Friday, April 29, 2016

Changing the Game in Australia: Federal Government Looks at Local Infrastructure

Commonwealth Government looks local
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning raises some interesting possibilities, with Malcolm Turnbull indicating that the Commonwealth government is ready to deal direct on projects for urban development.  If they are economically sound it will consider assisting with favourable funding over a time period in keeping with their effective life.

The grounds for following our neighbours
New Zealand should take a lead from this on several grounds. 

(1)   Grandiose plans and projects that bear little heed to need, geography, or, in particular, to basic economic principles (don't spend more than you are going to get back by way of benefits!) continue to be promoted in both Christchurch and Auckland.  The Auckland heavy rail project is so bad that it would be a joke if it was not such an economic misfit.  The notion of throwing ratepayers’ money at a stadium locking away much of the waterfront is just as  silly.

(2)   The infrastructure spending of councils seems geared towards preserving a dated conception of the city as mono-centric. Modern cities aren’t.  They may have interesting and fun CBDs, but the bulk of life takes place outside the central city.  The suburbs are no longer undifferentiated swathes of housing, but include their own distinctive and often large centres, entertainment and recreation precincts, restaurants, and medical centres and specialists. Cities of scale have much more employment outside the city centre than inside.  Economic projects are those that fit the needs and capacity of their various communities, not some me-too dream of CBD grandeur.

(3)   Short-term funding of infrastructure through development charges is a sure way to push up costs and does not reflect the useful life of urban infrastructure.  If public monies are going into it, then that should only be on the basis of demonstrable economic benefits, not wonky, unrealistic and consequently defunct business cases.

The productivity impact
The Grattan Institute report on which the Australian Prime Minister was drawing confirms that many local and state government infrastructure projects are hopelessly uneconomic. 

Uneconomic infrastructure is a sure way to undermine national and local productivity. 

And, despite the New South Wales government's determination, there is scant evidence that amalgamation will solve the problem.  Just look at Auckland's experience.   

Beyond ageing urban form
Turnbull’s response sees grandstanding infrastructure and civic obsession with spending to preserve the CBD and sustain ageing urban form regardless of the economic consequences as contributing to the failure to achieve more sustainable urban form and the affordable housing that would follow.  

He espouses the vision of the 30-minute city –

one in which, "no matter where you live, you can easily access the places you need to visit on a daily basis". Mr Turnbull believes such cities will allow people to live further from the centre, making housing more affordable.
The plan
To help bring that about, the Prime Minister talks about commonwealth partnerships with private interests and issuing long-term, low interest government-backed bonds to fund approved projects and perhaps some form of charge on businesses that benefit.  Approved projects will be those that can demonstrate their economic worth thereby contributing to faster economic growth and a lift in tax revenue.  

Changing the game
We may or may not agree with the mechanisms proposed.  However, the Turnbull initiative confirms that central government can play a significant role in urban form and housing affordability when local government consistently gets it wrong.

That's not saying that central government consistently gets it right!  But it recognises the game changers that support decentralised urban form and the benefits that can bring. 

The Turnbull initiative may well prove a game changer in its own right.  And it highlights the question of when - or whether - central government in New Zealand will get off the sidelines and into the game.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Auckland Planning: Doing Less with More

The burgeoning bureaucracy
In 2010 the eight Auckland councils were amalgamated into one.  I’m not sure why and my early prognosis gave the experiment five years before failing.  This was based on the unwieldy nature of the proposed council – multiple layers of management were bound to complicate and slow down decision-making and further remove policy-makers from the places and people for whom they are actually making policy.

More managers also means much higher wage costs, more internal meetings, and a reduced capacity to respond on the ground to the needs and wants of different communities and places. 

Talking, talking …
It was no surprise, then, to read the report in the Herald (4 April 2016) of 37 city managers attending a workshop on updating the Auckland Plan in February.  The manager of the strategic planning process for the Council justified this by saying that “input from different experts across the organisation and workshops are used as the most efficient and effective way to ensure expertise is shared across the organisation”. 

Talk about talking to ourselves!  And what have we got to show for it?

Well, most people are beginning to understand that the approach promoted in the Auckland Plan of using less land to absorb more development is pushing up prices for housing, costs for businesses, and congestion for commuters.  And these inevitable outcomes of rationing urban land can be compounded by inadequate infrastructure provision.

