Sunday, October 31, 2010

Paris in the Antipodes

Is Auckland’s spatial plan already drafted?
The new Chief Planning Officer has revealed his vision for Auckland in an interview with Bernard Orsman in the New Zealand Herald.  Dr Blakely is promising “dialogue with Aucklanders to develop a ‘high-level and strategic’ plan”.  However, he has apparently already adopted as a starting point that the city will have to accommodate an extra 600,000 people by 2031 .  This projection reflects assumptions about such things as fertility, mortality, residential preferences and, most of all, migration. 
Assuming that these will prevail over the next thirty years is a bold basis for vision building. Is it one which would emerge from “dialogue with Aucklanders” though?
Of course, there is a circular argument here. The spatial plan could have a significant impact on how rapidly Auckland’s population grows, especially through its impact on that most volatile of demographic drivers, migration.  Will it make Auckland a more attractive place to live?
Here Dr Blakely introduces a further vision: the city “cannot keep spreading outwards indefinitely, but needs to improve the quality of urban intensification”.  He even suggests what this might look like:  There is no reason, he says, why Auckland cannot follow cities such as Paris, with low-cost, high-quality medium-density housing”.
Which Paris?
Like many others lucky enough to have got there, I love Paris, the largest tourist destination in the world. But I live in Auckland.  And the two are a world apart.
While it is not clear whether Dr Blakely is referring to the entire metropolitan area – the Ile de France, comprising eight departments and the city of Paris – or just the City, with its 20 locally elected mayors accountable to the Mayor of Paris. THe distinction is important. 
The metropolitan area has close to 12 million people at a density of around 975 people per square kilometre.  Paris City has a little over 2 million at a density of over 20,800 people per square kilometre.  I am not sure that Aucklanders would aspire to either. [1]
In any case, history and geography don’t lend themselves to such a comparison. Paris, built on a plain, has 2,000+ years on us for a start.
Lessons from Paris?
Interestingly, though, its modern history is one of decentralisation and declining densities.
Paris was remodelled in the mid 19th century at the time of the second republic.  Visionary p
refect Baron Haussmann oversaw the demolition of the crowded medieval settlement of perhaps 1,000,000 people on the banks of the Seine, and its replacement with the wide, radiating boulevards, parks, public spaces, and medium-rise architecture that make the City of Paris what it is today.  It is a light, open city, designed for street living, but one which has proven itself capable of catering for the age of mass private and public transport.
The 20th century saw the next noteable phase of Parisian urbanisation, the rapid extension of the metropolitan area beyond the City.  The City's population peaked in the early 1930s at around 2.9m people, but has declined, by 25% or 730,000 people by 2005.   In contrast, the balance of the urban area expanded by 5.2m.[2]  This saw the absorption of surrounding settlements and the development of leafy, low density suburbs facilitated by the extension of public transport, especially the metro, and freeways. 
The ageing of some of the early town centres in the inner ring suburbs has seen a different dynamic emerge in the 21st century. This is where medium to high rise apartments were erected late in the previous century to house poorer communities, especially immigrant communities. Because they have been consigned to ageing centres in this way, their residents are often remote from work opportunities.  Consequently, poverty has become concentrated in high density. older inner suburbs outside the central city, suburbs which in 2005 became the new setting for urban riots in Paris.
Let’s hope this is not a parallel that arises if Auckland chooses to focus high density housing in ageing suburbs or centres.  Much more imagination is called for both to reinvigorate these areas and to house our expanding population.
Lessons from Auckland
Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from Paris. 
But let’s first acknowledge the history and geography of our own city before adopting prescriptions from others.  Auckland is a built on an isthmus.  It is 150km from north to south, less than 5km across at its narrowest point.  It is constrained by harbours, estuaries and creeks, by hills and ranges.  
This geography shaped the early city, with the bulk of 19th century development on an isthmus within an isthmus, the old Auckland City.  Extension along the Great South Road was driven first by a colonial commitment to subjugating disaffected indigenous people, and subsequently alienating and cultivating their fertile lands.  This southern orientation was extended by Auckland’s role first as an export port for the food and materials produced by the new colony, and then in the 20th century as the principal point of entry for imports and, consequently, for manufacturing import substitutes and distributing them to the rest of the country.
Orientation to the south was reinforced for the most of Auckland’s history by the barrier of Waitemata Harbour.  Settlement on the North Shore was confined to the nautical town of Devonport, parts of the East Coast Bays accessible by boat, and the resorts of Browns Bay,  Orewa, and Waiwera.  Only after the Second World War did serious settlement on the North Shore begin and only after construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge did that trickle turn into a flood.  At that point, Auckland began to realise its potential as a linear city, one which might evolve around State Highway 1 into a series of linked centres each offering easy access to country and coast
The essence of Auckland
Most obviously, though, Auckland, is a maritime city, its appeal, its edges, and its possibilities heavily influenced by the sea. Many of its people have travelled over the sea, and continue to do so, to arrive and settle somewhere remote, mild of climate, and intrinsically attractive. They have brought with them diverse cultures.   They have come to a region with a history of outdoor living. 
Perhaps all that has to change, but in changing it, we need to be sensitive to where we are coming from as well as where we are going to.  We will not be able to replicate Parisian street life on an Auckland map.  We may, however, be able to retain and extend the qualities of suburban open space, build the character of urban villages, and avoid the alienation and dislocation that arises from imposing a new model over the old.
Start with who we are and what we’ve got
Let’s start our spatial planning with an appreciation of where we have come from, and of the values that evolve in an environment where urbanisation has been shaped by a geography, history and culture quite removed from those of cities elsewhere. 
We can learn from overseas experience, but we do not have to emulate it. For the moment, we may have heard more than enough from Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Brisbane and Paris.  Me too-ism and echoes of other cities are not what will make this a more attractive place to live. We need more than dialogue around received wisdoms.  It is time to look and listen to what will work for Auckland. 

