Red Alert

Archive for the ‘Auckland’ Category

Those evil town planners

Posted by on January 31st, 2014

Those town planners, they sure are evil. A little while back the Finance Minister was saying 20 town planners were a threat to macro-economic stability.  Now he says they are causing inequality.

This week at the Finance and Expenditure Committee, he was trying to fend off David Parker’s assertion that a falling home ownership rate was causing a widening wealth gap between those who own and those who rent.

I actually think that in the housing market the biggest generator of inequality are planning rules what deliberately drive out low and middle income housing and deliberately drive up the prices of housing so we can have nice looking apartment blocks in the so-called ‘liveable city’, not those messy low and middle income people. It is very unfair and it is locking a whole lot of people out of the housing market or pushing them into part of the market to make access to work and education difficult and we need to change that

This is a great example of diverting and distracting when you are in a tight spot. While it is true that planning rules do need to be reformed to encourage more and better urban development, Bill English’s demonisation of town planners is hilariously misplaced for the following reasons:

1.  Home ownership rates are falling, down to 65% according to the census, and 61% in Auckland.  Rampant house price inflation, and now the LVR lendng limits have shut a generation of first home buyers out of the market. Increasingly there are two classes: those who own property and make windfall capital gains, and those who pay rent and slip further behind.

2. The Member for Dipton seems to be saying the “liveable” or compact city stops affordable housing being built in order to provide apartment blocks for the well-off. This is confused to say the least.  If his answer is to deregulate urban planning so low income people can buy cheap houses an hour’s drive from where the jobs are then he is seriously mistaken about the economics of sprawl. It adds huge travelling costs to residents,  and huge infrastructure costs to the ratepayer and taxpayer. In fact, good quality medium density housing near train stations and town centres offers the best options for affordable housing.

3.  Auckland is a property speculator’s paradise. Yet Bill English refuses to consider a Capital Gains Tax that would take the steam out of those speculative pressures, or restrictions on offshore speculators who outbid Kiwi first home buyers.

4. Not only does National’s fixation on deregulating planning ignore the costs of rampant property speculation, it fails to tackle chronic low productivity in the construction industry, lack of competition in the market for building materials, and the fact that the new Auckland Unitary Plan will bring ample greenfields land into the market.

5. The big driver of inequality is the failure of National to rein in out of control house prices. They’ve been in Government for five years and it wasnt until the fourth year they started to do something, and that pretty much just amounted to tinkering with planning rules.

My 5 point Waitemata Plan

Posted by on January 28th, 2014

Four days, bobbing around in the water, buffeted by the wind and the swell,  gave me time to think about what the harbour means to me. As a kid while our car crossed the harbour bridge I looked down at what seemed a massive stretch of water. Later I came to love taking the Devonport ferry to drink at the Masonic or wander round North Head enjoying what surely must be one of the city’s best views. And now living in Te Atatu I take my kayak out and catch snapper in the upper reaches.

I decided it is more than just a place to swim and fish and sail and paddle and motor around. More than a port or a collection of shipping routes. The harbour with all its beauty and changing moods is as much a part of our mental geography as the buildings and streets and volcanoes. It is part of who we are as Aucklanders.

So why this desire to clean it up, and repair the damage and pollution inflicted by decades of development and neglect?  If the harbour is part of who we are, then surely we want to pass it on to our grandchildren in good shape: not silted up, contaminated, lifeless and unsafe for swimming.  But I keep coming back to Len Brown’s liveable city which has become the measuring stick.

What could be more liveable than going down to Devonport wharf and catching whitebait as our grandparents’ generation did? Or swimming at city beaches and knowing you won’t pick up a gastro bug even after heavy rains? Or an 8 year old catching koura in the Le Roys stream at Little Shoal Bay? Or the kids of Massey being able to swim in the Manutewhau stream without picking up ear infections? Or Ngati Whatua being able to pick a feed of pipis at Okahu Bay as did generations before?

So what to do about it? Here’s my 5 point plan for the Waitemata, cobbled together while paddling:

1. Auckland Council should roll out the world-acclaimed Project Twin Streams, developed by the old Waitakere City Council, to mobilise the community to clean up streams, restore native habitat, and reduce harmful run-off.

2. Local and central government should increase funding to community environment programmes like Sustainable Coastlines and the Kaipatiki Project, engaging the community in habitat restoration, raising public awareness and changing behaviours.

3. Auckland Council should do an audit of storm and wastewater infrastructure and plan the investments needed so the system can cope with a million extra people in the next 30-40 years without breaking down and polluting the harbour. Start by fixing all the sewerage leaks entering waterways around the harbour.

4. Shipping companies using the Port of Auckland should strictly adhere to the new 14 km/h speed limit to reduce the Bryde’s whales being killed by ship strike. If the companies don’t play ball, the speed limit should be regulated.

5. The parties in the Hauraki Gulf Forum should agree to 10% of the gulf to be made Marine Reserves, then to be legislated by the government. This will allow marine life to regenerate, and ecosystems to be restored.

The week finished with a morning out on the Gulf with Explore the whale watching people. The boat was full of high school students finishing up a week long summer camp on marine science, and some of the scientists and advocates from the Hauraki Gulf Forum.  It was a blissful few hours out on the water, sharing it with the Gulf’s advocates of today and tomorrow.

