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.