Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The ins and outs of spatial planning - options for Auckland

If coming up with a single spatial plan to provide harmoniously and comprehensively for regional land use and infrastructure was easy, it would have been done already.  The 1999 Auckland Regional Growth Strategy was a start.  Unfortunately it generated a lot of friction between regional and local councils as it was transformed from a “work in progress”, reflecting the uncertainty felt by its original authors (a forum of trans-Auckland councillors), into a blueprint with which to strait jacket the region and stifle local initiative.
The region’s councils had another go at cooperation after "the One Plan for Auckland" was recommended by the Metropolitan Auckland Project in 2006.  They started by agreeing on priorities and projects, this time aiming for the big plan to evolve out of manageable steps .
The Auckland Transition Agency, however, has decided that a single spatial plan, incorporating all the elements of a regional strategy and district plans, can be delivered in a single hit.  This is to be done quickly, to inform the new single city’s 2012 Long Term Council Community Plan.  However, given the widespread expectation that the single plan will produce peace, harmony, and order as Auckland moves ahead, this timetable may be just a little optimistic. 
Quite apart from the prospect that expectations for a single spatial plan may be overblown, there are some thorny issues that need addressing, if not resolving, before a credible plan can be prepared.  We raise two of them here.
(1) What will happen to the Metropolitan Urban Limits?
These have been seen as a source of salvation, containing the city and saving the countryside; or as a source of ruin, driving up land prices and driving down affordability and investment.  For better or worse, this is a tool that has a major, formative impact on Auckland's urban form.
So what do we do with the metropolitan urban limits now?  Do we expand them to reflect the expansive nature of our new city?  Or tighten them up in the iron grip of a single council, leaving the bulk of the city's new territory rural?  Or, do simply extend them here and there as demand, expediency, and circumstances dictate?  
Here’s an idea.  What if the edges of the city were actually designed by reference to the physical geography of the region, its cultures, heritage and prospects?  Or even by thinking about how to provide for what people like about living in Auckland, including easy access to countryside and coast?
Auckland is a long, narrow region.  Much of it is peninsula indented with estuaries and creeks, cut off by ranges and coastlines.  This provides constraints and opportunities.  In response to our geography, to the constrained nature of the CBD and the isthmus, and perhaps to past infrastructure failures , business and households have already decentralised to more amenable and affordable surroundings . 
Perhaps this is a clue as to how we might ensure a sustainable, resilient, and attractive city, one which appeals to residents as well as planners.  Maybe Auckland’s future lies to the north and south, rather than concertinaed in the middle. 

Let's think seriously about the alternatives.
It could, for example, be based on a string of stand-alone settlements connected to a strong arterial corridor formed by highway and railway.  Such settlements could have a definitive  rural edges if that’s what their residents want, and busy, human-scale centres.  Wellsford, Warkworth, Orewa, Dairy Flat, Riverhead, Coatesville, Helensville, and Waimauku in the north and west are all potential candidates.  So are Drury, Takanini, Tuakau, Pokeno and probably more in the south.  
Rather than stacking apartments along corridors and around centres designed for smaller numbers and a different age, we could use imaginative design to populate interconnected towns of perhaps 20,000 residents each in the hinterland, and a few more in rural villages. 
Urban villages can play a strong part, too.  They would sit within the metropolitan area, each with its own distinct centre, with local services and employment close to where people want to live, improved local walkways and public space, and efficient corridors connecting them.
Much of the framework for a polycentric future already exists in current infrastructure, commercial centres, community networks, employment, and residents' preferences.  We simply have to decide whether we want to strengthen it or submerge it. 
Strengthening would mean highlighting the separation of places so that throughout and beyond the metropolitan area we can move between character-filled and distinctive neighbourhoods which offer a high degree of local amenity and self-sufficiency for their residents.  Green spaces could become a feature of our landscape, rather than simply defaulting to urban areas in waiting and the planting of ever diminishing back yards and city parks.
Submerging would mean filling the gaps in our present pattern until we simply share one big homogeneous built-up area, knowing where we are by referring to public transport maps.
Either way, a a polycentric future has not featured among the options for Auckland's spatial planning in the past.  Whether this is better for the environment, the economy, or the community, and in what format, is yet to be tested.  But these options involve quite different ways of living and justify rigorous comparison before any one is elevated over the others.
As another alternative, we could revisit some of the ideas of an earlier generation of planners, more concerned with form than density.  They looked at the prospects for entirely new cities, one possibly to the southeast and another to the northwest. 

