Council changes are coming, but just how to fix the city?

By Tim Brown

Featured in Capital #84.
Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Tim is a trustee of the Creative Capital Arts Trust which oversees Wellington’s very successful Fringe, CubaDupa, and Classical on Cuba festivals. He’s also a director of NZ Opera and was recently named 2021 Wellingtonian of the year, Business, in recognition of his roles at Wellington Airport and Infratil.

Trouble on multiple fronts and traditionally dismal election turnout: Mt Victoria’s Tim Brown mulls over solutions as we look ahead to the local body election in October.

Less than 10% of government spending in New Zealand is done by local councils; and their share of the pie is shrinking. Local voices are also being squeezed out in relation to health, polytechs, roads, and public transport, water, and sewerage, and even the rules governing the scale and location of houses.

Not surprisingly, the country-wide 42% turnout in the last local body elections was only about half of the General Election’s 82%.

The shrinking relevance of local influences and decision-makers and the resulting decline in voters’ interest results from both central government policies and local government’s ineptitude. In its 2021 Annual Report, Wellington City Council reported that its own surveys indicated that only 16% of the city’s residents were satisfied with council’s decisions and priorities.

The same report indicated that 22% of staff had been with council for less than one year, and of the nine-member leadership team none had been in their roles three years and only two had been there two years. It’s not just residents who are unhappy with council.

Will the 2022 council elections result in more of the same, or rejuvenation?

It will be more of the same if the electorate picks candidates with strong personal opinions, or political-party representatives with strong party positions – people who put their own theories or ideologies ahead of working as a team for what is best for the community.

There is a possibility that the councillors elected in October will include a majority capable of working together to reform the business of the council, make council a more fulfilling place to work, and reprioritise its goals and approach to align them better with the interests of a majority of Wellingtonians. But that would require that such people put their hands up, and that they gain the backing of the electorate.

I have a personal perspective on this as I’ve been thinking about running for council. By the time you read this I’ll have decided but, as I write this mid-June, I’m still not certain.

My interest was aroused last year as I witnessed the train-wreck of Wellington housing. Reduced availability of fit-for-purpose social housing, absurd prices for entry level homes, huge rent increases, destructive and unproductive proposals to remodel planning rules, and extremely fractious argument. One wit suggested that bombing Mt Victoria would have the double benefit of clearing land for high density housing and coincidentally removing the heritage mob who were opposed to such housing. Not all heritage supporters saw the joke.

The cost and availability of pleasant housing is crucial for the wellbeing of the city. To have some people sleeping on the streets while others contemplate the burden of taking on a million-dollar mortgage is symptomatic of a council failing its community, with huge consequences for both the affected individuals and the demography of the city.

My decision on whether I run will be based on two criteria. Can I identify a set of practical policies which would increase the supply of both social and entry-level homes? And, secondly, is it likely that the councillors elected in October will back these policies? In other words, both a plan and a team to back it.

The latter criterion is naturally problematic. It depends on the people who run and whom the electorate endorses, but it seems probable that the electorate will at least be offered people who could be team players. Whether they are elected probably depends on whether the dissatisfied 84% vote.

As for policies that could improve the availability of social and entry-level housing? Social housing would seem to be the simpler problem to define and solve, if only because council literally owns a large part of the problem as the city’s largest residential landlord. The problem is simply a material reduction in Wellington’s fit-for-purpose social accommodation (“fit for purpose” excludes the motels and apartments now being pressed into service).

Wellington has 15%, or 291, fewer Kainga Ora units than it did three years ago. Over the same period Kainga Ora added 2,401 units elsewhere in NZ. Coincidentally, Wellington City Council reduced its own stock of social apartments by about 400 units at Arlington, Rolleston, Lyall Bay, and Granville.

A solution has been waiting to happen since 2008 when Mayor Kerry Prendergast and PM Helen Clark agreed a $220 million bail-out to remedy the council’s neglect of its flats. But the deal did not future-proof the stock. Council had to either get out of the landlord role or get more income from tenants or Government to expand provision and to fund maintenance. The alternative was to condemn and close accommodation, which is what is now happening.

If Ryman can build 459 apartments in Wellington to add to its existing stock of 500 units, it has to be within the capability of council to follow suit or, if not, to transfer the accommodation to others who can. Ryman may spend more on a new apartment than council or another social provider, but I doubt it, and in any case, social accommodation has to be provided for the people who need it.

Increasing the supply of entry-level housing is more complicated. Council doesn’t own the properties, it’s a facilitator. The Productivity Commission has specified that this means ensuring buildable land is available, that consenting is efficient, and that urban travel times are kept down. The issues associated with each of these three ingredients are substantial and complex, but in simple terms it requires that any and every relevant council policy initiative asks the right questions.

To take a contentious example, transport. Quick, comfortable, convenient travel means people don’t mind living a reasonable distance from their jobs, schools, or places of play. If council transport management and spending makes travel slow, expensive, and unpleasant, expect it to push up the value of inner-city residences.

Over the past two years council has spent $232 million on transport and has shown little interest in whether it will improve how most people get from A to B. Of course, reducing emissions and accidents are objectives in their own right, and their achievement may justify slower travel times. But slower travel times and the impact on demand for inner city housing must be part of the assessment and treated as important.

Today Wellington City Council is of declining relevance. 84% of residents are dissatisfied by its decisions. 60% of the electorate didn’t vote last time. Central Government is expropriating assets and removing discretions. Half of the council staff have left since the last election. Councillors talk freely about how unpleasant their roles have become.

The problems with social and entry-level housing are illustrative of the wider malaise. Both sets of problems are well recognised, but remediation hasn’t happened. Improvement can only start at the top, and it has been impeded by a version of the Groucho Marx problem: “I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.” No one likely to be able to bring about change would want to join “the club” unless there is a high probability of “the club” changing.

Most of the feedback I’ve had from informed people about the merits of running for council has suggested that it would be a frustrating exercise: a version of “don’t join that club”. But if “the club” and thereby council can be changed, the upside is tremendous for the Coolest Little Culture Capital (with affordable housing).


Sign up to our newsletter