Thanks for following my trail around the Watemata. I’m grateful to all the good people we met along the way, my various paddling buddies, Mels for logistics and support, and of course Ferg’s.

Photos: Olivia Baber, Auckland Council

Turning back time at Okahu Bay

Posted by on January 26th, 2014

One of the stand-out moments of my kayak trip around the Waitemata was our stop in Okahu Bay to meet up with Ngati Whatua.  Their ambitious plans to clean up the Bay and restore it to health evoke the spirit of so many of the projects we visited.

Back in 1912 the City Council built an outfall that pumped raw sewerage onto Ngati Whatua’s shellfish beds at Okahu Bay. A 2.5m-high concrete pipe ran the length of the foreshore leading to the outfall, blocking the papakainga which at that time could only be reached by boat. The pipeline also blocked the stream and turned the village into a swamp.

It wasn’t the only such crime. In 1952 authorities forcibly removed the hapu from their homes at Okahu Bay. The marae and houses were burnt to the ground in order to get rid of an “eyesore” before the Queen’s visit. These events and more are well written up in the Waitangi Tribunal’s reports on Ngati Whatua’s successful settlement claim.

Today Ngati Whatua of Orakei are in post-settlement mode. They are landlords, investors and developers, charting a new pathway for the hapu. But the Bay, such a central and important part of Ngati Whatua’s sense of place, is degraded and lifeless.  The mussel beds are long gone. Pipis and cockles, plentiful a few decades back, are almost non-existent. Water quality is poor.

Enter Richelle Kahui-McConnell who manages the Okahu catchment ecological restoration plan. Richelle began researching the bay while studying for a bachelor of resource management at Unitec in 2007.

“For years Ngati Whatua had been saying the bay has been under pressure. It was losing its mauri (life force) and that it was making people sick.”

Richelle began an annual survey of shellfish, now carried out by students from the local school, and has established an internship programme with Auckland University’s engineering school to test water quality. Results showed high levels of sedimentation, with zinc and copper contamination.

The hapu have big plans. They want to restore the Bay’s catchment, “daylighting” streams that are now buried in concrete pipes and culverts, re-establishing wetlands and planting natives.  It is the only way to properly filter the stormwater before it enters the sea, and will re-establish habitat for native fish and other species.

They are working with the manager of the nearby marina with the aim of reducing pollution from anti-fouling used on boat hulls.

The hope is that by cleaning up the water quality and reducing the sediment, the pipis and cockles will come back.  They even want to re-seed the mussel beds.

Water you can swim in with confidence. Abundant shellfish that are safe to eat. It’s restoring Ngati Whatua’s taonga tarnished by 170 years of colonisation and urbanisation. But I think it is a vision all Aucklanders can share.

Donna Tamaariki of Ngati Whatua, PT, and Richelle Kahui-McConnell at Okahu Bay.

Kayakers 0: Weather 1

Posted by on January 23rd, 2014

We finished the trip today at the Manutewhau stream in Massey, with Marnie Prickett of Auckland Council’s freshwater testing programme Waicare. The Manutewhau rises near Westgate and enters the harbour near the mouth of Henderson Creek. It is a little known gem. A beautiful patch of remnant bush, and a terraced stream with pools much loved by local kids for swimming. The only trouble is the stream is polluted by sewerage leaks. Marnie got to know the stream when alerted by a local school principal concerned that the kids were picking up infections from swimming in the stream.  Now she takes groups of students there to do water quality testing as a way of raising their environmental awareness.

The Manutewhau is like so many other parts of the Waitemata. It should be treated as a precious remnant of the pre-urban ecosystem but it is wearing decades of pollution and neglect. And now, with large scale residential developments in its catchment, it faces further degradation unless there is adequate investment in sewerage and stormwater infrastructure.

Earlier in the day we visited the Kaipatiki Project in Birkenhead. It began 15 years ago as a volunteer effort to clean up and restore the Kaipatiki stream. Since then with the help of thousands of volunteers they have restored 70 ha of native bush on the Shore. They have their own native plant nursery and grow 20,000 plants a year. Their work has evolved and now they do a lot of public education work, over the last 12 months working with schools, kindergartens, and adult learners, teaching around 4,000 people about waste minimisation, composting and worm-farming and sustainability. It is real grassroots environmentalism. Very inspiring.

We also got a briefing from Drew Lohrer of NIWA about their work on invasive species, the ongoing battle to keep out harmful species that come here on the hulls and in the bilge water of foreign ships. As our major international port Auckland gets more than its fair share of unwelcome visitors, like the Japanese paddle crab. Many of these invasive species can tolerate highly polluted conditions and therefore out compete our native species in the degraded environment of the harbour, particularly where sedimentation is a major issue.. We then met with Marcus Hermann of Auckland Council’s Safeswim water quality testing programme. They are the people who put the signs up when a beach has been found to be unsafe for swimming. Check out the latest results here.

The visits were great. But the paddling today was tough. With my mates Chris Cooper and Michael Baker, we paddled for two hours from Little Shoal Bay in strong head winds and a choppy sea.  We beached at Island Bay, Beach Haven and travelled the rest of the day in my big red waka on wheels. Live to fight another day. Tomorrow, we are out on the Gulf watching whales and dolphins with a bunch of high school students doing a summer camp on marine science and some of the movers and shakers of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Forum.

