Written by Vicki Holder
All of this combined is exacerbating the city’s congestion nightmare, causing a huge excess of demand over supply of housing and, with that, a housing affordability problem.
Without the infrastructure needed to tackle these ongoing challenges, Auckland faces gridlock, says Mayor Phil Goff. A policy that must be high on the new government’s agenda is how much they are prepared to contribute to solving this problem. The city’s infrastructure costs are ballooning, and Auckland Council can no longer afford to foot the bill alone.
The facts are, Auckland now has 36% of New Zealand’s population, it is gaining 50% of the country’s growth through immigration and it produces 38% of its GDP.
As the powerhouse of the nation, the rest of the country relies heavily on the city to succeed, says Goff, “because this is the city that makes New Zealand capable of being globally competitive.”
At the recent Resource Management Law Association (RMLA) conference held in Auckland, Goff outlined his vision for Auckland as a city that’s innovative and smart, a city that’s inclusive in both its diversity and ethnicity, where no-one is left behind, and which has a beautiful, clean environment.
He paid tribute to the previous council for having created a super city with a unitary plan – important for ease of governing and maintaining a uniformity of standards across its breadth. “It wasn’t easy,” he says, “in the face of people who wanted to resist the changes that inevitably come when you build a city of two million people within a decade.”
The changes that have been made are positive, he says, but they have failed to create a revenue base that will enable us to build an infrastructure to meet the needs of rapid population growth without losing the quality of our lifestyle and the ease of doing business in the city.
“A vision remains a mirage unless you can convert what you want to achieve into reality. And to do that you need to fund it. In particular, you need the infrastructure.”
But to meet the challenges that rapid population imposes requires a change in the traditional culture.
“In the 1950s, we made a far-sighted decision to build suburbs connected by motorways and we would rely on the car for the future. That world has changed, and we need to change with it,” he says.
As Auckland comes closer to being a city of two million people, it needs intensification focused around the city centre, city hubs and major arterial routes. Around 70 percent of Auckland’s future housing development will be on brownfield sites, not greenfield sites.
Goff is confident Auckland can create good intensification where there is choice and opportunity. But it must happen soon. With intensification, we also need good urban design, high-quality public urban spaces, and an effective infrastructure, he says.
Whereas virtually nobody lived in the CBD a couple of decades ago, it now has 45,000 residents. In a decade, there will be 75,000. “So, we need to lift the pace and scale of our housing construction to tackle the problems of housing shortage and affordability.”
For now, however, we feel the pain of being the fourth least affordable city in the world.
A housing taskforce has already produced recommendations for the Auckland Council, government, and the private sector to deal with this particular challenge. But it’s not just about houses, says Goff. “It’s about visionary place-making to create stronger communities that will make Auckland a great place to live.”
He says we need a new approach to transport which challenges the predominance of cars in our cities. That, too, requires culture change and it’s already happening. Several weeks ago, Auckland Rail celebrated 20 billion passenger journeys in the last year – up from 3.4 million a decade ago.
While the city rail link is around five years too late, when it is finished, it will double the capacity of rail across Auckland. Goff reiterates the urgent need for light rail across the CBD, from the CBD across the isthmus, out to the airport, around east Auckland, to the shore and out to the west. “It’s no use bringing more cars across to the city. There’s no place for them to go.” The transport funding issue urgently needs to be addressed also, “so we can realise the vision of a world class city that’s not just liveable, but affordable as well.”
To meet the $27 billion cost of transport infrastructure for the next decade, Goff says Auckland needs road pricing. This was one of his campaign platforms. “The government will need to adopt something like a road pricing system and that’s probably a regional fuel tax.”
Just as Australian cities share the cost of infrastructure between federal and state governments, Auckland also needs revenue sharing. He is keen for the government to give back the 15 percent GST on the city’s rates bill. Just for starters, that would raise $239 million.
A network of walkways and cycleways can also help with congestion issues, and Auckland is opening more every month.
“Most of us walked or cycled to school as kids, so there’s a bit of back to the future here. Currently three percent of our secondary students walk or cycle to school. That’s crazy. We have to have a system of safe routes, so people can choose the healthy option of walking or cycling and can get safely to school.
“And, guess what, that reduces carbon emissions, and it reduces congestion – getting rid of the 10 percent of extra traffic in peak-hour mornings that people taking their kids to school by car actually produce.”
The number of pedestrians down Queen Street has doubled in the last six years. So, what is Goff’s vision for Queen Street?
“I see something like Swanson Street in Melbourne where you have light rail as mass transit and you have a pedestrian mall. I see a linear park running from Albert Park to Victoria Park, and down Victoria Street, that makes our city a greener, more attractive, safer and more pleasant place to walk about.”
That, too, is in Auckland’s plan.
Not all the pressures come from our recent population growth. For 100 years, a combined storm water and wastewater system has meant that every time it rains, between 26 and 52 times a year in the western area alone, there are more than 70 outflows into our streams.
The good news is that these problems are fixable, says Goff.
Another priority is to restore the health of our beaches and waterways. “We have to turn around the situation of dumping waste water into our harbours. It’s a huge job that will cost several billion dollars. But this year we’re starting to design a business case for two huge central interceptors with more storage capacity.”
All these initiatives are vital to ensure we are a globally competitive city that retains and attracts the best people and quality investment, but the city must be able to pay for them.
To do so, Mayor Goff talked of a special-purpose vehicle – a Crown-infrastructure partnership to fund infrastructure projects in a way that does not add more debt to the council’s books, because, quite simply, the council can no longer keep reaching into that deep, dark funding cupboard.
“We are already at our debt-to-revenue ratio. We cannot exceed that without losing our credit rating.”
Without the government’s help, it will be impossible for Auckland to realise the dream. The big question is: how much can the government pay? Goff is impatient.
He wants answers now, so that when we host the first America’s Cup defence in March 2021, bringing 25,000 people to Auckland City, and when we host APEC in November when the world’s leaders hit our shores, Auckland can stand proud – highlighting New Zealand as a smart, innovative, clean, green country – and a great place to live and invest.