Thursday, March 31, 2011

In what sense a region? Drawing a line around economic development

Unleashing the spatial plan
Auckland’s Spatial Plan is intended to help shape the city/region’s future development.  The council has just-released a Discussion Document to engage the community in its preparation. 
It’s an ambitious document that goes well beyond discussing just land use and infrastructure.  The Auckland Plan is proposed as a blueprint to transform the region into “the world’s most liveable city” and “the economic powerhouse of the nation”.
This focus raises questions of just where the city’s economic borders begin and end.  In what sense is Auckland City with its sprawling borders a discrete economic unit?
Inclusiveness – where do the neighbours fit in?
Among many other things, the discussion document acknowledges that “Auckland is also part of an emerging northern North Island urban and economic system – a cluster of cities and towns north of Taupo (Hamilton, Tauranga and Whangarei)”. 
This, it says, calls for “a strong planning and policy relationship” with adjoining regions and ”an inter-regional agreement for the upper North Island ... to cover land use, planning, infrastructure and a range of other issues”(p21) and that it is “essential to develop inter-regional transport links to support the burgeoning Northland, Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty urban and economic systems” (p48),.  It also notes Auckland’s dependence for some services and resources on the Waikato region.
But that’s about all it says about these key relationships in its 220 pages.  
At a seminar of the Institute of Public Administration this week, Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker said that this was not enough.  She pointed out the economic significance of her region, the Waikato, as the heart of New Zealand’s dominant dairy export sector for example.
Mayor Hardaker also reminded us that what happens to Auckland’s land use influences what happens in other cities in the Northern North Island. 
Hamilton, for example, has had rapid investment in light industry, warehousing, and distribution around its northern gateway over the past 10 to 15 years.  This is a cost effective location for accessing a wide market, including Auckland.  The resulting investment in Hamilton has been boosted by a shortage of reasonably priced industrial land in Auckland. 
In a similar vein, Tauranga and Whangarei both receive significant population contributions by way of migration from Auckland (as detailed in Margins Matter, p18).
Auckland as a regional centre
The notion of inter-regional integration is not new.  Auckland’s original growth was driven by the output of its resource-rich hinterland.  It also came to enjoy prosperity as an import substitution centre through much of the last century. That role has almost disappeared today. 
More recently Auckland has prospered as a centre of consumption. Nevertheless, the city continues to depend for much of its income on that hinterland, and on providing services to trade and business in the northern North Island.
Much of the value added in the processing of primary output from this “region of regions”, especially food products, happens in Auckland.  The city is also the hub of many financial, business, and technical activities that service the resource-based industries of the northern North Island. 
Even the much vaunted “marine industries” value added cluster associated with Auckland reaches deep into the neighbouring regions with their skills and marine infrastructure. 
Four into one might just go
Equally important is the cumulative economic capacity, infrastructure, and resource base of this extended region, a region which we have argued for some time may be the best level at which to plan for regional economic development in a globalising world (see, for example, our report to the Metropolitan Auckland Project in 2006). 
Taken as a whole, the northern North Island has substantial fertile grasslands, horticulture and arable land, forestry, and associated processing industries.  It has a wide range of mineral deposits.  It has good energy resources with high levels of current and potential renewable energy.  Its marine resources are extensive.  It has specialist concentrations in research, scientific expertise, and education that when considered jointly are of international substance and offer the potential to substantially lift the value of New Zealand’s exports and expertise.
The fortunes of the ports of the northern North Island -- Auckland, Tauranga, and Whangarei -- are connected by ownership links and by a degree of complementarity in their respective trades.  As internal transport costs increase and as shipping companies rationalise international movements the regions’ (and country’s) interests might be best served by more collaboration among them.
And this might be the catch cry for relationships among the councils of the region: more collaboration.  Because if we really believe the rhetoric about globalisation and world cities, New Zealand will only succeed if it digs deep into what are ultimately finite physical, human, and capital resources.  Administrative boundaries should not define or constrain the definition of a region within which we identify how public policy and investment might best support economic development. 
Decentralisation is happening
Sure, Auckland remains dominant in the area, as it is in New Zealand, and it will remain so.  It accounted for around two thirds of its jobs in 2010, and 60% of job growth over the past decade. 
However, the 6% difference between these two numbers hints at a degree of decentralisation.  This is confirmed in relative gains (or losses) in employment between 2000 and 2010. The three other regions had better growth rates than Auckland.  The best performing urban areas within the northern North Island were Tauranga, Hamilton, and the urbanised area of South Auckland (Manukau and Papakura).

