AUCKLAND - A bigger role?

1:00 pm on 13 August 2014

The traditional question of "what Auckland wants" from the post-September government is beginning to change as the region's single council gets into its stride.

The almost four-year-old Auckland Council and its agencies now have scale and influence to resolve many of the city's problems, by themselves, or by negotiating with central government counterparts.

A jogger runs along the seawall in Auckland with the city skyline in the background.


This time, big issues unique to Auckland hang more on the Government relinquishing power to the city to enable it to have a bigger role in deciding its destiny.

Transport and the city's marquee project - the downtown rail tunnel - are the best and biggest examples.

Road ahead

Auckland has an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion worth of transport projects and needs over the next 30 years, which cannot be funded from traditional local or central government sources.

In a past age of pork-barrel politics, a local body in Auckland's position would have called on the Government to get out the chequebook. Today it is about the ability to impose charges.

An Independent Advisory Board is this year refining a package of measures that would plug the funding gap. These could be a mix of a regional fuel tax, charges for using roads such a motorways, higher public transport fares or property rates.

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Auckland has to find billions of dollars of funding for transport projects. Photo: AUCKLAND TRANSPORT

Tax and road charging would require consent from the Government, which has so far been cool on the idea, although happy for Auckland to debate what the package of measures would look like.

Mayor Len Brown says that debate won't begin until November but clear signals are needed during the election campaign from whoever forms the next Government.

"One, a commitment to enable that discussion to happen, within a framework of Aucklanders sorting out Aucklanders' challenge, and secondly to abide with the outcome of that discussion, if for example it would require a network charge, that needed statutory change," Mr Brown said.

On track

The more specific debate about government backing for the City Rail Link has been largely defused.

John Key last year confirmed the National-led government's support for the 3.5km tunnel through the downtown, expected to cost $2.4 billion.

The only discussion now is about when the government's possibly half-share of the cost would begin to flow, with nothing pledged before 2020.

Both Labour and the Greens have pledged to fund the government's share as early as the council wishes.

Next year, developer Precinct Properties will begin major development of its downtown shopping centre under which the tunnel will run, and Mr Brown is certain that's when the sections of the City Rail Link will begin.

Len Brown talks to Todd Niall about the timing of the City Rail Link.

Transport is also top of the list for business leader Michael Barnett, the long-standing chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. He wants to see some long lobbied-for projects finished, such as a better truck connection between the port and the Southern Motorway.

"This is a project that has been on the books since the 1990s. Congestion for those three thousand trucks that move through there each day costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day and millions per month," he said.

Mr Barnett also believes some Government agencies, such as the merged Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, need to forge better partnerships with business.

Helping hand

Major social policy areas such as health, education and housing are largely the business of Government, but Auckland's council does play a part.

Youth unemployment in Auckland is stubbornly higher than nationally. In statistics from March, unemployment among 15 to 19-year-olds was 27.7 percent versus 20.6 percent in the rest of the country. Among 20- to 24-year-olds the figure is 15.4 percent compared to 11.8 percent.

It is an area where Auckland is running regional initiatives, and Mr Brown is keen for a bigger Government involvement.

Housing affordability is most acute in Auckland, where population growth, and years of insufficient home construction have created a shortage estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Auckland is the main location for the Government's lead policy on housing, an accord under which planning regulations would be relaxed and consents fast-tracked for designated areas, accelerating building.

Whether and when the policy's role in new home construction can be judged is unclear. Its impact on affordability may never been proven.

Auckland Council also got a hurry up from Environment Minister Amy Adams during the last parliamentary term. The National-led government's submission to Auckland's Unitary Plan opposes council efforts to regulate a certain proportion of "affordable" homes, in larger developments. The Minister also calls for more relaxed height limits to allow more intense, and arguably more affordable dwellings to be built.

The lead policy from Labour is its Kiwibuild policy aiming to build 10,000 new "affordable" homes for first-time buyers, nationwide each year, with an early push in Auckland.

Auckland's council is driving its own ambitious programme to try to improve health, education and employment in the region's poorest southern communities. The Southern Initiative aims through locally-constructed programmes, to make existing government spending more effective.

So far, the buy-in from the Government has been muted, although Mr Brown said there had been progress in recent months, and he would want a new Government to get more involved.

"Support for things like the Youth Connections Project, which pathlines people out of school into job training or tertiary education, and if we can get that from a new Government that would be significant."

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