[1] Of course, density is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder.  How urban boundaries are determined, what water bodies and parks are included, where edges are drawn – via administrative boundaries in the above figures but it could be according to contiguous development –all make a difference. Based on continuous and contiguous urban areas, the Demographia analysis places metropolitan Paris’ density at 3,300 and Auckland’s at 2,200 people per square kilometre.
[2] Based on

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Avoiding scelrosis in a super sized council

Is bigger better, or simply more bureaucratic?
Technically, bureaucracy is the rational response to size in organisations.  As organisations get bigger, particular structures and processes are needed to ensure equity and even handedness, and to avoid service failures .  Consistency and predictability become everything.  Quite simply, more and more resources need to be committed to internal management, including more managers of managers. 

As a result, large organisations become slow moving and resist change as internal relationships and established ways of doing things dictate their response to changing market conditions.
The ups and downs of organisational performance
This explains the widely observed U-curve describing organisational performance.  As they  grow organisations are initially able to reduce costs by increasing the volume of transactions – products manufactured, sales made, or services delivered – faster than they increase costs.  They do this by more effective use of people, machines, or distribution channels, by better buying, easier access to capital, and investing in machinery, people, and processes to improve how they do things. 
But at a certain point costs start to increase faster than transactions.  The specialisation of functions which helped achieve scale economies begins to get in the way of internal coordination.  Fixed costs -- in buildings, plant and machinery – increase and cannot be readily reduced to offset a slowdown in demand or stronger competition. Large workforces and long-standing labour agreements reduce the ability to adjust to changing circumstances.  At the professional and management level, silos emerge and internal communications can become a sticking point.
Organisational implosions - some industry examples
Consequently, if tastes change, new markets emerge or old ones decline, technology advances, or new regulatory rules come into play, large, bureaucratic organisations struggle to respond.  Smaller, more flexible organisations emerge to fill the gap.
I have seen this in a number of industries I have worked in over the years.  New Zealand’s meat processing sector is one.  The  forestry sector is another, international aviation yet another. 

The recent tribulations of the US automobile industry also come to mind.  Any long-established industry dominated by large organisations subject to changing external demands is vulnerable, with long-established brands and dominant players suddenly collapsing – or propped up by hapless taxpayers – as the world around them changes.