I want to thank Ian Ferguson of Ferg’s Kayaks in Okahu Bay again for supporting this project. Ian and his staff were great to deal with, and the gear was excellent.

More photos here.

Day Three

Posted by on January 22nd, 2014

I’m knackered. Five hours’ paddling, mostly against a headwind and at times bumpy water. My hands, arms and upper body are all feeling it.

But what a stunning day in the water: from the Tamaki Estuary, along the eastern bays past Karaka Bay, St Heliers, Kohimarama and Mission Bay to Okahu Bay, across the channel to Devonport, then past the naval base and Stanley Point, around the Bayswater Marina, and across Shoal Bay to Tuff Crater just east of the Onewa interchange on State Highway One. A visit there with the Forest and Bird Group who have been restoring Tuff Crater (more on that below), then down the Harbour Bridge, under the bridge, and finish the day at Little Shoal Bay.

A spectacular day. In a kayak you are so low in the water, so exposed to the elements, and out in the middle of the harbour you see the city from a different perspective. Views you don’t normally see.

Today I paddled with Tony Dunlop who I got to know when he stood for Labour back in 2005. He is on the board of Forest & Bird, and active in Coal Action. We got to talk politics and the environment, when we weren’t focused on battling the wind and the swell.

Three great visits today. The first was at the Tamaki Estuary, with Moana Tamaariki of Ngati Whatua, Colin Percy from Friends of Tahuna Torea reserve, and Jim Sinclair of the Tamaki Estuary Protection Society.  Colin was one of a group who fought a Council proposal to turn the  spit and wetland into a rubbish dump back in the early 1970s. For the last 40 years they have weeded, planted natives, laid tracks, and turned what was once a neglected wasteland into a thriving ecosystem. We walked through a pohutukawa grove with 20 m high trees. Colin and his friends planted it 40 years ago. The group are part of a Tamaki Estuary Forum which brings together a collection of community groups and Auckland Council local boards who are working to clean up the estuary, improve its current dodgy water quality and restore native habitat.

The second was at Tuff Crater in Northcote. We pulled up the kayaks next to the motorway that leads to the Harbour Bridge, and crossed on the footbridge. Tuff Crater is a an old volcanic crater, filled mostly with mangroves. I guarantee 90% of motorists on the motorway don’t even know it exists. We met Anne Denny of the local Forest and Bird group who have spent 14 years weeding and are well on the way to planting the entire crater walls with natives. They have built a path that is popular with locals. Amazing that this most unprepossessing of places – a mangrove swamp next to an eight lane motorway – has been reclaimed by this local group and transformed into something special. On the other side of the motorway lives a colony of threatened dotterels.

We finished up at Little Shoal Bay where Northcote College science teacher Dr Kit Hustler has devoted several years to monitoring native fish stocks in the stream that runs through Le Roy’s Bush which runs from the Birkenhead shops down to the harbour. The lower reaches of the stream have been gummed up with sedimentation. They are fetid and swampy with the unmistakeable smell of sewerage in the air.  Kit however has identified seven species of native fish in the river. It is extraordinary that in such a degraded environment the fish somehow survive.  The stream is a classic of our urban environment – a waterway wrecked by sedimentation caused by urban development, contaminants from run off, and leaking sewerage systems. Its flow into the city has been blocked by reclamation. Kit brings his students here to study the fish and their habitat, and works with local volunteers to clean up the bush and the stream and encourage the community to take care of it.

Whitebait, the juveniles of these native fish, turn up in the creek from time to time. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the waterway was cleaned up and restored so locals could catch a feed of whitebait at the rivermouth?

Three visits. Each of them local conservation heroes, not waiting for anyone to do it for them or give them permission. Getting on and making a difference.

More pics on facebook.  Thanks again to Ferg’s Kayaks for supporting this project. And Mels for doing logistics so capably.

First day’s paddling

Posted by on January 20th, 2014

Day one of my four day kayak journey around the Waitemata harbour and I am struck by how much life we encounter in just a few hours paddling: oystercatchers watching as we head off from Te Atatu Peninsula, a flock of Caspian terns take off and fly overhead, a fernbird calls at close range in the Te Atatu Orangihina wetland, a shag watches us as we paddle towards it and dives as we approach, a large group of black swans on Meola Reef take off like B52s, a baby flounder swims past (Rob thinks it fell out of the sky, out of the beak of a careless bird? I worry he might be hallucinating), and nesting black back gulls curse us overhead as we skirt along the Westhaven breakwater.

After only a day it feels like my senses have been immersed in the harbour. The endless shades of grey and green, the taste of salt water, surrounded by the tide below and the rain above, and the muscle ache of paddling into the wind.

Today’s paddling buddy was Rob Mouldey, fellow Te Atatu resident who works in Auckland Council’s biosecurity team. He and I fought a tactical battle with the weather, driving the stretch between Te Atatu’s Harbourview wetland and Pt Chevalier’s Meola Reef. It just didn’t seem like a good call to spend three hours paddling across the bay into a headwind. Luckily the Pt Chev-Herne Bay stretch was sheltered and calmer. But as we paddled under the Bridge towards that beer at North Wharf it got pretty choppy.