All Employment
Auckland Region
   Auckland City
   Manukau City & Papakura District
   Waitakere & North Shore Cities
   Rest of Auckland
   Rest of Northland
   Rest of Waikato
Bay of Plenty
   Rest of Bay of Plenty
Northern North Island
   Northern North Island Excluding Auckland

Source: Business Statistics, Statistics New Zealand
And as manufacturing slipped into the negative under the pressure of cheap imports and then global recession, Auckland led the way down.  The figures in the table include the negative impact of the post 2007 recession: until 2007 manufacturing was growing everywhere but Auckland City, led by the Waikato with 16% growth as Auckland Region stopped growing.
Working together
If it wants to tackle economic matters, Auckland can ill-afford an inward focus.  If it wants to micro-manage land use, it may also pay to look hard at the opportunities that the wider region offers.  And if liveablity is how we define Auckland’s place in the world, it cannot afford to exclude from the portfolio the qualities of the smaller centres, their rural settings, mountains, and coastal hinterlands.

By avoiding being locked into an administrative construct with only limited relationship with what drives Auckland’s growth the Mayor can play a leadership role in economic development that can make a difference.  But it’s time to lead the city beyond “better because we are bigger” and reflect on what it really means to be connected in today’s world, starting at home. 

Dushko's banana - here is the image rferred to in the comments below:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Desperately Seeking Submissions

