of stuff out
Regional fuel tax vs congestion charges
Okay. Yes or no to a regional fuel tax, Andy?
Foster: Possibly. I prefer a congestion charge.
Okay. Well, I was going to ask you … so, yes to a congestion charge?
Foster: Congestion charge is a much more effective way of actually changing behaviour as well.
Okay, Justin, what is your call on regional fuel tax and on congestion charge?
Lester: Regional fuel tax would be the best way to do it because every person that's coming into Wellington would be contributing to it, so we spread the load across all users. Congestion charge, yes, could work as well.
Okay. So both?
Lester: Both of those are currently not being supported by government, so you've got to be realistic about this, most important is you’ve got to make it work.
Calvert: I support a regional fuel tax, no congestion charge. And I'm just sick of the government telling us that we've got to get our ratepayers to pay for everything-
Regional fuel tax, yes. And congestion charge?
Calvert: No. We’re too small a city.
Housing, Shelly Bay and mayoral campaign funding
Let's move on to housing. Speaking of small things, what are we short of - how many houses are we short of Justin?
Lester: 3800, so it will take about six to seven years, at current rates we've increased the yearly average from 800 to about 1250-1300. To make that up it'll take six or seven years.
So where to build to fix it?
Lester: Start in the urban core, so our CBD, then suburban centres, on those transport spines, and then lastly, the greenfield spaces we have in the city as well.
And when you say Greenfield, you're talking about Shelly Bay?
Lester: No, we're talking predominantly around ... Grenada, Grenada Village, Kings Valley which is between Churton Park and Tawa and eventually and that part of the city if you got the now you can see it's going to grow and the two will end up ultimately connecting.
But you are keen on Shelly Bay aren’t you?
Lester: Yes, so it's owned by local iwi, they purchase that land as part of their Treaty settlement, it was taken away from them the 1840s and I will support them and the decision making, so if they want to do something there, absolutely. They've got an 18,000 member body they vote and we will see it will go through an independent hearing commission very shortly and the planners will determine what's appropriate at that site.
Okay, Andy, you're against this? Why?
Foster: Yes, well, two things. One, the process. So what we did is we said this is a really special part of the city. But we made it a special housing area by majority vote. I didn't didn't spoil that at all. And what we said to people is ‘you are not going to get a say’ and for me that's profoundly wrong. What you end up with is a development just far too intense for the site, far too intense for the road, it’s not supported by a considerable number of the iwi members who actually told the trustees to stop, stop work on it, but they didn't.
Okay, let's just unpick this a little bit, though ... if the iwi, if the decision is by majority that they would support building there would your decision not then run roughshod across that and so you could create another breach of the Treaty by ignoring the decision?
Foster: At the moment of course we don't know what the decision is going to be, because we have a court case that has been taken by mana whenua against their own trustees.
Lester: Which was thrown out at the Māori Land Court
Foster: No, there’s another one, which you well know.
But is the council the right place to actually be canvassing te iwi issues?
Foster: No, no, it's not. That's their issue. Our issue is the intensity of the development, which we've allowed by essentially changing the planning rules and by preventing anybody from having a say.
Because you are backed by Sir Peter Jackson, aren't you, financially?
To what tune?
Foster: I'm not going to tell you the moment, that will come out.
Foster: Because that will come out when it’s reported to you
Wouldn't it be reasonable to be transparent about this? Because we all know that there have been the emails directly asking staff to support you, so how much is he putting in your coffers?
Foster: It's reasonably significant.
Significant, so thousands? Tens of thousands?
Foster: I'm not gonna tell you, but he's not the only backer.
No, I appreciate that. But is it also reasonable that he was - or his company was - writing to staff or contractors saying that they should go along to your mayoral launch and support it?
Foster: I think, actually, what they wrote – and I didn't see the email – I think what they wrote is just to say, you know, there's a mayoral launch, there's some things about Shelly Bay as well. If you want to come along, but it’s entirely voluntary, it’s democratic.
What about the power imbalance there between someone who might be on contract and someone who's paying your wages?
Foster: Oh, look, it was entirely voluntary as far as I know, and, I mean, I wasn’t involved in that. But-
Foster: I was gonna say, just-
Hang on a minute, no, because we are running short of time, so Diane, what's your view of that?
Calvert: Well, look, I'm independent and I've got, I've had a few donations, but they're all quite small, and they're quite varied. And, look, I'm here for Wellington, and not the beehive and not for any one particular sector. I just want to get the best we can for Wellington.
Okay, so Justin, what is your take on this? And do you feel that Andy is effectively dancing to the tune of the Piper that's playing?
Lester: Look, I'm not going to comment on Andy’s situation, that's for him to determine. What I will do and what I did before the last election is I will reveal of all the financial support that I've had, which is largely a quiz-night fundraiser, we had an art auction and some raffles. So, I will detail that explicitly. I'll do that this week, because voters should know who's funding whose campaigns and if it’s community effort or money-
Money from Labour?