We met representatives of two tribes who will feature prominently in the next few days: conservation volunteers, and scientists.  The first was Jeremy Painting who is doing a great job looking after the amazing Orangihina-Harbourview wetland on Te Atatu Peninsula’s eastern flank. It is home to the fernbird, and the banded rail. Which is quite something: the fernbird is considered at risk, the banded rail is uncommon and here they are in the middle of the city. Jeremy, with the help of the local Forest & Bird group has been trapping the rats and stoats that prey on the birds. Feral cats are a problem, as are locals who let their dogs off the leash. The volunteers have also been planting, converting kikuyu grass back to native scrub.

Jeremy seems to know the fernbirds almost by name. When one called quite close to his he whipped out his smartphone and played the call of the bird’s neighbour! Apparently it usually brings him in. There are four breeding pairs in the reserve and each has their own territory, which strangely enough overlaps with the old farm paddocks that used to be there.

Across the bay at Meola Reef we met Carolyn Lundquist, a marine ecologist for NIWA who is studying the regeneration of seagrass. The seagrass declined rapidly over the last 50 years of the twentieth century but now interestingly it is making a comeback. Digital analysis of aerial photographs suggests it might be doubling in area annually. It is all the more counter-intuitive because the water coming out of Meola Creek is not that great. The beach here is permanently designated not fit for swimming. One theory is the sediment that poured into the Waitemata as a result of deforestation and urban development killed off the seagrass. Maybe it’s regeneration means the sedimentation is reducing?

These two,  Jeremy and Carolyn, represent the two key ingredients of change if we are to restore the harbour and the gulf to health.  Community support for conservation and treating the Hauraki Gulf as a real national park. And the science needed so we can understand the complex ecology of the gulf and develop good policy. More on that as the journey continues.

Thanks to Ferg’s Kayaks for supporting this project. And Mels for support and logistics.

More pics here.

Paddling the Waitemata

Posted by on January 19th, 2014

Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I’m pushing the boat out. I’m heading off on a 50 km four day kayak journey around the Waitemata Harbour.

It is part-homage to this amazing stretch of water we live next to. It is a thing of beauty, an extraordinary playground where we swim, fish, sail, and paddle right in the heart of this country’s biggest city.

The trip is also an investigation into the declining ecological health of the harbour.

The Waitemata, and the wider Hauraki Gulf, are facing big challenges from urban development. Fish stocks in general have not recovered from decades of plunder. Shellfish populations are under threat. Toxic metals from run-off are contaminating estuaries. Invasive species are on the increase. And too many of our beaches are unsafe to swim after heavy rain because of sewerage and storm water overflow.

Bigger challenges loom. With Auckland expected to grow by another million people in the next few decades there will be more and more residential development on coastal land. As well as that, the city’s creaking sewerage and storm water system will find it hard to cope with planned urban intensification without major investment. The risk is more pollution in our harbour.

I’ve been inspired by the work of the Hauraki Gulf Forum – a group of scientists, local government, iwi, and conservation advocates – who publish the State of our Gulf report. It is sobering reading but they make a powerful case backed by science that we should take action to stop the environmental degradation and repair the damage.

Each day this week I am going to be meeting marine scientists and visiting local conservation projects. I want to learn more about what is happening to the ecology of the harbour, and what we can do to clean it up and restore it to health for future generations.

Tomorrow at 9.30am I am going to head off from Te Atatu Peninsula, in my electorate. In the course of the week, and in the company of friends paddling with me, we will head east via Pollen Island and Meola Reef, around the western bays to the city, skirting the downtown wharves and on to Okahu Bay. We will follow the eastern bays all the way out to the Tamaki Estuary, and then back across the channel to Devonport. Then we run west along the North Shore, under the Harbour Bridge, around Kauri Point, up Kaipatiki Creek for a side trip, and then out to Hobsonville in the North West before cutting back to home in Te Atatu. As long as the threatened cyclone doesn’t get in the way, it should be epic.

I can’t wait.

(I will post updates on facebook and twitter, and blog here each night.)

Big thanks to Ferg’s Kayaks for supporting this project.

A good day for the left

Posted by on October 13th, 2013

What to make of the local government election results?  On the face of it you’d have to say that with centre left mayors in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin the vibe is good for the left heading into 2014.

Dave Cull and Celia Wade-Brown fended off challengers in Dunedin and Wellington. Lianne Dalziel romped in without a serious opponent in Christchurch. Life is about to get more interesting for Gerry Brownlee who now has to contend with a more sophisticated political operator in the mayor’s chair. Lianne will be a formidable counter-balance to National’s strange mixture of top-down and hands-off approach to the rebuild.

In Auckland Len Brown has a thumping mandate. Turn out is down but as Mike Williams argues in the Herald on Sunday, that is largely because Len never had a serious challenger on the Right. Mr Palino garnered 50,000 100,000 votes, scooping up the conservative votes on the North Shore and the Eastern Suburbs who were never going to vote for Len after their rates went up under the rating unification scheme legislated by National.  But the Auckland Right never got behind him in a serious way.

They put their resources into a couple of strategic Council contests, namely Denise Krum v Richard Northey in the Maungakiekie ward, and Linda Cooper v Christine Rose in Waitakere, hoping to tip the balance of power on Council. However the National Party picking up both those seats is neatly offset by Labour’s Ross Clow winning the Whau ward from Noeline Raffils, and left leaning John Watson joining his ticket-mate Wayne Walker in Albany. The balance of power on Council is unlikely to change much at all as a result.