The clock is running
Auckland Council issued a discussion document yesterday seeking public input into the Auckland Plan.  It sets out “ideas and initial proposals” and a series of questions.  It asks for responses by the end of May.  There will also be consultation after the plan is drafted in June. 
I’m not going to say anything about the merits of the ideas in the Document – but you might care to look at the New Zealand Herald’s initial take on it here. But I do have some thoughts on the nature of engagement with the people for whom the plan is being prepared.  Seeking submissions in response to a discussion document follows a familiar but not especially encouraging path.
Getting the public to endorse our plans
Growth management strategies are intended to promote the quality of life.  They are justified on the grounds of enhancing liveablity and strengthening communities.  Such high-sounding outcomes sit among other laudable objectives: reducing vehicle emissions and fuel consumption, improving housing affordability, increasing opportunities for walking and cycling, promoting public health, improving urban efficiency, and protecting agricultural land.
It’s hard to disagree with such outcomes.  It must be comforting for the public to read that they are all there for the taking if people will embrace policies aimed at increasing urban densities.
After all, what citizens would endorse a plan that included among its outcomes higher costs for overloaded infrastructure?  Or a lower quality of life, increased congestion, and concentrated pollution?  Or reduced mobility and congestion making it harder to get to work; or urban form that increases the prevalence of heart attacks or diabetes?
In other words, the authors of discussion documents almost inevitably contain the debate and shape its outcomes with the options and questions they present.  So when the document indicates that, say, Option B – usually the compact one –will deliver the goodies, why not just tick the box and be done with it?
The Preference Paradox
But then, why don’t all those people who ticked it go and live in smaller dwellings, closer together, and walk or catch the bus to the shops, the movies, or work if that’s what Option B is all about?  Unfortunately, while the majority might say “Yes, that’s how it should be done” only a minority translate that into their personal behaviour.
Of course, that’s a bit on an over-simplification.  Whether the favoured growth management tools of the last twenty years  – which are usually about making the city more compact – can deliver on the outcomes claimed for them is a moot point, not one I am going to go into here. 
However, there is an interesting paradox at work which frustrates those planning outcomes: what people say is not necessarily reflected in what they do[1].  And as long as people resist the rules that they seemed to support in submissions, then those rules will not even be tested.
NIMBYism is the reality
So what is it that goes wrong?  Well, we shouldn’t be surprised by a tendency to behave in ways which prioritises personal or family benefits over collective community benefits.  We are also familiar with NIMBYism – resistance to change in one’s own backyard, change which we are nevertheless happy to see others wear.  Or perhaps people tick the box in expectation that the better public transport Option B promises means that with more people taking the train they will be able to drive to work quicker.
Why don’t planners take the reality of apparently contradictory behaviours into account when they write plans or draft options?  Or why not plan for real behaviour?  Or find ways to encourage the adoption of more “socially responsible” behaviour?  Pricing comes to mind as an option, along with education. 
(To be fair, planners and policy makers do promote education as one of the tools in the toolbox, but usually adopted somewhat half-heartedly and almost always after regulation).
Are planners disengaged?
The answer may be that planners are just not very good at identifying with the community.  Planning is intrinsically patronising.  As planners, we favour prescription based on principles that are no more than abstractions or feel-good statements in the minds of the people we address them to. 
Engaging with the public in planning is frequently too structured and calculated to offer true insight into how communities work, their spontaneity, emotionalism, irrationality, inconsistency, diversity.  This shows in discussion documents which encapsulate and simplify planners’ views of how the world should work.  That’s not surprising; by definition planners premeditate, calculate, extrapolate, and prescribe.  We seek generalisations to make sense of disorder.  We dismiss the outliers and focus on the averages.  We try to reduce the chaos and dismiss the exceptions. 
That’s not to knock what planners try to do.  It is important to see and respond to patterns, distill movements , and paint the big picture.  But let’s not be surprised when the formulaic plans, the orderly maps, and the rational rules that we impose on our disorderly society don’t produce the results we hoped for.  When we get down to implementing our plans, we better have listened very carefully to what people are saying and not just to how they react to what we say.
Just occasionally we may have to think like the communities we work for; decide when to accept apparent disorder and when some bottom lines are needed; when can we allow for individualism and diversity and when collective needs (including environmental needs) should prevail.
Seeking submissions: the end point of engaging the community
This is all a long-winded way of saying that seeking submissions on options is a highly constrained if not distorted way of engaging with the community on development matters.  It will not reveal people’s preferences.  It is no basis for understanding behaviour.  And it will not tell us how people, households, and businesses will respond to our plans.
Submission-based engagement constrains dialogue, limits public input, and stifles creativity.  It plays to the articulate, active, and informed.  Responses are self-selecting, often self-serving, and unrepresentative. 
At the very best, submissions can be used to check that our draft plans reflect what the community has already said it wants or could live with.  But first those questions have to be asked.  People need to be listened to before they are quizzed.  And seeking open-ended information from communities requires entirely different methods of engagement from submission-seeking if planners (and the politicians who employ them) are going to win the trust and occasionally the compliance of the communities they serve.  

[1]               Of course, that goes for the planners and policy-makers, too, many of whom live on or beyond the city edge (or enjoy coastal second homes) while prescribing intensification for the average citizen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Here we go again ...