Lester: No, no, Labour doesn't fund us, what they do provide us with is volunteers because they're people committed to a cause.
What about [property developer] Ian Cassels though, has he thrown some money your way?
Lester: No, and again,
Lester: No. He has offered and I said no. I have no interest
Calvert: Well he hasn’t offered me anything and I haven't had any involvement-
Foster: Susie, can I just get something really important in there which is that I haven't changed a single policy as result of any involvement with Peter Jackson
No, but you won’t be transparent about your backers either, will you?
Foster: Not yet, but I will. I will.
Will you reveal them this week, like Justin will?
Foster: I will ask them if they’re happy for them to be revealed at this stage.
Calvert: But you didn't announce your policies until you got that from Peter Jackson
Foster: No. No, no, no, no, no, Diane, I’ve been utterly consistent, I’ve been utterly consistent with Shelly Bay for four and a half years-
Calvert: Shelly Bay’s one issue, we’ve got wider issues around the city-
Foster: I’ve been utterly consistent with the movie museum, I’ve been utterly consistent on every policy for the whole time.
We are running out of time, let's talk a little bit about climate change. Is it an emergency, Diane?
Calvert: It's a crisis. It's not an emergency in what people understand it to be.
So are sea levels rising, Justin?
Lester: Yes, absolutely, and all of the scientific evidence points to that so anybody who argues against that has got their head in the sand. What we will do is put a climate lens on everything we do and that’s why Let’s Get Wellington Moving is so important-
How serious is it Andy?
Foster: 58% the carbon emissions are from transport, we've got to move to public transport.
Andy how serious-
Foster: We do have to make changes both in terms of the permission levels that we are generating, but also in terms of how we design our city, so, we don't want to put people in harm's way by building too close to the sea.
Civic square and earthquake resilience
Let’s talk about resilience stuff - civic square, the library, the town hall, the civic administration building, how are you going to pay for that, Justin, to be remediated?
Lester: So the Town Hall is already under way, its budgeted, it’s part of our long term plan and next door we've got Victoria University and Symphony Orchestra moving in, they'll have their first home, Symphony Orchestra, in their 72 year history. So, they will pay for that - it's financially neutral to us, they’ve got it 35 years.
What about the library?
Lester: The library. We had professor Ken Elwood – he's a leading seismic engineer – bring together a group just last week of the leading seismic engineers around the country. We hope that they'll come up with an innovative design that will mean we can get it back on board really, really quickly. How we pay for it, I will have to prioritise within our budget, we do that every year. When I first came in we took $12 million out of our operating budget.
Calvert: We could look at public private partnership, we could do lots of things like that, because what we need to do is we need to activate that square more. We need to, sort of, you know, lots of squares...
It’s kind of dying at the moment.
Calvert: Right, it is dying. I mean, look, we've had barricades around the library and we haven't even done anything creative with them, you know, we’re meant to be the creative capital and we just left it languishing.
Public-private partnership, Justin, is that something that you'd consider?
Calvert: Six months, six months we've had those barricades around and nothing...
Lester: Because we've commissioned some work and you'll see a beautiful commissioned piece-
Justin Lester, would you would you commit to a public-private partnership if that was the best way to fund this?
Lester: For a central library, I believe that needs to be in public ownership. We will work with somebody who will do the works on it. That is clear. What we're doing now is that [it is] 17,000 square metres. Tūranga in Christchurch, which is a wonderful library, about 8000 square metres, so some can be used for other things,
Calvert: Yes, a public-private partnership-
Lester: There might be some retail, there might be some commercial offices.
First 100 days
We’re running out of time. Andy, I'll just come to you.
Foster: Do you want me to cover that one as well?
No, we are out of time I’m afraid, if you become the mayor, what would you do in your first 100 days?
Foster: Well, the first thing is to get together with councillors develop a plan as we did this time for the triennium, second thing is to go and work with the rest of the region to get our transport plan up and moving so I said day one, talk to councillors, day two talk to the rest of region so, as I say, let’s go and have a talk with Phil Twyford to get the right transport plan in place.
Justin, first 100 days?
Lester: Well I’ll hit the ground running because I've had three years experience for a start. The first hundred days you make sure you get councillors on board, you assign them portfolios, you empower them, you use the skills that they have to do a good job for the city. I'll make sure that we're implementing Let's Get Wellington Moving, we’re continuing on with the housing, and we're getting on with building a resilient city. The central library will be a big focus my first hundred days.
Calvert: Yeah, get a plan so that everybody's on board and what we also need to do is we need to re-establish relationships with the government and make sure that they're delivering what Wellingtonians want in transport and actually do something about fixing our buses. It's impacting on our economy, it's impacting on the environment... everybody's been so quiet, all the politicians and that's the biggest thing that's causing more emissions because people are getting in their cars and not catching buses.
Thank you very much, all of you, Diane Calvert; we're also speaking with Justin Lester, Andy Forster in our Wellington mayoral debate.