The big story in Auckland is Len Brown’s long term mortgage on the Town Hall. The fact that the Right couldn’t find a credible challenger says it all. Len’s been the alternative government for the last three years on litmus test issues like transport and housing. He even rolled Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce on the City Rail Link.  If he can get the City Rail Link tunnelling underway before the next election (possible with a Labour win in 2014) then you’ll have to crowbar him out of the Town Hall.

And more good news for the left in Auckland: Labour and progressive allies scored some notable successes in the local boards. Out west where I am, Labour tickets won a majority in the Whau,  got three elected in Henderson-Massey, and the Labour-Green-Independent Future West won a clean sweep in Waitakere Ranges.  City Vision maintained its majorities in Waitemata and Eden-Albert. Labour wrested Otara-Papatoetoe from the centre right. Kaipatiki on the Shore shifted in a more progressive direction, and the progressive Roskill Community Voice team won a majority on the Puketepapa board.

The tunnel of love

Posted by on June 27th, 2013

Love today’s Emmerson in the Herald.

The Government’s U-turn on the City Rail Link is quite something. It is completely at odd with everything they’ve said on the matter over the last three years.

But as today’s Horizon poll shows, they will need a lot more than a U-turn on the CRL to repair what looks like a pretty sick relationship with Auckland.

Only 18 per cent of Aucklanders rate the government as trustworthy.

While nearly half of the Aucklanders surveyed  rated the Government’s performance on the Central Rail Link as poor in the fortnight before it announced yesterday’s U-turn, even more – 65 per cent – gave its performance on affordable housing the thumbs down. It’s lack of action on traffic congestion rankled with 60 per cent.

The survey results indicate there is clearly something rotten in the Government’s relationship with Auckland. I guess it’s not surprising. Ministers like Gerry Brownlee, Nick Smith and Steven Joyce want to run Auckland from their offices in the Beehive, despite setting up the super city so Aucklanders could speak with one voice.


National’s war on Auckland

Posted by on May 28th, 2013


Building a better Auckland

Posted by on May 26th, 2013

Speech to Labour Party Auckland-Northland regional conference, Henderson

You’ve seen the image of Michael Joseph Savage carrying the furniture into the first state house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar in 1937. It’s a big moment. Bob Semple, Walter Nash and John A Lee are all there. The Ministers have their sleeves rolled up. People are smiling. It’s an exciting moment.

The massive programme of state house building was one of the greatest achievements of the First Labour Government. They did it because they knew sub-standard housing lay at the root of so many social problems: illness, and the vulnerability of the poorest people to extortionate rents.

They did it because they were willing to use the power of the state to tackle problems that for decades the political establishment said were intractable, that such things must be left to the market to sort out, that in any case where would the money come from?

It is time once again to roll up our sleeves.

The quality of our housing, the shape of our cities, the lack of public transport, the cost of buying a house…these issues have once again become red hot issues. Labour’s willingness to pick up a hammer and actually build houses; our readiness to build the City Rail Link; these issues will have an impact on next year’s general election.

Third world diseases, associated with overcrowding and sub-standard housing, have come back to haunt New Zealand as poverty and inequality have risen. 900,000 homes have inadequate insulation. We know these diseases affect the children of the poor. The research shows there are too many kids dying unnecessary deaths from diseases like asthma, rheumatic fever, meningococcal disease. We know that most children growing up in poverty live in private rentals. That is a fact.

Which is why our Healthy Homes Guarantee will make it compulsory for rental homes to be properly insulated and have an efficient source of heating. We will amend the Residential Tenancies Act. End of story. National announced they will consider the development of a warrant of fitness they will trial in Housing NZ homes.  They are going to trial this policy in the very houses – Housing NZ homes – that don’t need it. Houses that have all been retrofitted and insulated. But they won’t do a damn thing for the tenants of private rentals where hundreds of thousands of the poorest Kiwi families live in uninsulated damp and cold houses.


National’s war on Auckland: a report from the front

Posted by on May 17th, 2013

I woke today to hear Auckland deputy mayor Penny Hulse declare on Morning Report the housing accord between the Government and Auckland was in danger, and Auckland Council would not ratify the accord until certain matters had been sorted out.

Crikey, it didn’t take long for the centrepiece of the National Government’s Budget to start unravelling.

Was it poor political management? Did Ministers English and Smith really think Auckland Council would not be annoyed by the Goverment sneaking into the Bill extra powers to override the Council in direct contradiction of its agreement announced only a week earlier in a grip and grin session at Hobsonville involving Key, Smith and Brown?

Or was it all about getting a few hairy chested headlines the day after the Budget with the Government getting tough on housing affordability? And tough on Auckland Council as a useful proxy? Bill English told his post-Budget breakfast he wasn’t going to let 20 planners  in the Auckland Council planning department wreck the economy!

In any case, the Government has just bought itself a couple of months of uncertainty and controversy over its flagship housing policy. Auckland Council, with Len Brown’s inexhaustible supply of good will, has shown itself to be remarkably patient and wily when it comes to dealing with the long list of mostly South Island ministers sent to deal with it: Gerry Brownlee, Amy Adams, Nick Smith, and now Bill English. (Except Bill English is from Karori.)