It’s certainly time for the council to have a rethink.  But I’m not holding my breath.  The last time planners recognised their plan for a compact city was not working, they simply argued for more regulation (in Growing Smarter, Auckland Regional Council 2007).

Getting grounded
The deficiencies of the current planning culture go further than the impacts of land rationing on property markets.   I’ve attended several hearings reviewing the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (the PAUP, a statutory document intended to implement the aforementioned Auckland Plan).  I’ve been struck by three things. 

(1) Private costs and commitments
First, there is the amount of time spent by the very large number of professionals drawn into the process: lawyers, independent planners, and a variety of experts (including the many consultant planners and experts commissioned by the council to advise its "different planners and experts" – go figure). 

The cost of all this to the wider community must be substantial – quite apart from the Council's $70m annual planning budget ($45 for every person living in the region).

(2) Getting grounded
Second, many private citizens are putting real time and thought into making submissions to a plan that has serious implications for them and their neighbours, their livelihoods and their lifestyles.  However, at the plan hearings in different parts of the region submitters addressing local, practical matters are up against by a centralised process and a complex and coercive set of regulations built in large part on supposition.

In fact, it is the many parties with a commitment to living and working in the region that anyone charged with thinking about the future of Auckland should be listening to, rather than talking to each other.  

Unfortunately, the groupthink taking place in Auckland Council excludes divergent views and local circumstances when they cut across the beliefs that mark the current planning culture.

Institutional myopia generally is one of the reasons we end up with dubious decisions by large organisations out of touch with their public. This has already been demonstrated in the Council’s faulty assessment of housing capacity behind the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan.

Hopefully, the Plan Review Panel will counter such narrow thinking and ground the PAUP in reality rather than theory.

(3) Push back
Third, council officers and consultants seem almost inevitably to push back against any deviation from the PAUP proposed by submitters, implying that the principles they have adopted should prevail over the knowledge, aspirations, and circumstances of households, businesses, and community groups. 

Even when council officers change their position in the face of the evidence, it seems often to be to draw back from increasing flexibility or providing for wider development opportunities, even to the extent of retreating from provisions set out in the PAUP as originally notified.  

This might be acceptable or understandable if we are confident that the Council has properly identified and prioritised the issues, objectives and policies in the first place.

House of cards?
Unfortunately, we can’t be.  Drilling down into some of the material cited in the hearings and the documented rationale for various objectives and policies in the PAUP (contained in Section 32 reports) is disquieting.  There is a plethora of material, it is difficult to access, not especially conclusive, and in many cases, hard to relate to the policies it purports to support. 

A lack of clarity or critical analysis means that much of this material appears irrelevant, dated, or contradictory.  This raises the uncomfortable thought that despite its budget, the quality of expertise bought to bear on planning in Auckland does not match the challenges associated with a region of 1.5 million people (and growing), compared with preparing plans that deal more directly with the circumstances of different areas within the region. 

Consolidating planning and plans (and truncating the process) with the aim of streamlining is beginning to look like a step in the wrong direction.

Or less charitably, it may indicate that the quality of our planning is not up to the challenges of reconciling sound environmental management with the diversity and volatility of modern urban development.  This has serious implications, including that of not providing for the housing and employment needs of a population that the planners expect to continue to grow strongly for the foreseeable future.

When is more too much?
All of this led me to revisit Auckland local government employment numbers.  I haven't dug up the numbers employed directly in planning.  But the overall Auckland figures increased 8.8% over the two years to 2015 compared with just 2.2% for the rest of New Zealand.

In fact, Auckland’s local government employment jumped by over 50% from 2010 to2015!  The rest of New Zealand experienced just 5% growth.  (This included 23% growth in Canterbury, a short-term boost attributable presumably to the response to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes). So much for the greater efficiencies trumpeted for amalgamation.

Worringly, 50% growth in local government employment compares with an estimated 9% growth in population and less than 13% growth in other employment over the same period.  

In this case, more may be less
Auckland is clearly putting more resources into local government. It’s hard to see the benefits this is delivering to a city struggling still with expensive land, inadequate transport infrastructure, inappropriate land use, and an intrusive planning culture which appears to be promoting more rather than better regulation.