Preparing Auckland's Spatial Plan
The New Zealand Herald recently profiled the man who will oversee Auckland’s spatial plan. Roger Blakeley has had an impressive career. His new job is the latest in a series of senior career shifts which equip him well to oversee preparation of a thirty year plan for the region.
However, Reporter Bernard Orsman only picked up on the last twenty years or so of Dr Blakely’s career. He omitted his presumably formative early years at the Ministry of Works and Development. It’s worth raising what the Ministry stood for then, and what it might teach us now.
New Zealand’s Legacy of Central Development Planning
The Ministry was New Zealand’s super-planning and construction arm of government. Founded as the Public Works Department in 1886, it operated as the agency of national development until dismantled by the Labour government 110 years later. During that time it conceived and developed the nation’s transport and electricity infrastructure, designed and built schools, hospitals, and other public buildings. It operated through seven large regional offices, a legacy of New Zealand’s provincial beginnings.
It was a highly centralised but effective agency, appropriate for a youthful, under-populated country with scarce human resources dispersed across a difficult physical environment. It set upon developing its emerging urban centres with their ports, airport, growing populations and industry, and opening up provinces through rail and road in a reasonably balanced manner. It build dams and power houses in remote areas and reticulated electricity throughout the land. It dominated the planning and construction of public infrastructure for most of the 20th century.
Think Big and National Development - a late experiment in central planning
Like me, Dr Blakely will probably recall that in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Ministry was the logical arm of government to provide services to the Minister of National Development and “Think Big”. This was the centrally conceived and designed programme intended to lift New Zealand out of the economic doldrums with a series of substantial capital projects to increase self-sufficiency in liquid fuels, exploit the Maui gas deposit, and lift foreign exchange earnings.
Like Auckland’s proposed spatial plan today, Think Big 20 years ago had a long-term time frame. It was a programme of what, for the time and place, were massive publicly-sponsored industrial works. They were born of a narrow and largely political consensus out of an ostensibly conservative government. This consensus was strong enough to over-ride early concerns of the Liquid Fuels Trust Board – the assembly of public and private sector experts appointed to oversee the core projects– regarding the economic efficiency of some of the projects.
Consequently, the Board developed a priority list reflecting instead “strategic” and other non-economic criteria to justify fast tracking the programme under the National Development Act.
The result was the ill-fated Motunui Synfuels plant, and a host of supplementary projects. These may have provided a Keynesian-style boost to the economy through construction impacts. Unfortunately, their economics foundered on (among other things) what proved to be a seriously flawed assumption that oil prices would continue to escalate over the coming decade.
There has been no real attempt to measure the impact of the Think Big programme, and views remain divided . Commercially the results were poor, and the impact on both the government deficit and the foreign exchange account negative. There may have been other costs, as well, through such things as inefficient use of the Maui gas resource and under-pricing of electricity generating capacity for expansion of the Bluff aluminium smelter.
So what are the lessons for a 30 Year Spatial Plan?
No doubt there are lessons from the MWD and Think Big that Dr Blakeley with his early experience in the Ministry of Works and Development can reflect on for Auckland’s planning.
For example, ill conceived plans, centralised plans, and plans prepared in haste, may be more costly than no plans at all. A decade is a very long time in forecasting project outcomes. Uncertainty is not something to be assumed away – the consequences of getting it wrong should inform every big decision. Flexibility and resilience needs to be built into projects. Fall back positions need to be left open.
Economic efficiency is over-ridden at a cost: the rationale for projects and plans that do not stack up in terms of economic benefits needs to be both transparent and robust. Plans and projects should be firmly grounded in analysis and evidence, and not simply emerge from workshops, caucusing, consensus among colleagues, and group think.
The National Infrastructure Plan and Auckland’s Spatial Plan – Think Big reborn?
The risks of getting the spatial plan wrong in Auckland are high, especially if it shapes infrastructure spending. We can ill afford over-investment or investment in the wrong projects or wrong places.
The risks are likely to be even more critical in a spatial plan in which infrastructure is seen as playing a formative role. This may well be the case. Richard Forgan, executive director of the recently formed National Infrastructure Unit, suggested at a seminar conducted by the Institute of Public Administration (IPANZ) in Auckland recently that spatial plan may be where the National Infrastructure Plan is given expression. 
Based on his diverse experience, and no doubt the experience of the team he has assembled, Dr Blakeley will recognise, though, that infrastructure exists only to serve the reasonably foreseeable needs of communities and their businesses. Infrastructure cannot be imposed from the top down but should reflect a realistic understanding of development trends, prospects, and possibilities, and their land use consequences. Poorly conceived, centralised plans can undermine society’s wealth. Perhaps that is why the Ministry of Works and Development was seen in the 1980s as past its use by date. Let’s not resurrect it in a different form in Auckland.