This is a high stakes tactic for the Government. If they provoke Auckland Council enough the Council could walk away from the Accord. The Government would then have to choose between backing off and losing face, or using its new powers to override Auckland Council and impose its own planning rules.

I suspect that would not go down well with Aucklanders who tend to view central government Wellington as a foreign country which should as much as possible be kept at bay.  Imposing martial law on Auckland Council’s urban planning would be unpopular to say the least.

National are already offside with Aucklanders on transport (the most recent Herald poll had support for the City Rail Link at 63%). Gerry Brownlee’s impersonation of a human roadblock has left the city distinctly unamused. Even National’s traditional allies like the Employers and Manufacturers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce, have deserted it on this issue.

Over-riding Auckland Council’s planning laws would be up there with the suspension of Environment Canterbury and Gerry Brownlee’s post-quake wartime powers in the great pantheon of this National Government’s power hungry dealings with local councils.

National clearly thinks local government is a convenient punching bag. And I have no doubt councils around the country are watching this latest stoush with alarm. The housing accords bill sets up a legal framework that allows these powers to be used anywhere in the country.

It will be really interesting to watch how this slow motion punch up plays out. The super city reforms created something new and different. The Auckland Council, representing one-third of the country’s population and bigger than Fonterra and Telecom combined, is not like a council. It is more like an Australian state government.

And with mayoral and council elections in October, a stoush with the National Government may be just what Len Brown needs to guarantee re-election. (Maurice Williamson by the way has gone very quiet on his mayoral plans. I suspect there is an inverse relation between the amount of time the Government spends fighting Auckland Council and Maurice’s poll numbers.)

Given the constitutional supremacy of Parliament, the National Government could bludgeon Auckland Council into  submission if it wanted to. But is that an outcome, with all the likely consequences, National really wants, given that in relatively short time it is going to need the votes of  Aucklanders?

Labour voted for the Bill at first reading for two reasons: the housing affordability crisis demands a response and while it is inadequate, it is at least something.  The accord cherry picks from the draft Unitary Plan. Opening up greenfields land and fast tracking consenting gives no guarantee that any affordable housing will be built.

We also felt that if the Government and Auckland Council spent six weeks hammering out an agreement on this issue then it at least deserved scrutiny at select committee.  If Auckland Council decide not to ratify the accord that is going to make select committee hearings very interesting.

I think I might put up an amendment to the Bill giving Auckland Council the power to override the National Government if it can’t get what it wants and introduce a Capital Gains Tax in Auckland. Excluding the family home of course.

A lion in Parliament but a mouse when he comes to Auckland

Posted by on March 24th, 2013

Two weeks ago Housing Minister Nick Smith accused Len Brown of killing the dreams of Aucklanders, and said the city’s planning rules had a stranglehold on the city.  The potshots have continued for the past fortnight.  Then today on Q&A, the day before he flies to Auckland to meet Len Brown and Penny Hulse, Smith comes over all olive branches and white doves: there is a lot of agreement, the Auckland Plan is now “balanced” and he and Len are “in the same paddock”.

So what gives? The Member for Nelson is a lion in Parliament but a mouse when he comes to Auckland.  What has changed?

My theory: all the sound and fury from the Government is just political play acting designed to hide the fact that the Government has done nothing about housing affordability over the last four years. Nick Smith’s main job as Housing Minister is to run interference – blaming Auckland Council and framing the issue as being about the availability of greenfields land when even the Productivity Commission questions whether opening up large quantities of new land on the fringes will result in more affordable homes.

This is familiar stuff from Nick Smith. Remember the manufactured ACC crisis? Remember the bogus numbers on Council borrowing he used to justify his local government reform bill that had to be taken down from the Internal Affairs website?

But the risk here is that he is picking a fight with the country’s biggest city, as Mai Chen argued in the Herald.  Aucklanders don’t take kindly to another South Island MP trying to run Auckland from his office in Wellington. Having Gerry set our transport priorities is bad enough.

Nick Smith flies to Auckland to meet with Len Brown and Penny Hulse tomorrow. I welcome his visit. He might learn something. But if he wants to play at being an Aucklander by having a say on our plan then he should at least walk the talk. I challenge him to skip the limo tomorrow and drive himself from the airport to the Town Hall in morning rush hour. Let’s see how he gets on.

The Government’s War on Auckland – Part 2

Posted by on March 15th, 2013

Auckland is a great place to be at the moment. The summer festival season is in full swing:  Waitangi, Chinese New Year, Pasifika, and right now a stunning arts festival.

There are exciting changes underway in public transport. A new high frequency network in the offing, electric trains will start to arrive later this year, and the City Rail Link is a matter of when not if. Ludo Campbell Reid has remodelled city streets downtown and out in the burbs. Wynyard Quarter, Britomart and Imperial Lane are buzzing. And the harbour is full of snapper!

It confirms the suspicion that if you could sort out the gridlock and housing affordability, Auckland would start to become a damn fine city. Today’s release of the draft Unitary Plan is a key milestone in that.

It’s just a shame the National Government is so out of sync with it. They cannot bear having to deal with a progressive Mayor, and just want to take the city back to its vision of Auckland as a 1950s sprawling, motorway-crossed cow town.