How to respond?
There are ways to avoid organisational sclerosis – but they don’t always work.  Matrix management is a complicated and not especially effective attempt to align external functions across internal divisions.  The creation of special project teams within organisations is another response, restructuring another.  These, though, may simply delay the inevitable.  Breaking up an overgrown organisation is the most common end point, voluntary or not. 
Diseconomies of scale in local government
It is widely argued that local government operates on a U-shaped cost curve . When we researched local government in the 1980s, the literature suggested that the optimum size for a council was one with a population of between 80,000 and 180,000.  The precise point depended on the range of functions and was difficult to pin down.  Maybe administering a population of 180,000, even 200,000 is a good guide for a maximum council size today.  [1]
Working with experienced local government management we established why this happens.  As councils have to deal with an increasing number of residents and businesses, they simply need more employees and skills.  They need more managers based on simple organisational precepts like limiting spans of control. 
As demands proliferate across communities, the range of specialisations required also expands.  Internal communications become a growing challenge.  Larger councils rely on increasing delegation.  This in turn leads to a reduction in the autonomy of staff and an increase in rules to maintain consistent outcomes - the classic bureaucratic response to scale. Initiative at the front line diminishes, and with it responsiveness and client satisfaction.  Constituents become further removed from representatives.  Senior managers operate increasingly through intermediaries.
Councils falling out of touch
This is born out by my experience working with councils throughout New Zealand.  In the economic fields, for example, large councils find out what is happening by commissioning reports – often from consultants whose role is to inform the analysts whose role it is to inform the managers whose role it is to inform the politicians. Politicians’ and managers’ external contacts are more likely to be with the secretaries of business associations, chambers of commerce, or lobby groups than with the people actually doing the business. 
By way of contrast, in smaller councils, politicians and senior managers sit down with local business people to discuss what is happening and what they may require of the council.
In community development, large councils commission reports, conduct internal workshops, and hold meetings with other agencies.  Staff who work well out there with the community come inside to become managers.  By contrast, the staff who work well with the community in small councils continue to do just that, work with the community.  Door knocking is their main mode of operation.
So what can Auckland City do?
So where does this leave the new Auckland unitary council, with a population going on for 1.5 million? 
There may be ways to avoid the premature ageing associated with the bureaucratic processes required to keep a large organisation on an even keel.  Key network, infrastructure and developmental tasks have already been hived off into Community Controlled Organisations. The challenge here is for the council is to take advantage of any efficiencies resulting while maintaining consistency of direction across these "external" silos as well as the traditional internal silos based on functional and professional affiliations.

While there is some hope that the spatial plan will provide a mechanism for cutting across the council's internal and external structures, it will take strong governance  to ensure that the service tails don’t wag the policy dog.
And what of the rest of the council’s functions, those that most impact on the quality of places within Auckland?  The key may lie in part in the local board structure.  How far will the council dare to delegate to local boards responsibility for defining and delivering the services appropriate to individual communities?  And how far might it manage to engage the communities themselves in their own governance? 
Creating a form of local government that can deliver services effectively from within the large council structure visited on Aucklanders by the recent reform is the challenge, both an organisational one and a fiscal one .  Failure to meet it effectively might well see the reform process revisited in the not-too-distant future.

[1]             The statistical analyses give mixed results because they are so context-dependent.  However, there is generally agreement that big is not necessarily better in local government.  See the work by Brian Dollery in Australia, for example,

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Whither local democracy?