This may provide a real opportunity for applying ideas related to new urbanism, so much easier achieved in greenfields than through retrofitting.  Smaller cities lend themselves to greater efficiency and movement and foster local self-sufficiency.  In Auckland they could be designed with a sensitivity towards stunning local environments.  They have the capacity to create a greater sense of community than simply stacking apartments and offices around suburban and town centres across an urban canvas engineered for another era. 

Those old centres remain important, but refurbishment and redevelopment -- place making -- may best be achieved without the pressure to trample heritage by transforming them into continuous mini-metropolises.
In Sydney today yet another alternative is being floated: the possibility of encouraging future populations to move into the secondary cities, something that has already happened for a growing number of former Aucklanders heading for provincial centres. 

Sea and tree change is not simply an indulgence of the retired, it is becoming a real option across the board, with benefits to the households moving while easing the pressure – just a little so far – on the metropolitan areas they leave behind.  If we are really serious about thinking through the options, our spatial plan may have to deal the surrounding regions into play.
(2) What about the Central Business District?
What of our oldest and biggest centre, the CBD?  This is a bit of a puzzle.  The CBD has become the focus of attention, the assumed centre of the spatial plan.  It is certainly the centrepiece for visitors and business.  But is it the centre of Auckland life, or Aucklanders' lives, when the region is already decentralising?   

Take transport planning, for example.  Plans for public transport in particular continue to focus on getting people in and out of the CBD at peak work hours.  Yet how important is the CBD commercially?  It’s certainly not where most Aucklanders work, 81,200 out of a regional total of 621,000 in 2009.  This was 13.1% of the total, compared with 13.8% in 2000 (see diagram).  The equivalent figures in 2009 were 32% in Wellington and 18% in Christchurch.
Employment in the Auckland CBD, 2000-2009

In any case, the role of the CBD is changing.  It remains important in a number of key areas.  It still houses a quarter of the region’s hospitality employment and 7.5% of its retailing.  Both shares are falling, though.  Traditional strongholds such as financial and professional services have weakened.  Education has held its own thanks to a strong tertiary sector, and employment in arts and recreation has grown relative to the rest of the region.  But, clearly, the Auckland CBD is not the dominant job centre that it once was. 
And why should it be?  A strong metropolitan area needs to be built on strong communities and successful business.  In Auckland communities are diverse and dispersed, and clustered around a series of secondary centres.  It is in these urban hearths that different groups meet their day-to-day and week-to-week needs.  The CBD for them is only for occasional visits. 
Of course the CBD remains important as a visitor destination, as the symbolic centre of the region, and, in  Auckland’s case, the core of tertiary education.  A downtown port also reflects its historical legacy as an industrial centre, otherwise long gone.

But, how far should we continue to focus on an area which is potentially one of the least resilient parts of the city, with congested and aging infrastructure, and perhaps -- reclaimed from a swamp on the harbour edge -- may be most vulnerable to natural disasters? 
In thinking about a new city, the Royal Commission promoted the link between the CBD and the waterfront as a centrepiece of its ideas about Auckland's layout.  This emphasis has been carried through into the structure of the new council.  It is also where the government is playing its own hand most obviously with the new Waterfront Development Agency including central government representatives.
But, it is not where the majority of Aucklanders live, work and play.  For them, Auckland is about the surrounding suburbs, centres, and amenities.  This reality raises a whole lot more questions about Auckland's internal form than allowed under the current emphasis on the centrality of the CBD to key planning. 