I have posted at The Standard on The Government’s War on Auckland.  How long do we have to put up with South Island Ministers like Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee trying to run Auckland from their offices in Wellington?

Nick Smith, the Minister of Sprawl, and Gerry Brownlee, the Minister of Gridlock.

Labour’s vision for Auckland is a highly liveable, job-rich powerhouse for the New Zealand economy, and a magnet for investment, visitors and migrants. A 21st century compact city with great public transport, public spaces and thriving urban neighbourhoods. A city that protects and celebrates its natural taonga: the Gulf, volcanoes, the Waitakeres, and the rural hinterland. A more democratic super city, and active government from the Council and central government working together.

The Auckland Plan gets the fundamentals right: fix gridlock by investing in public transport, bold plan by central govt and Auckland Council to deliver affordable housing, compact city to contain the sprawl, local and central govt working together a. to stimulate high value manufacturing and jobs, and b. tackle entrenched inequality and poverty via the Auckland Plan’s southern initiative.

But it needs progressive leadership both at the Council and in central government to make it happen. Len Brown and the Council are doing their bit. Maybe if National doesn’t want to be part of the solution they should just hand Aucklanders a cheque for their share of taxes paid and let us get on with it?  (At least until we get progressive leadership back in the Beehive.)

Resolve is building to save our trees

Posted by on March 1st, 2013


Titirangi Ratepayers and Residents Association public meeting, 21 February 2013.

Resolve is really building in West Auckland to stop National’s chainsaw massacre in the Waitakere Ranges.

Te Atatū Labour MP Phil Twyford, Labour’s Environment spokesperson Maryan Street, Councillors, Local Board representatives and ratepayers groups are all backing the community’s determination to save our trees – which together we surely will.

Following my earlier post I’ve had a few requests for copies of the speech I gave at the recent local meeting to save our trees. So I’ve popped it on my website here.

David Cunliffe’s speech to the Titirangi Ratepayers and Residents Association – Saving our trees (again) – 21 February 2013

Here’s wishing Red Alert readers the chance to enjoy some of New Zealand’s great outdoors with family and friends this weekend.

Saving West Auckland’s trees (again and again and again)

Posted by on February 22nd, 2013


Titirangi Ratepayers and Residents Association public meeting, 21 February 2013.

Last night Te Atatū Labour MP Phil Twyford and I joined a packed public meeting hosted by the Titirangi Ratepayers and Residents Association in my New Lynn electorate.

For too many attendees this was a groundhog day event.

Because yet again Westies are being forced to stand up to a Wellington-led move to abolish tree protection rules in the Waitakere Ranges. It really is crazy. But it seems that destroying West Auckland’s natural heritage has become a National Party obsession.

Environment Minister Amy Adams’ so-called Resource Management Reform Bill is a very poorly drafted piece of law. I reckon it’s deliberate, because when you untangle the jargon it’s nothing but a recipe for a chainsaw massacre.

Well West Aucklanders have seen all this before. We love our patch, we were staunch against Wellington’s chainsaws every other time – and last night the public meeting unanimously voted that we’ll be staunch against them now.

The National Government could save themselves one heck of a headache (and avoid underestimating the West Auckland community again) by simply excluding the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area from part 12 of Adams’ Bill.

But if National uses its numbers on behalf of the Property Council to push the chainsaw massacre through, then locals are determined this will not be the end of the story.

With the support of Auckland’s Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse, Councillor Sandra Coney, Waitakere Ranges Local Board Chair Denise Yates and member Greg Presland, the Ratepayers have agreed we will propose to Auckland Council a Local Bill to revisit this attack.

Waitakere is our place. The rainforest in the Ranges is our children’s and their children’s natural heritage.

With shared resolve, and with history on our side, Westies will certainly save our trees again.

Upper Nihotupu Reservoir in the beautiful Waitakere Ranges.


Remember Bastion Point

Posted by on November 15th, 2012

The Ngati Whatua Orakei Settlement Bill passed its third reading today. As an Aucklander the occupation of Bastion Point, and Ngati Whatua’s 170 year struggle for justice has always meant a great deal to me. I felt really privileged to be able to contribute to the debate on behalf of Labour.

Ngati Whatua’s loss of land, and their extraordinary struggle to hold on to some of it, and then get some back, is a story every Aucklander should know. The 1987 Waitangi Tribunal report sets it all out, including how city authorities in 1911 built an 8 foot high pipe across the foreshore to discharge the city’s raw sewerge onto Ngati Whatua’s shellfish beds.

And the compulsory acquistion and forced clearance in 1951 of the village at Okahu Bay. Today’s kaumatua remember watching their houses being burned to the ground.

The turning point for Ngati Whatua, and arguably for race relations more broadly, was the 507 day occupation of Bastion Point led by Joe Hawke 1977-78 to stop the National Government of the day selling off the land for high income housing.

The eventual eviction of the protesters by police and army shocked the nation, including me.

To see the settlement finalised today, in light of that history, is quite something. Something that all New Zealanders can take pride in.

Hone Harawira’s speech in the debate was one to remember. He recalls the occupation of Bastion Point with great humour.


In the public interest

Posted by on July 2nd, 2012

Auckland’s integrated ticketing saga might seem like just another IT boondoggle with delays and cost blow outs.

But when the progress of Auckland’s public transport system is at stake, not to mention $98 million of public money, it is inevitable the public will want someone held accountable.

