Auckland: still Wellington’s bitch
Last year’s amalgamation of Auckland’s various territorial authorities and regional council into the Auckland Council was met with much fanfare: Auckland would be able to speak with one voice, sing from the same song sheet, and make its own decisions. Great rhetoric, but in practice, the buck for the big ticket projects still stops in Wellington. Why? Because New Zealand runs the most centralised system of government in the world. Ninety percent of NZ’s government expenditure occurs at central government level funded by taxation, while local government accounts for ten percent of expenditure relying mainly on rates. This means that while the Super City legislation gave Auckland Council the authority to write its own spatial plan and thus identify its own priorities, the Council still lacks the revenue sources to put these plans into action.
Other countries get around this issue by decentralising spending more to state and local government. Poor old Auckland on the other hand has to get on its hands and knees to get a buck out of central government coffers. Throughout history we’ve seen Auckland’s progress handicapped by this very issue. Take the CBD rail link for instance – first proposed in the 1920s, then again in the 1940s, the 1970s and now in the 2010s. On all four occasions, central government has refused to come to the party, and now 90 years later we’re still waiting for it. Despite all the Super City fanfare, little has changed.
I’m not the first person to notice this issue. Numerous proposals have been made to increase the Council’s revenue with an eye to delivering the big transport projects. In 2008 an Auckland regional fuel tax was proposed to help pay for Auckland’s public transport infrastructure, only to have the idea vetoed by Transport Minister Steven Joyce on equity grounds. Then last week, Auckland Mayor Len Brown proposed congestion charging, tolls, a ‘betterment levy’ on property and a new regional fuel tax to pay for the CBD rail link after central government rejected the Council’s business case for the project a couple of months ago. Steven Joyce was quick to pour cold water on these funding sources too, arguing again that it was unfair on the motorist to pay for public transport improvements. Joyce argued that other funding sources were available to the Council, such as increasing rates or selling off its assets such as the Ports of Auckland or Auckland Airport.
Joyce hasn’t just rejected government funding for the CBD rail link – he’s now dictating to the Council what funding sources it can or can’t use. And to think that the Super City was meant to give Auckland the power to make its own decisions – it’s Wellington’s bitch now more than ever. The fact that the Council has to look at these funding sources in the first place speaks volumes for Joyce’s bias towards roading projects. Under Joyce’s watch, over $15 billion has been invested in new state highways while slashing public transport infrastructure funding at a time when state highway traffic volumes are falling and public transport patronage is going through the roof. Joyce’s comeback line is that he’s investing $1.6 billion on upgrading Auckland’s rail system. What he doesn’t say is that the $1.6 billion was in fact approved back in 2006-07 under the previous Labour government.
If we are to assume that government funding for the CBD rail link is at least a few years away (if ever), then we do need to be having a long, hard look at the alternative sources proposed by Len Brown and the Auckland Council. Joyce says that congestion charges and tolls are unfair on the motorist. But are they? A New Zealand Transport Agency report from 2006 concluded that each peak time rail commute in Auckland was worth $17 to the road user in decongestion benefits. Based on this data, it’s only fair that the road user pays since they pocket a very handsome benefit as rail patronage increases and traffic volumes fall.
Of course we wouldn’t be having this debate if Steven Joyce wasn’t so intent on building bitumen monuments to himself, but Aucklanders need Len Brown to hold firm. Tolls, fuel taxes and congestion charges are never going to be popular, but if Aucklanders want a functioning transport system AND a National-led government then they’re going to have to pay for it.
Or Auckland could just secede from NZ, but that’s for another day…