Central Government Retains its Hold
The Minister of Local Government is reported in the New Zealand Herald to be considering establishing a committee of Cabinet with the power to make decisions over Auckland matters.  This echoes a suggestion by the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance.  It emerges though at this last minute as yet another in a series of convoluted arrangements made in response to the contested decision-making that has been a feature of local governance Auckland.
The reason for this proposal is that the new Auckland Council will have to deal with a large range of government departments.  But so does every other council.  Perhaps the real problem is that the new arrangements reveal the fragmentation of central government.  If so, why the special treatment for Auckland?  While it is by far the biggest local council that government has to deal with, that does not mean that Auckland’s problems are necessarily more complex than those of councils elsewhere.  In fact, consolidation into a unitary council was meant to have strengthened local capacity to deal with any issues that might be holding back the region’s development.
Coupled with the way in which the Minister has stage-managed the implementation of reform, from the time he issued a brief government response – Making Auckland Greaterusurping the Commission’s tome, through the appointment of the transition agency and the local government commissioner, to the three Acts of Parliament defining the structure of the new council, this reform has been driven from Wellington.  Appointments to the boards of the Council Controlled Organisations responsible for infrastructure and network services were also made by the Minister.  And now it has been announced that both the Minister and Prime Minister are addressing the inaugural meeting of the new council, something that journalist Brian Rudman suggests is “intimidating”.
Wellington in Auckland
Certainly, scale means Auckland’s economic performance makes it a focus of government attention.  But this was addressed in 2005 by the establishment of the Government Urban and Economic Development Office (GUEDO).  This included personnel from the Ministries of Economic Development, Transport, Environment, and the Department of Labour (DOL) “to achieve greater alignment of Government priorities and effort towards sustainable urban and economic development of the Auckland region”. 
The office joined the frenzy of reporting and caucusing about Auckland’s economic development, working closely with the Auckland Regional Council on a series of projects aimed at defining the “Auckland problem” and finding ways of resolving it. The results are not yet obvious as the region has continued to underperform the rest of the country in terms of employment growth, most evident in a 3.6% contraction between February 2008 and February 2009, compared with 2.3% for the rest of the country.
In 2010, joining the spirit of reform that took over the region, GUEDO changed its name to the Auckland Policy Office to reflect a “broader role in developing and implementing government policy in Auckland”.  Today central government’s Auckland Policy Office incorporates the Departments of Internal Affairs, the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Building and Housing, Treasury, the State Services Commission, the Ministries of Social Development and Culture and Heritage, the Securities Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. Only a minority of these departments have staff in the Auckland office.  However, the APO is overseen by a committee of the departmental chief executives, suggesting that there should already be an appreciation in Wellington of Auckland issues and coordinated departmental positions on how to respond to Auckland initiatives.  What more do we need?
Another sign of Wellington’s growing presence in Auckland is the growth in central government administration in the region, with the numbers up by 60% over the past decade, to 6,100 compared with 4,710 in local government. (These figures do not include employees within operative services, including hospitals, schools, or water supply).  Even the central government bureaucracy in Wellington did not grow at such a rate, although it still managed to expand employment by 47% over a decade in which the capital’s total employment only grew by 17%.
Structural Change and Contested Decision-Making
One thread behind the creation of one council was the difficulty in getting agreement on major infrastructure projects – the region’s debate over and consequent rejection of the central government’s proposal to turn a large area of the waterfront into a rugby stadium being the obvious example.  Yet even after reform it seems that Auckland’s capacity to make its own decisions will still ride heavily on central government advice, agenda, and approval.  
But by raising the contestability of regional decisions to the national level, is there any guarantee of better outcomes for Auckland and Aucklanders?
Delivering on a Community Mandate
At least the “almost-local” ward electoral system and the creation of local boards in the new arrangement has created an opportunity for communities to be heard, and for this concession we should be grateful.  As it is, the representative system first time around was not to be denied, with a community-grounded platform prevailing in the mayoral election.  It remains to be seen how far the Mayor, Len Brown, can marry a community mandate with a structure in which economic rationality was intended to prevail.  And how far central government will support this, the local electorates’ preference, remains an unknown.
So in Auckland how far the representative system will deliver local democracy depends, still, on the leaning of a minority (if popular) mayor, and on central government designs.  Commentators watch with anticipation the capacity of our new mayor and council to deliver, and to deliver quickly, if they are to survive the next election. There is not much new in this.  It is how electoral politics works.
However, for local democracy to be truly and consistently served, it may be that the best form of governance comes from empowering communities to assist with decisions and, even more, perhaps, to deliver them. With the removal of physical infrastructure services and economic initiative to CCOs, the time might be ripe for a community development mandate to be addressed.  This can be done as much through developing the capacity of communities to implement what they want and not simply to define it. 
The issue may not be so much of what can we give communities, Mr Mayor, but how can we help our communities to serve themselves? This is a long way from the model imposed from the centre, but not beyond the reach of a new Auckland.  It is the way to true local democracy which perhaps, just perhaps, the new arrangements have opened up.  The alternative is to be looking always over our shoulder at central government.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Deskilling the super services

