Why I am standing for the Auckland Council
By Bill Ralston (author)
Bill Ralston is a veteran political journalist and media personality, current Listener columnist and public relations consultant. He lives in Ponsonby and is standing for the Auckland Council.
Auckland is a great city and, demonstrably, one of the best cities in the world.
I love this city. I was born here and I’ll probably die here.
But Auckland has a problem and it’s a good problem to have. Its problem is that it is growing like wildfire. With the right management of the city that problem should be an asset.
However, for the last six years this city has been hamstrung by a lack of true leadership, by a majority of closed minded people on the council, by a serious lack of ideas, and an almost total inability to put those ideas into effect, especially with the help and agreement of the people of Auckland and central government.
They act as if they’re unaccountable to anyone.
I want to be the councillor for the Waitemata and Gulf Ward because we have some crucial issues to overcome and the dysfunctional council we have now cannot, will not, deal with them.
The latest example of council mismanagement and incompetence is the debacle over the Unitary Plan.
It’s a fiasco. Penny Hulse tried to ram it through in the first place a few years back. There was a public outcry and they watered down the intensification parts of the plan. Then, behind closed doors, they secretly intensified again and left nearly thirty thousand people without a voice on the plan.
Then they panicked and voted to drop those changes. Now the Independent Hearings Panel says it’ll consider those Out of Scope changes anyway and meanwhile they’re being subverted by their own council officers.
What a sad indictment of a group that are patently unfit to lead this city.
Of course we need intensification – along main arterial routes, around transport hubs, in the inner city CBD, in Wynyard Quarter on the waterfront and around the ten designated town centres in Auckland.
But when you want to rip the guts out of quiet residential streets – NO!
We’ve got to the point where the people of Auckland just can’t trust this council any more.
Would you trust this council with your money?
The Council’s only answer to its financial problems is to endlessly milk the residents and ratepayers dry. Last year an effective average nine point nine per cent rates increase – ten per cent. That’s just obscene.
The current Councillor for Waitemata poured fire and brimstone on the Mayor and council over the ten per cent increase – and then promptly voted for it. Tricky, cynical footwork that I hope the voters of Waitemata and Gulf will remember.
He’s against intensification at the moment, because he can smell the political wind, but what’s the betting he’ll flip flop on that, too. There’ll be more tricky footwork from him. He is very adept at appearing to oppose the Mayor and majority on council and then you find he’s voted for virtually everything that Len Brown and his mob wants.
It’s time to put the brakes on rate increases. This Council believes it has an inexhaustible source of revenue – your wallets. It’s wrong and it must stop now.
Why can’t we at least aspire to holding rates? Why do we need to keep putting rates up by four or five or ten per cent a year when inflation is running at less than one per cent a year?
Ah! The council will say, “We need to do all this infrastructural development and we need the rates increases to help pay the debt we’ll run up doing the work.”
We already have the highest level of debt per ratepayer than any other city in the country.
This city has a whopping debt of more than seven point two billion dollars that will be more than eleven and a half billion dollars over the next few years – it has more than trebled its debt in the last decade and currently around twelve cents in every dollar the council raises goes in paying the interest on the debt. That may be manageable at the moment but they’re planning for debt to rise over the next decade or so to $18.5 billion.
Ratepayers' wallets or purses seem to be their answer to how to cover that level of debt, with massive rates increases, demands to tax travel on the city’s motorways (which have already been paid for previously), demands to pay more tax on petrol, and demands central government fork out more taxpayer money for the council to spend.
That kind of mentality is unsustainable for the city and certainly unsustainable for the people who live here.
Auckland Council is out of control.
It has spent one point two billion dollars on IT projects – that’s close to the cost of the council contribution to the Central Rail Link. One point two billion dollars and the council’s computers are still not doing what they should.
The current incumbent of Waitemata and Gulf Ward says it’s a scandal. He’s right. It is a scandal – a scandal that he and the others on council cannot control their own council officers in this billion dollar bungle. Where is their oversight? Where is their management of those officers? Who is holding them to account?