It seems important that whatever urban form prevails and in whatever direction the city develops – and whatever future state is promoted in the spatial plan -- as much or more commitment is made to the secondary city centres, to suburban and town centres, to the villages and townships of metropolitan Auckland as to the CBD.

So what does this mean for a spatial plan?
In the final analysis, Auckland's future form is largely determined by what is here now.  But how we provide for the next decade or two will have a big impact on the quality of life.  And the choices and their consequences are not to be taken lightly. 

Harmony may not be achievable and conflict inevitable.  Despite this, we owe it to ourselves and future Aucklanders to make sure that all the options are given due and realistic consideration.  Past -- and current -- prejudices may not be our best guide to where we go from here.

If a single city is the answer for Auckland, what was the question?

The establishment of a single council was intended to resolve governance issues that some people believe have limited Auckland’s economic development.  This was seen as a national issue because Auckland is meant to be the region most likely to tie New Zealand into the international economy.  It was thought that better local government would promote better economic performance by integrating land use, transport, economic, community, and environmental policy and management across the region, and rationalising infrastructure spending and service delivery.
Prompted by three ad hoc government Acts along the way, the Auckland Transition Agency has worked for 18 months to develop a single coherent, focused, and effective council in place of the previous eight councils.  Given the effort and resources that have gone into the revamp it may be a bit rich at this late stage to ask whether it is all really worth it.  Perhaps only time can now tell.  But let’s consider two of the reasons advanced for the reforms anyway to see if they stack up:  
Reason 1: Auckland is the driver of the New Zealand economy, so needs a single voice
Actually, no; New Zealand’s economy remains unequivocally dependent on the primary sector.  Dairy products accounted for 21% by value of our merchandise exports in 2009, up from 15% ten years ago.  When dairying prospers, New Zealand prospers.  It goes deeper than this, though.  Collectively, the products of the land - food and fibre-based (including timber, pulp and paper, hides and skins) - still account for nearly two thirds of visible exports. 
Yet, in 2009 Auckland housed only 5% of the nation’s primary production workforce, 19% of food manufacturing, and just 15% of timber and pulp processing and the textile employees.
If anything, Auckland’s a facilitator rather than generator New Zealand’s wealth.  It provides some of the infrastructure and services which primary-based exports use.  But if Auckland doesn’t do it, someone else, somewhere else, will. 
Auckland also has some businesses that add value, but even this is tenuous.  The 21st century decline of manufacturing, for example, has been sharper here than in other parts of the country now that import substitution no longer provides the rationale for industrial investment.
Auckland’s employment growth over the past decade stood out in some activities.  The number of management consultants beavering away more than doubled between 2000 and 2009, to 20,000 or so, over half the country’s total.  Unfortunately, a sudden abundance of consultants is not evident in economic performance.  However, it may account for the 40 or so reports written over the decade dealing with what we need to do to do improve the Auckland economy! 
Auckland also accounts for 47% of New Zealand’s employees in financial service.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), their numbers have ground to a halt over the past three years.  In any case, it’s far from clear how this sector added to the region’s well-being!
In fact, it turns out that Auckland’s economy depends on consumption more than production.  While professional services (such as architecture, and engineering, and consulting) have made a big contribution to the region, and some of these earn income from overseas, education, healthcare, construction, government, hospitality, wholesaling, and retailing are the sectors that have underpinned employment growth over the last decade. 
Given that it contains New Zealand’s greatest concentration of consumers, employees, businesses, and investment, the question remains, how do we transform Auckland from a consumer to creator of wealth?  More to the point right now, is poor governance and a lack of civic leadership the answer to “the Auckland problem”?  Will rearranging the local government deckchairs, or simply tossing a few overboard, make a lot of difference?
Reason 2: Governance failures have held Auckland back
A plethora of reports on Auckland’s economy generates just six consistent themes to explain underperformance:
(1)  Too much invested in consumption-focused activity and not enough in exports.
(2)  Not enough innovation to drive productivity, create competitive advantage, and expand exports;
(3)  The need to keep costs low to attract investment and maintain competitiveness;
(4)  The need for good connectivity (transport, communications) to enable firms to work together well and to do international business effectively;
(5)  An expectation that we need to promote Auckland as a high density urban area to make productivity gain, lower costs, and lift connectivity;
(6)  A view that an attractive living environment will attract and keep the sorts of people we need to make things happen.
Without unravelling this prognosis – that can be done another time – it is hard to see how these matters will be changed simply by changing local government.  Somewhere in there, among the costs, are issues of infrastructure, red tape, and rates.  But they are hardly all-consuming.
Even if it has become something of a whipping boy there is no direct evidence that Auckland is over-burdened with local government.  The diagram below shows how many people employed in councils for every 1,000 residents.  In 2009 the national figure was 4.2 and the median across all New Zealand 4.3.  (Incidentally, there were also 7.5 central government employees for every thousand New Zealanders).  The local government figure for Auckland Region of just 3.3 is modest by comparison.