The new super services
Journalism has broken its barriers, with mass journalism on the net the new reality.  IT numbers are exploding as applications proliferate.  Pilot numbers just keep on going up, even through the collapse of airlines and recession.  Actors are on the march as Hollywood studios fade out behind the assault of animation and global production locations.  Medical technicians - radiographers, laboratory workers – can wind down the health sector by their industrial action.  At the same time, medical assistants not doctors are increasingly attending the sick.  Could these things be related?
It is a paradox of technology that as it advances, so it demystifies, and so it allows more and more people into what were once very exclusive clubs.
Pre-packaged expertise
The world of machinery, machine tools, and automation that deskilled industrial production over the past century, that broke the power of many industrial trades, today has parallels among the services.  The result is that expertise that can be relatively easily replicated and taught in bite-sized chunks replaces the more prolonged intellectual training that has been the mark of high order services and professions.
Medical diagnosis that was once the preserve of high intellect, keen intuition, and years of dedication is now simplified, facilitated, accelerated by instruments operated and read by technicians.  Airline pilots today require the capacity to read and respond to computers more than to understand and manage the vagaries of a flying machine, or to read the weather and keep a watchful eye on the world outside the cockpit. 

Computer programmes are most likely to be based on databases or specialised applications or compiled from open code, several steps closer to everyday language than the arcane source codes and machine language that was once the programmers’ obscure domain. 
The design of grand buildings – and not so grand ones – is no longer a cross–over between artist and engineer.  Computers programmes bypass the creative doodling, figuring and skilled drafting of architects.  Even the mechanics of auto maintenance require a capacity to read instruments rather than to understand all the intricacies of the internal combustion engine.  Lawyers can lean on computers to scan and analyse cases or highlight the subtleties of legislation rather than on librarians and late nights to painstakingly compile ever more complex cases .
Policy analysis and the management of the state itself, once the preserve of refined graduates of refined universities, is now the plaything of legions of social scientists of various persuasions.
We can all have more
So what does all this mean?  Among other things, it means that more people have access to more services.  It means that services once available only to the rich are now available to the masses.  It means that the exclusivity of the most qualified and the most excellent in delivering services is diminished as the capacity of technology and technicians takes over.  It may also mean that our expectations of services – to travel comfortably and arrive safely, to be made well, to live in light and comfort, or to be entertained extravagantly -- have increased.
It may also mean the democratisation of services.  On the one hand, we have a greater expectation that our expectations will be fulfilled.  On the other, practices which were once the preserve of the highly educated and skilled are now subject to industrial action.
But where does it come from?
This all raises the question of where the creative capacity behind the deskilling of the service sector lies.  Is it in the hands of a continuing cadre of bright academics and thinkers, the super nerds?  Does it lie deep within the laboratories of multinational firms?  Or is the necessary insight and innovation most likely to come from the creative fringes of entrepreneurship?  The answer probably covers all these categories and more.  It may be just a small subset of Richard Florida's transformative creative class, the truly creative core of an expanding sector service providers.  
What does it mean?
The issues raised by the demystifying and democratising of higher order services are associated with the nature of development.  Here are some possibilities:
(1)    High order services are moving at an increasing rate through the cycle of innovation, development, and delivery.  They have their own momentum as we seek and are delivered ever increasing applications of services.
(2)    High order services are unhinged from their social and geographical centres.  More people in more places can benefit from the enhanced living standards they offer.  In this respect they promise a degree of social levelling.
(3)    They involve a shift from personal to corporate supply.  The simplification and replicability associated with deskilling formerly highly skilled services means that they are more likely to be supplied by larger organisations, while still offering opportunities for small niche providers to provide specialist applications.
(4)    As the general level of skills in a profession rises through the intrusion of technology, so a small cadre of super skilled rise even further – the super specialist fulfilling new demands: the highly specialised surgeon, the international expert in environmental law, or the reporter with years spent on the front line providing globally syndicated columns on international affairs.
(5)    High order services can be delivered from anywhere to anywhere with relative ease.  They may no longer be a marker of social progress, to be developed and delivered from the largest cities or most developed nations.
All of this seems to be about growing demand as monopoly over supply is diminished.  There will still be instances where the new technicians may withdraw their labour, however, in a fashion unheard of among their professional predecessors.  At that point an increased level of societal dependence on the newly democratised services might become evident.  But it is more likely that the excessive incomes associated with highly specialised services will themselves diminish.
City matters
And what are the implications for our cities?  We can draw analogies from the history of production perhaps.  The diminishing importance of accessibility as new channels of distribution come into being .  The capacity to offer services from remote, low cost locations .  While this suggests the prospect of diminished travel for services, another prospect may be that proliferation of higher order services increases demand for local, regional, national, and international movement.  It may also contribute to the decentralisation of populations to the extent that dependence on metropolitan institutions diminishes.
There may also be a further spread of incomes as the growing body of service experts, the new technicians, increase their share of wealth while those without the skills are left to the low-paid low-level maintenance jobs, and low service suburbs. 
Do we need a solution?
Having made a prognosis the temptation here is to suggest an outcome.  Having diagnosed a problem, perhaps, to suggest a remedy.  Having identified an area of uncertainty, to propose a policy.  But no.  Having been somewhat skimpy on analysis, I had better leave that to the experts.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Let's not jettison bold urban development plans