The Herald has pointed the finger at Snapper, saying the company should make its smart card compatible with the new integrated ticketing system or face the consequences.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee has threatened NZ Bus (which like Snapper, is owned by Infratil) could be “off the run”, losing the $70 million subsidy it gets for running 70% of Auckland’s buses if it can’t get the Snapper machines on its buses to work with the new system.

Back story: in 2009 Snapper lost out to French technology giant Thales in a competitive tender for the integrated ticketing system designed to be set up in Auckland and then rolled out in other centres. About a year later NZTA and Auckland Transport decided to allow Snapper to roll out its card on the NZ Bus fleet as long as it could guarantee compatibility with the new Thales-built system. There have been successive delays and things came to a head last week with a leaked lawyer’s letter from Auckland Transport to Snapper asserting the November 30 deadline would not be met and that Snapper was in breach of contract, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra costs piling up by the month. (For more history on this see Rudman, or Transport Blog if you are really keen.)

Snapper have been painted as the bad guy: losing out in a competitive tender, then sneaking back into the marketplace, and trying to use their dominant market position in Auckland to establish their card alongside instead of within the main system. The commercial incentive is obvious. If NZ Bus uses Snapper they get access to a sizeable cash float as public transport users charge up their Snapper cards. They also get a treasure trove of data about public transport journeys and consumption patterns that would help them wipe out competitors.

I think having a go at Snapper is too easy.  We shouldn’t be surprised that a company aggressively competes for market dominance.

But we should expect our politicians to make decisions in the public interest, and not screw the scrum on behalf of private interest which seems to be what happened here. I’ve been told by former board members of both agencies that then transport minister Steven Joyce intervened on behalf of Infratil, putting pressure on both boards to let Snapper roll out their card in advance of the new system.

Last week in the House Gerry Brownlee denied his predecessor had any role in the decision making, saying it was a decision for Auckland Transport and NZTA.

Both Mike Lee, former chairman of Auckland Regional Council, and Michael Barnett, also a former elected member of the ARC, have publicly said that lobbying of and by central government politicians led to what has turned out to be a very unwise decision.

That is why I have asked the Auditor General, who is already investigating Auckland’s integrated ticketing project, to include an examination of the role of central and local government politicians in the decision making around Snapper’s early roll out.

The mayor, the port, and the wharfies

Posted by on February 29th, 2012

Len Brown was elected the people’s mayor on a wave of support across west and south Auckland. People opted decisively for his plan for public transport, and a modern inclusive vision for the city that embraced the young, the brown and working people.

Which makes it puzzling that he is choosing to stand by and watch while his port subsidiary tries to contract out 300 jobs.

Len Brown is one of the few people with a lever to pull in this situation. He is the shareholder. He and the Council bear a large part of the responsibility for the dispute because their demand for a 12% return on capital from the ports handed the Ports board the justification to embark on this drive to casualise its workforce. The 12% demand is ridiculous. No other port in Australasia achieves this. Few if any companies in the transport and logistics sector achieve it. The current return is 6% and the ports of Tauranga, poster child for port productivity, only gets 6.3%.

It is all the more puzzling given the Mayor’s commitment to reducing social inequality, reflected in the excellent Auckland Plan. It is hard to see how we are going to build a more prosperous and inclusive city by stripping the city’s employees of their work rights and job security.

With the port company intent on contracting out, the wharfies now have nothing to lose. The current strike is due to continue for two more weeks. Disruption will likely go on for months. The financial cost to the ports, and the economic disruption to Auckland’s economy will be significant.

It is time for Len Brown and his Council to rethink their demand for a 12% return, and replace it with something reasonable and not excessive. He should tell the port company casualisation is not an acceptable approach to employment relations in a port owned by the people of Auckland.

The union has already agreed to almost all the company’s demands for greater labour flexibility designed to increase the labour utilisation rate and improve productivity. The company and union should get back to the table and settle so everyone can get back to work.

Len Brown is a good man. His Auckland Plan and advocacy for the City Rail Link is the kind of leadership the city has been crying out for. But if the port company’s crude union busting succeeds in casualising its workforce on his watch it will be a stain on his legacy.

It’s not a problem, it’s a crisis

Posted by on February 22nd, 2012

Yesterday Phil Twyford and I spent the day meeting with key people involved in housing and urban development in Auckland. I recommend Phil Heatley the Minister of ‘no Housing ‘ does the same. He might learn something.

Auckland needs to house another million people over the next 30 years requiring an extra 400,000 dwellings.  That is an impossible task without a long term strategy and total commitment from government, local government and both the private and community sectors. 

The Auckland Council has drawn up a draft Auckland Plan looking forward 30 years. It emphasises a commitment to a quality compact Auckland region. Feedback from Aucklanders has made it clear they want a bold visionary strategy.  They also want the impact of development on the heritage and character of the region to be considered.  And they want the ‘housing crisis’ addressed!

Auckland Council with all the good will in the world won’t achieve their plan on their own.  Around 13,000 new houses a year need to be built every year for the next 30 years.  That is a quantum leap from where we are now.  In 1992 around 4,800 houses were being built a year. The number peaked at 12,000 between 2001 and 2005.  In the latest figures the number has plunged to just over 2,000. (more…)