In fact, all Auckland council areas fall below the New Zealand figure.  Only Auckland City (which includes employees in the regional as well as local council) and the two rural districts (Rodney and Franklin) get anywhere the national figure.
Certainly differences in the weight of local government will be explained by differences in what councils do in different places and in how much of their services different councils contract out.  But there is no sign in these figures that Auckland is over-governed relative to the rest of New Zealand.  So suggesting that driving the ratio further down will by itself improve Auckland’s economic performance is a bit of a long shot, a triumph of hope over analysis.

Of course, being lean does not necessarily mean that a council will make better decisions anyway; bigger organisations might simply make bigger errors of resource misallocation.
Equally, there is no reason to expect that cutting back the number of employees or representatives will improve decision-making.  On the contrary, we should be worried about how a single large organisation can be as responsive in decision-making as the smaller ones it replaces, especially if the personnel and processes are little changed.
Where to Now?
In light of the evidence, it is not obvious why we are going to the pain and expense of consolidating eight into one.  Blaming local government was too simple an answer to the truly difficult question of how to keep Auckland moving ahead in an increasingly complex and crowded local setting and a volatile and competitive global environment? 
As it happens, promoting Auckland’s growth has just become a whole lot harder.  The economic events of the last three years have finally brought home that boosting consumption and its ugly bedfellow –indebtedness – is not the way forward.  The economy needs a real transformation to redirect resources into wealth creation.  Consolidating our diverse councils at this critical time may be a distraction from the urgent issues that still need to be addressed. 
The challenge for the new city council will be to ensure that the disruption that follows does not impede the real changes needed if Auckland is to participate effectively in the global economy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Creative destruction? What will reform do for local government in Auckland?