Too many committees?
Former Auckland City Councillor Aaron Bhatnagar complained in the New Zealand Herald today (23 March 2011) about the proliferation of committees in the new Auckland Council.  He said that this was slowing down decision-making.  This is quite the opposite of what was meant to happen when our eight councils were rolled into one super city.  And none of it is necessarily empowering local communities.
Sure, Mr Bhatnagar had a political point to make, blaming the Mayor and his use of the newly boosted mayoral executive powers for the proliferation of committees.  But it may just be that a city this large, with many issues and diverse communities, cannot easily carve its way through a morass of complicated decisions that impact differently on different communities and interests. Large cities elsewhere usually have state jurisdictions to share some of the responsibilities, or else very large, semi-autonomous departments (and that creates its own set of problems, which we might address another time).
Auckland did have a way of working before which, apart from disagreement between regional and local politicians about how different areas might develop and some natural rivalry among areas, worked pretty well.  After all, the city was seen by the Mercer survey as one of the most liveable in the world and, despite a lagging economy it remains the first port of call for a burgeoning New Zealand migrant community.
But this proliferation of committees is just what I expected from a misdirected view that bigger is better in local governance.  What Mr Bhatnagar didn’t mention is the load that committees place on managers and staff in a bureaucracy.  So much for carving out middle management.  The logic of bureaucracy is that equity and even handedness demand internal checks and balances.  Communications among the parts is critical to consistency.  Unfortunately, and inevitably, the bigger the bureaucracy, the more internal arrangements come to dominate its behaviour and the less resources it can devote to working with external constituents. 
And when complexity means councils cannot make the hard decisions, or simply makes silly ones, then government takes over by default.  (Of course, there is no guarantee that will lead to better decisions - the remoteness from communities of centralised bureaucracies might have just the opposite effect). 
That’s why the Auckland council had better take seriously the government’s latest foray into its patch by way of its expectations for Auckland’s spatial plan and look carefully at the quality of its own decisions

Another day, another road show
But there’s more.  When councils cannot see the wood for the trees, what better to do than ask the Foreign Expert for the solution or run another summit?  Or both.  So today we have another talk summit aimed at boosting the Auckland economy by kick-starting the Auckland Plan.  It is to be addressed by the Prime Minister as well as the Mayor, just in case Aucklanders forget that the city’s ultimate design rests with central government. Its also got the usual smattering of international experts, including Mr Greg “One Plan” Clark from London.  
Less Talk, More Action?
Elsewhere in today’s Herald columnist Fran O’Sullivan calls for a stop to the talking up and instead to get down to the economic fundamentals.  She asks how we might attract offshore investors, how we can make more out of our visitors (especially for the Rugby World Cup – another silver bullet?), and how we will fund and deliver our infrastructure (and by implication, reduce our dependence on central government).  She raises a string of the other well-aired challenges - clusters, creative industries, centres of excellence, the regulatory and entrepreneurial environment. 
Perhaps the summit will deliver on all this stuff or, as she suggests, at least “pull the major stakeholders together ... another step forward in Auckland’s success”, but having seen a few too many summits in the past, I doubt it.
Making sound decisions
I think the time is over for talking up or talking down.  What Auckland needs is a few firmly founded decisions on what we need and can afford by way of infrastructure, how it might be funded and delivered, what plans and policies we really need in today’s over-regulated environment; in short, how we might just get back to the basics of an affordable, well-connected, and progressive city, one that that is easy to live in and easy to invest in. 
If decisions are well-founded – and that means being economically justified, realistically priced, and acceptable to the wider community  – it should not take round after round of committee meetings and summits to progress them. 
Keep it Fuzzy
If Auckland wants to take control of its own destiny, it should not waste too much time on the detail of the spatial plan.  Sure, sketch a possible map of the future but keep the boundaries fuzzy because we really don’t know what the future will bring.  Sure, decide on what the environmental and social bottom lines are – what we definitely don’t want by way of development, and where – and set a few standards to protect and promote our physical and social environments.  (After all, that’s what the Resource Management Act promotes).  These things should help our decision-making, and where decisions are strongly contested or not definitive, well, we have processes for working those things through, too.  Better to do so than ignore real conflict, or confusion of means and ends, or accept ambiguous (or unexpected) outcomes just to be seeing as doing Something Big.
But no straitjackets, please.  Just a series of well informed, decisions in which the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.  Where we don’t know, maybe its best not to take a decision at all until we do.  Let’s rely less on rhetoric and catchphrases (and imitating overseas precedents) to deal with complexity, and concentrate on the realities of the here and now, on what we can realistically achieve.