October 3, 2023

Auckland was struggling even before the historic flooding

Auckland was struggling even before the historic flooding

A successful Minister for Auckland could foreshadow a substantially revised Cities and Regions government focus

Opinion: There’s little doubt Auckland is in need of substantial ministering. It’s not just the biblical-scale deluge and resulting significant damage the region has experienced. It’s the historical sins of omission and some of commission that it also needs saving from. Whether the new Minister for Auckland portfolio that both main parties’ leaders have established provides the divine guidance required may form part of voters’ judgment at this year’s general election.

Helen Clark created the first Auckland Issues portfolio in 1999 held at a junior cabinet level by the then Auckland Central MP Judith Tizard until 2007. Apart from advancing legislation to do with Motat and the Auckland Museum, Tizard’s role mainly involved celebrating Auckland’s success.

The John Key government did not continue this approach, despite the Royal Commission on Auckland whose report it inherited recommending a Minister for Auckland and a permanent Auckland Cabinet Committee. Although Epsom MP Rodney Hide, as Minister of Local Government, became a de facto Minister for Auckland as he led the significant changes which resulted in the Auckland Council.

National’s Auckland approach was to focus portfolio ministers on the big Auckland issues. Nick Smith as Minister of Housing led the Special Housing Area legislation which had a big focus on trying to improve housing supply and affordability in Auckland, and other areas.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges, now Auckland Chamber CEO, negotiated and signed with Mayor Len Brown the then significant Auckland Transport Alignment Plan getting government and council to agree on priorities and timing for transport planning across the region.


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Neither of the Ardern governments had a distinct focus on Auckland issues, preferring focus on key policy projects in Auckland, principally housing and transport.

Late in the 2017 election campaign the then National Leader Judith Collins launched a policy to review the Auckland Council. She said it was not delivering for Aucklanders and needed much better performance. This had been debated by government and within council in the years after its establishment. But National was wary of the politics given the Labour-endorsed mayors who had run Auckland over its initial terms.

A better-supported Auckland was expected under a Jacinda Ardern/Phil Goff relationship. However, less than that was delivered. The government undermined the joined-up transport planning achieved under ATAP, it disregarded Goff’s advocacy for a share of GST to plug the funding gap, and it imposed changes to council’s housing intensification plans over his and his council’s objection.

Meeting the moment

Chris Hipkins deserves credit for creating the Auckland portfolio under now senior minister Michael Wood. Particularly as Christopher Luxon had taken the initiative to establish it first with his reshuffle in January, appointing Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown to the role. This move pits the two major parties’ front bench transport spokespeople together on Auckland and both will look to take their versions of “Fix Auckland” to the electorate by October.

It is very unusual internationally to have a cabinet role for a distinct city or specific region. The Minister for London is a rare example having existed as a junior portfolio in most UK governments since 1994. The Australian government had a junior cabinet level Minister of Cities from 2015 to 2022.

More common is a cabinet role for urban or regional development or both. The first Ardern government created the Housing and Urban Development portfolio under Phil Twyford. However, New Zealand’s housing crisis and the ill-fated KiwiBuild project have undermined the impact a greater urban development focus could have had for Auckland.

While New Zealand has been struggling to make consistent development progress with its largest urban centre, a stronger focus on city development has been taking place internationally. The World Economic Forum says countries must give cities greater focus because their proximity to issues means they frequently can help better solve the nation’s larger problems.

World Bank’s Climate Change Action Plan, updated after the first two years of Covid-19, says cities must remain at the centre of efforts to reduce the impact of a changing climate.

Challenging Auckland

Auckland had abundant challenges already facing it before New Zealand’s biggest ever weather event significantly damaged the region. These include needing a more certain response to the impact of climate change, building a more effective transport system more quickly, and the ongoing affordable housing deficit. But the first challenge for the new minister and his opposition twin will be to define what the role will cover and deliver, and what it will not.

Being drawn into every Auckland issue across the broad range of functions Auckland Council covers and the even broader range Aucklanders are interested in is a recipe for being figuratively swamped.

The current Minister for London describes his job as “sense checking everything government does with a ‘London hat’ on”. That will either be very wearing or largely ineffective.

An alternative for the new minister could be to style himself as Leader of the Opposition to Auckland’s pugnacious mayor, proposing things the mayor opposes or vice versa. Light rail, housing intensification and climate change are already existing areas of dispute.

However, where other “cities” ministers have been effective is when they focus on a specific remit. In Australia, the portfolio principally concentrated on implementing Australia’s City Deal approach; an arrangement where the federal, state and local governments together with the private sector agree on specific local projects such as a stadium, rail project and an innovation centre.

City opportunities

To put “their” deals together, Michael Wood and Simeon Brown should look at consulting firm McKinsey’s advice on what urban centres need. First, growth needs funding and to attract the investment to help with this, cities have to be clear on what their competitive advantage is and put together a clear offer to attract. Cities guru Professor Greg Clark made the same point on his visit to Auckland in 2013. Auckland still lags on this and government could help champion it.

Second, cities need to be much more effective at collecting, managing and spending the resources they have. McKinsey says surprisingly few cities use robust cost-benefit analysis, apply strong investment accountability, and set demanding performance metrics such as the British government has done with its road construction partnerships.

Third, to avoid added costs and delays, councils and governments have to build much greater support for the local policies and projects required. The earlier ATAP approach is a good example which National developed in partnership with Len Brown’s council. The recent increased housing density, which Labour and National supported and then imposed, is not.

Wood and Brown should also look to the Infrastructure Commission’s report finding New Zealand in the bottom 10 percent of high-income countries for building infrastructure efficiency. The planning and consenting system needs to be more enabled, availability of workforce more quickly addressed and fixing materials constraints prioritised.

They could both also champion and permit the new range of financing tools the Productivity Commission has advanced but where progress is slow or non-existent: value capture targeted rates, visitor demand cost levies and congestion charging.

The issue is not just about Auckland. Progress in the Wellington region is also being held back by the failure of the current policy of a project-based approach. So a successful Minister for Auckland could foreshadow a substantially revised Cities and Regions government focus replacing the existing, archaic Local Government portfolio.

Whatever progress is made ministering to Auckland this year, the priority that both major political parties are signalling about Auckland issues is a positive sign for it, the country’s overall performance, and eventually other parts of the nation. Amen.

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