Oops, there goes the labour market
1,200 job cuts to save city $66.5m announces the Auckland Transition Agency.
Hooray!  The reforms of local government in Auckland have delivered.  Haven’t they? 
Well maybe not.  We are witnessing the destruction of the local government labour market in the region.  Labour mobility is the stuff of active, engaged organisations.  It promotes productivity.  It attracts talent, keeps people on their mettle, and enables them to find the positions that might best fulfil their potential.  It generates competition for jobs.  It avoids the institutionalisation of poor practices and keeps unions at the negotiating table.
Once a labour market loses flexibility, once positions become entrenched, organisations falter.  When seniority depends on vertical progress  and promotion and rewards reflect length of service, individual ability no longer determines who does what.  Organisational performance suffers.  When labour markets deteriorate, it is hard to attract the best people to the positions that do come up.  Second, third, or fourth best becomes the best available.
All this is particularly true where there are monopoly providers.  It has been the mark of sunset industries – their decline sometimes punctuated and accelerated by the desultory coupling of the fading dinosoars that dominate them .
So why would central government want to engineer such an outcome for local government in Auckland?  The replacement of eight councils with just one will go a long way towards destroying what was a reasonably healthy labour market.  At the heart of the reform is the carving up of middle management, accompanied by a somewhat frenetic programme of placement of the survivors accompanied by a reduction in working conditions.  What possessed the Auckland Transition Agency to take such a negative approach to the quality of local government in Auckland? 
The decimation of middle management which has been trumpeted as an achievment is particularly puzzling.  Middle management is the glue of large bureaucratic organisations.  If it had been a problem in Auckland’s governance, then the obvious response would have been to create smaller units of government, more aligned with their communities and less reliant on paper shufflers.  Instead we have one much larger one.  This one council will be responsible for the economic, environmental, and social governance of a metropolitan region of 1.4m people - and growing (for the moment).  It will also have to provide policy and oversight for a number of council owned service delivery corporations.  Experience demonstrates that, for better or worse, middle management is the glue needed to hold such a large, multi-functional organisation together.

The new council will also face a major issue of internal alignment.  It will need protocols  - meetings, communications , rules and roles to ensure that the right hand knows (and goes along with) what the left hand is doing.  From working with government and non-government organisations throughout New Zealand and Australia it is obvious to me that bigger, more diverse organisations have to commit relatively more time and resources - and managers - to these inward-looking matters. 
The adoption of a matrix structure around functional or professional specialisations on the one hand, and localities, on the other, will make even even more management demands . 

The current shakedown is another reflection of the flawed logic of the  restructuring of Auckland’s governance and of a process that has been too rushed.  It is not a reflection on the people who have lost their jobs, or those who have chosen to go elsewhere , or those who have been shuffled into a position they would rather not have for a lesser reward. 
It all looks a little pointless, too, when the loss of 1,200 local bureaucrats no more than offsets the gain of 1,200 more central government bureaucrats  in Auckland between 2006 and 2009.  Its just half the 2,400 added over the seven years to 2009.  Central government already employed 30% more people than local government in Auckland .  (These figures do not count the "doers", though, such as teachers, police, justice and hospital staff, people in arts and recreation, or in council controlled service organisations). 
If nothing else, this latest announcement confirms the push towards central government ruling the Auckland roost .  In fact, central government has just anounced its very own Auckland Policy Office (cementing in an ad hoc assemblage of mini-departments that slipped into the region several years earlier). 

Perhaps we could do away with local government altogether?   Well, no, not if we value democracy.  Local offices – and local officers – are fonts of local knowledge.  They have the networks and experience to respond to the community because they know the community. 

They can address infrastructure shortfalls or failures based on an understanding of what went before and what is expected in the future.  Councillors, and through them council managers, are immediately accountable to their communities in which they invest and operate locally.
The new Auckland council might get up to speed on the detail of local circumstance over time.  But there will be costs in doing this, costs which would be lower if it could just hang onto the knowledge and expertise of current emloyees. 
Paradoxically, cutting middle management in this instance may may reduce productivity.  Starting out with a lean management structure may simply require operational employees to participate more in internal management, reducing their capacity to get the real work done.  Getting Auckland moving under the new regime is going to be a long and potentially costly haul.  Cutting the legs out from under it is not necessarily the best way to get started. 

Not all may be lost though.  There is a burgeoning legion of consultants in Auckland.  Having doubled over the decade their numbers about to be further inflated by the newly redundant.  They will fill some gaps and help get things done – at a cost.  This will be necessary because it is unlikely that a council organisation of the scale and structure about to be unleashed on Auckland will be able to do the job without consultants, even if many  turn out to be former employees of the old regime.  But, of course, it will require an investment in middle management for the new council to manage them effectively!

Saving $65m?  Let’s wait a while, and then balance that number against the long-term costs of the reform.  If we look back in three or four years we may just see that we have scored an own goal.