Well it does look increasingly as if the Government’s response to the earthquake is going to be somewhere between disaster capitalism and total shortsightedness, if they really are intent on axing the Auckland rail tunnel to pay for urban renewal in Christchurch. If so, this will replace natural disaster in Christchurch with human-made disaster in Auckland, or rather a second one following the leaky buildings crisis, itself a quake in slow motion.
The latest Wikileaks revelations on Saudi Arabia’s emptying tank only show what a bad time it is for National’s key infrastructure ministers to be championing the idea that ‘road’s the mode’. A mode that doesn’t work in Auckland anyway. Even if petrol were free, we’d still be grinding through gridlock. Any policy that seeks to increase traffic volumes in Auckland, instead of squelching them with efficient public transport, is just madness.
Yet National’s ministers just don’t get this. I don’t know whether this is for ideological reasons, or more simply because they “would have reached their ceiling of competence as Presbyterian elders in a provincial city in the 1960′s,” as one respondent puts it here. Bit of an insult to Presbyterian elders, but the point is otherwise well made.
So the 2011 election is going to be about the city, about visions not just for Christchurch but also for Auckland. And for other cities as well, including Celia Wade-Brown’s Wellington, though their problems are currently less critical (a big one in Wellington could change that, but let’s hope not.)
This is where Labour has a real chance of setting the agenda. They’ve done it before. A series of visionary regional plans probably helped Labour win the 1946 election, an election it was expected to lose.
Much of the post-War development of New Zealand followed these plans, with the notable exception of rapid rail and a CBD tunnel in Auckland, which a succession of National governments kept putting off (they’re still at it.)
In Christchurch, the plans included a ring of new housing areas on the western side of the city. The waterlogged Bexley and Aranui areas were to be left as part of a green belt dividing Brighton from the city proper. Clearly, those old-time Ministry of Works engineers must have known a thing or two.
Knowledgeable people are now talking about relocating population from the soggiest parts of the eastern suburbs to a new town at Rolleston. Rolleston, too, was a Labour idea, though a more recent one, championed by Norman Kirk in the 1970s.
In short, what I’m getting at is that Labour needs to return to its urban roots, and set a bold agenda for the New Zealand city once again.
It goes without saying that it hasn’t done this for a generation, not since Roger Douglas’s deep-pocketed mates from the class of 1987 conned Labour into abolishing the Ministry of Works and Development in 1988. And, into repealing the Town and Country Planning Act in favour of the paradise-for-lawyers RMA. Strictly speaking it was National that passed the latter in 1991, but Geoffrey Palmer drew up the bill.
It’s true that Helen Clark’s government dipped its toe into things like urban design, built the Northern Busway, and helped upgrade Auckland public transport from shocking to merely slow everywhere else. But at the risk of being ungrateful, I don’t know if anything that happened under Helen Clark and her unstable lineup of ministers—constantly reshuffled like glass in a kaleidoscope, on the Charlton Ogburn principle—could really be classed as visionary, so much as a catchup on long-deferred maintenance.
It wasn’t until its very last year that the Clark government officially accepted rail electrification, and even the idea of a common ticket on all the buses, as necessary for Auckland.
We may, nonetheless, be in a spot of luck this time. Because if we go back to the years before the annus horribilis of 1987, we find that between 1984 and 1987, Phil Goff was a Minister of Housing with a reputation for precocious energy and innovation.
In 1985 the then 32-year old Goff was honoured with an invitation to give the annual lecture of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Geographical Society, a lecture that in the past had been given by such figures as Professor Kenneth Cumberland, of Landmarks fame. The lecture was given in October, a little more than a year after the election. Its title was Housing in Metropolitan Areas.
Tacking a careful political course, Goff argued that housing was one area where a broadly state-directed system remained legitimate, regardless of liberalisation elsewhere.
Goff argued that it was a cop-out to narrowly target state housing development on the poor and leave the rest up to laissez-faire.