New centres fail to fire
Anne Gibson in the New Zealand Herald reported the recent failures of several large, integrated urban development projects on Auckland’s fringe.  Plans for a number of substantial developments are now defunct or substantially scaled down.   She said that this was a result of “the end of the boom-bust real estate cycle rather than any centralised planning attempt”.
The article attributes the failure to “commercialise” Auckland’s borders to financial failings, to the drying up of bank funding and consequent bankruptcies, and a reliance on too much debt to carry forward bold plans.  What planning could not achieve by way of containing the city, the global meltdown has apparently done. 
That is certainly part of the story, but it raises as many questions as it answers. 

Short-sighted planning still a problem
Perhaps most obviously, some of the projects cited were overturned because they contravened the Auckland Regional Policy Statement’s commitment to largely containing growth within Auckland’s existing boundaries.  In other cases, protracted planning requirements simply delayed getting projects to the market, precipitating or compounding any problems of financial over-leveraging. 
The irony is that a number of these projects were responding to the strictures of smart growth, reducing vehicle dependence, increasing housing densities, promoting pedestrianisation and public transit, and integrating local commercial and residential activity.  Some were potentially exemplars of the sustainability principlesbehind the Regional Policy Statement.  Unfortunately, these principles were buried by the practice of defending the Metropolitan Urban Limit at all costs and regardless of consequences.
So what have been the costs of these projects failing to fire?  