Council has more than eleven and a half thousand staff. Two thousand of those happy folk earn more than one hundred thousand dollars a year.
We have more people working for the council now than we did before we all amalgamated.
Is it surprising that Auckland Council staff costs are sixty three million dollars over budget this last year? Again - Where is the oversight? Where is the control? Where is the management?
Do ratepayers think they're getting a fair return on that kind of outlay? I don’t.
For example; What is wrong with merging the different back office functions of the Council and all the CCO’s into one single administration unit for start. That would cut costs. Central government is doing exactly that with its ministries and it’s paying off for them.
I’ve talked to dozens of business owners and developers in this town … people who added billions to the city’s worth and their common complaint is that the left hand of the council doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. They often don’t know who to talk to in the council to get their business done – and worse, the council doesn’t know either.
We need a zero based restructuring of council staff and their salaries – start from the top down – get it done right, get the numbers right, and cut the feather-bedding, the fat cats and their perks. We ratepayers are sick of being bled to pay for it.
Here’s another problem the Council needs to face up to and stop bellyaching. Traffic congestion costs the city one point eight to two billion dollars a year.
Fix it. More bus-ways – the Shore’s Northern Bus-way shows how well that can work, more bus-lanes, phased lights for buses, more bike lanes and more bike ways, and while the CRL is not the silver bullet to solve the city’s transport issues - it will help. Get on with it.
The other problem the Council needs to address is the Ports of Auckland.
First, two council reports from Cameron and Partners and EY recommend selling down the Council holding by forty nine per cent – that could net you around a billion dollars in profit and, if the mixed ownership model of the power companies is anything to judge by, you can retain pretty much the same level of earnings at the same time. Let’s see the figures for doing that and even the port would agree we desperately need the commercial advantage that a partial float would give us.
Here’s an idea. It is simply done. You can split the Port of Auckland into two parts. One part is the land which should remain 100% owned by the people of Auckland. The second part is the Operating Company of the Port. That can become a mixed ownership model with 49% owned by shareholders.
Secondly, do we want our city’s foreshore to stay a giant car-yard forever cluttered with a mess of cars, containers and cranes blocking us off from the sea? We need to research seriously what can be done to shift the port sometime over the next couple of decades. Do the research, shift the port and give us our beautiful harbour back so we can all enjoy it. Sydney did it, London’s done it and it can be done.
There is an ideological majority on that council that say “You can’t sell assets.” They’re trapped in their own closed minds by their old redundant ideology.
This council has many billions of dollars worth of assets – yet it refuses to even contemplate even partially selling a single thing to fund growth. They say the council shouldn’t have even commissioned reports into the assets it owns. We need to keep an open mind as to how we fund our infrastructure needs – not just borrow more and tax the ratepayer.
Here is an example. As an investment council has around one point eight billion dollars worth of shares in Auckland airport. The current councillor for Waitemata says you can’t sell those shares because it brings in more than forty million dollars a year for the city in dividends.
Yet he’d be quite happy to borrow one point three billion dollars to build the Central Rail Link. The annual interest you would pay on that one point three billion dollar loan is a hell of a lot more than forty million dollars a year the airport investment earns. At five per cent interest it will cost you $65 million dollars a year to retain the $40 million a year. He doesn’t mind because he knows he can tap into your wallets to pay the interest.
There is plenty to be done locally around Waitemata. The good old Point Erin baths that I used to swim in when I was kid are in an appalling state. They say it might cost $10 million to bring them up to standard. That renovation isn’t even on the council’s agenda.
What about a public private partnership of the Point Erin baths where council brings in a private operator and we split the cost and give the kids of this ward a swimming pool we can all be proud of? The current council won’t look at a joint venture or public private partnership. I will.
I’m standing because, regardless or who is Mayor, there needs to be a solid majority of the right people on council, making the right decisions and steering the city in the right directions.
This city needs three things from its next council:
Accountability – to the people
Tight control over council finances