The financial losses associated with the failure of these projects can be far-reaching, especially as they impact on promoters, financial institutions, and investors.  More than that, they compound the nervousness of financiers for large developments.
But the impact reaches well beyond any undermining of the development sector.  The long-term cost is likely to be counted in a distorted housing market.  It may even undermine Auckland’s economic growth.
One cost has been a reduction of housing affordability.  In 2007, Motu Research demonstrated the pressure on residential land prices exerted by the Metropolitan Urban Limits.  While the study focused on an unsurprising gap between rural and urban zoned land, and perhaps the size of the differential was of some interest.  But what was most revealing about the data used was that growth in land values far outstripped growth in capital value. Inflating land costs have been a major contributor to falling affordability in Auckland.
Obviously, the inflation of land prices within the Metropolitan Urban Limits has done little for the economics of large-scale housing projects.  It adds to holding costs and by inflating prices for developed land may reduce the rate of uptake.  On this score , it is interesting that the one project cited as making progress in the Herald article, is Housing New Zealand’s Hobsonville development – a public project on publicly owned land.
The gap between the houses we need and what we are getting
Statistics New Zealand projected that between 2006 and 2011, Auckland region would grow by between 39,000 and 60,000 new households each year.  Over the four years to December 2009 there had been just 20,600 consents issued, a little over 5,000 a year.  With just 1,800 issued in the first six months of the current year, there is no sign of a recovery either.
There has been a solid decline in consents for dwellings issued in Auckland since 2004 (see figure below).  Whether this is a victory for market rationality or for our former regional planners so intent on holding the line, it has to be a defeat for new households and aspiring homeowners.  The fact that its share of national residential consents has fallen from 45% in 2002 to under 24% in 2009 suggests that whatever the reason  -- falling demand or constrained supply -- its impact is falling dkisproportionately on Auckland.
In fact, Statistics New Zealand’s medium projection would see 49,000 new households potentially entering the Auckland housing market between 2006 and 2011, and another 53,000 over the five years to 2016.  Even if this projection overestimates demand, it suggests that supply in the region is “short” by as many as 30,000 new dwellings . 
Impacts on Auckland’s growth
One response to a supply driven shortage, of course, is for households to go elsewhere.  It is instructive that Auckland’s share of new dwelling consents in New Zealand has been falling.  Other responses are deferred family formation, a growing number of multiple household dwellings, and in some instances over-crowding.  A turn down in the international migration gains that underpin Auckland’s long-term growth projections may be another result.
The reduction in activity in the new housing market has other effects, one of which is to hollow out the development, construction, and supply sector.  Trades move elsewhere, perhaps to Australia, and businesses shut down.   
While it is difficult to separate the downturn in urban development and housing and its consequences from the recession generally, the real issue is one of long-term impacts.  The city is looking at the prospect of a severe housing shortage.   Not only is land for housing likely to be a major issue for the foreseeable future, a diminished housing sector will see prices increases when -- or perhaps if -- demand picks up again.  Infill and brownfield development alone will not do it.  inevitably large scale projects within the urban fabric will compound infrastructure and congestion issues.  They cannot be cost effective, either, without a compromise to quality.
Such impacts and outcomes will be compounded if the significant urban development projects that are needed to provide the residential stock for the next ten to twenty years fail to get off the ground.  The demise of the projects cited is guaranteed to keep residential prices unduly high when there is a lift in demand, and may see the region faced with an unseemly scramble for housing, inside the Urban Limit and outside. 
Where to now?
Creating an environment in which plans support rather than stifle innovative urban investment wherever it goes will be one of the challenges that the new Auckland City needs to address now to ensure orderly long-term growth.  We need the sorts of projects which overzealous planning restrictions and difficult financial conditions have conspired to sink in the recent past if we are to have a properous and equitable future.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why aren’t we voting?

Are voters indifferent to the new Auckland?
My colleague, Richard Dunbar of Nexus Planning and Research and CityScope Consultants was asked by TVNZ News why the election for the new Auckland City Council does not appear to be attracting the voters.  Among other things he mentioned a protracted and drawn out postal voting system.  This reduces the urgency to vote and therefore its significance in the minds of voters.  Putting it off until it is just too late or seems unimportant is consistent with his experience of community surveys generally.
The voting papers were not particularly helpful, with pages of pen pictures devoted to a string of mayoral candidates, local ward and board aspirants, and district health board contenders.  (The last-mentioned attracts a large number of aspirants, many having moved on -- or having been moved on -- from council positions.  It provides for the nonsense of allowing electors to rank more than 30 candidates in a preferential voting process, something somewhat beyond the normal powers of cognition and computation!)
Richard also talked about the apparent lack of relevance of local government in people’s minds.  This isn’t helped if, as he observed, there is no apparent desire to actually share power with communities and actively involve them in decision-making. 
Nevertheless, the apparent failure so far of radical reform to engage voters surprised even the normally unflappable Richard.  The creation of a new single city has had plenty of publicity, emotions have run high, and the election itself has been well publicised.  The key mayoral candidates have had a lot of exposure.  This is important because one of the key thrusts of the reforms was to create a stronger mayoral office to ensure that Auckland gets strong and focused leadership.
Yet, on 4th October the New Zealand Herald reported that less than 25% of eligible electors had voted with just three days left for postal voting.  This compares with a reported 37% turnout across the region in the last elections (2007).
So what are the consequences?
This is not business as usual.  In terms of expectations for a Super City it’s a bit of a disaster.  The aim was to create strong leadership that would directly represent the region as a whole.  If only 35% to 40% of eligible electors vote, who might the Council be said to represent? 
And if the mayoral vote is split by a close election or simply because too many also-rans attract votes, we face the prospect of a “strong” Mayor enjoying less than 20% elector support!  How seriously will he be taken in Wellington (or anywhere else) under those circumstances?
Perhaps the reformists missed a trick by not thinking through the electoral implications of what they were doing, and what effect this might have on the integrity of representation in the new council.  It may be time to review what exactly we mean by local democracy in New Zealand, and how it might be achieved.  This is something to return to in future postings.
In the meantime, here are some more thoughts on why the turnout is looking so weak.
1.       Nothing has changed
·         Voluntary local body elections generally have a low turnout.  This is true in most countries where local government is seen to be weak relative to central government.  Compulsory voting might help, but what do the results mean if people remain disengaged?
·         In New Zealand Sir Brian Elwood, architect of the 1989 local government reforms, tackled this problem by emphasising the importance of the opportunity to vote, whether or not it is exercised.  Certainly relative to non-democracies this makes sense.  But the world has moved on since then, looking at ways of giving citizens a voice and promoting active local democracy. In the meantime, local government in New Zealand remains a bit of a yawn – or maybe a mystery -- for many people.
2.       Bigger is not necessarily better
·         A quick review of 2007 local body elections statistics confirms that larger councils tend to have lower turnouts.  For example, the Auckland figure cited by the Herald, 37% turnout, compares with a 49% average nationally in 2007.  The sense of disempowerment seems to grow as the numbers get bigger and representation (electors per councillor) reduces.
·      This is true of mayoral as well as councillor elections.  This evidence should have had the reformers looking at the options.  If a larger council is going to deliver the hoped for efficiencies, then how did they hope to marry these up with democracy, other than by fiddling with ward representation?  In fact, by creating a double structure of local boards and ward-based voting for councillors, they may have added to electoral confusion rather than compensating for the disempowerment voters experience when dealing with larger units of local government.
3.       So why aren’t we voting this time round?
·         In any case the agenda has been driven by the media to a large extent, defining broad regional issues that may not relate to individual electors' circumstances or  interests.  Through the practice of asking each candidate the same "big" questions and each, consequently, trying to cover his bases, rather than enunciating a distinctive policy platform, the result has been a focus on matters seem somewhat remote. 
·         The press (particularly the New Zealand Herald) has gone further by setting out its expectations of a single city in terms of the agenda of a range of business-oriented groups: it has effectively played the role of cheer leader.  Both these positions – lectern campaigns and media as cheer leader – diminish the potential differences and choices in the mind of the electorate.  
·         We have watched the Auckland Transition Agency implementing what seems to be a central mandate.  Whether or not the impression is fair, the main decisions appear to be made by central government.  In the public mind the key figure shaping this council is Minister of local Government, Rodney Hide.  Centralisation of power both in the structure of the new council and how it was put together quite possibly undermines voter enthusiasm.
·        Not unreasonably a lot of media attention has been on industrial issues: appointments, roles, redundancies, and so forth.  Press releases from the Auckland Transition Agency give the impression that several small bureaucracies are about to be replaced by one large one and some rather remote council controlled organisations. This is unlikely to grab the public imagination.
The single city process to date has probably reduced the sense of empowerment among the voters, the notion that "my vote will make a difference", simply offering more of what went before, writ large. 
What happens next time round?
Perhaps I should leave the last word to Richard.  He suspects that the first term will be one of turmoil.  The new council will be on a hiding to nowhere, trying to put the pieces together, to present a unified face, and fulfil expectations for civic and, particularly, economic leadership.  
He also notes that the election is just one opportunity for citizen  participation.  Perhaps if those who are elected recognise their tenuous hold on power and really do try to share the decision making with the community, there will be less chance of a major upheaval next time.  
What might be most interesting is what impact this situation will have on the next election.  Will this first term of the new council complete electors’ disillusionment or will it galvanise them into action?  And, either way, will this mean the end or the beginning of the single city? [1]

[1]               For some clues see the Canadian experience, summarised at