Against the narrow view of the state’s role, Goff argued that state should focus on the quality of all suburban environments, the provision of affordable finance, the development of large, well-planned blocks of land, and the general maintenance of a steady stream of new houses, in ways that would both lower the price of new housing in the market by increasing supply, and also help the private building trade to plan ahead and reduce its own build costs in a sustainable manner. These last points are more implicit than explicit, but nonetheless implied.
In effect, even though it was legitimate for the private sector to do most of the work, the state should be a cornerstone investor in land subdivision, and set both quantity and quality targets for a joint national housing venture between the government, private sector builders, and local government.
Goff paid particular attention to the new social and environmental rules that he had laid down for the development of one of the last of the old western Christchurch state properties, the New Zealand Housing Corporation’s 44 hectare Blair Block (now the Hyde Park area, off Withells Road):
An area of corporation owned land in Christchurch known as the Blair Block was before the election earmarked for sale as an exclusive high cost development. That subdivision has now been redesigned to incorporate a percentage of Corporation rental and lower cost homes for purchase as well as higher cost housing. Provision has also been made for pensioner housing. The Corporation rental units will be high quality, architecturally designed homes not identifiable as different from or inferior to private sector housing. Social segregation, epitomised in the development of Otara and Pakuranga, does not lead to the development of a healthy community. Although the stereotyping of the past does lead to some resistance to integration, I believe that most New Zealanders today support the development of socially balanced communities.
The Blair Block, which I have just referred to, is interesting for another reason as well. As a joint venture with the private sector, responsibility was placed on the Corporation’s staff to produce a coherent landscape design replacing piecemeal and un-coordinated development. The design has focused on a roading and greenway system aimed at emphasising the human needs of residents, rather than the demands imposed by the motor vehicle. Cul-de-sacs will be separated from the main road by paving and planting at intersections. The design caters for recreation spaces, public seating and planting designed to create a natural parkland effect. A walkway system protected by a canopy of trees and separated from the road by a strip of shrubs giving access to a central reserve area, will encourage walking and social contact. This sort of involvement by the corporation will create a new image for it in the 1980s.
Of course all that was 25 years ago or more, and Goff was replaced after the 1987 election; but I don’t think that such genuine engagement with social-democratic concepts of urban planning can be forgotten.
So a campaign that is likely to be about the city, will be fronted in Labour’s case by a leader experienced in social-democratic urban planning traditions.
As to where the money will come from for quality urban futures, that will be, as a more famous Labour politician said, “a question of priorities”.
As a question of priorities, Goff can start by signaling that Labour will ditch Joyce’s holiday highway brainwave, while proceeding to build a rail tunnel that has been on the books since 1924.
I take it as read the more onerous welfare cuts won’t be on Goff’s agenda either.
But beyond that, it’s clear that some of the money is going to have to come from the speculator and the current beneficiaries of a skewed financial system. It must come indirectly, from the profits of a renewed system of social land development and mortgage banking. And also more directly, from reinstatement of capital gains taxes and death duties. All of this is as recommended by many contributors to this website and also here.
For if in fact we do not claw back the capital gains of the baby-boomer boom, build more affordable housing and allow wages to catch up, the Malthusian, urban inequalities that have been built up over the last generation will soon transmit to the next. And then New Zealand will be ‘Two Zealands’, as I’ve seen it lately put. The New Zealand experiment will be concluded. I suspect, or rather hope, that Goff does not want that to happen.
To reiterate, this is how the 2011 election should be fought. On one side the city as a good place to live, in ways that also include reorienting investment to the actually productive sector (Labour). On the other, the city as a mine for mortgages payable to Aussie banks and a drag-strip for cars, whose owners can’t afford the petrol any more (National).
National must not be allowed to wriggle off this hook. It’s on this terrain that National is at its weakest and Labour at its strongest. Terrain on which Goff can’t help but look like George Bailey, and the NACT Hollow Men as a collective Henry F. Potter.
And such a campaign will engage the public. For the cities are now where most of us live, work and breathe. Even those who live in the country, or in small towns, probably have relatives in the city.
So many other political issues are of interest only to wonks, or else, here-today gone-tomorrow moral panics. But everyone is interested in the city. Everyone these days worries about Auckland traffic.
Everyone lives in a house. Most of us are worried about urban crime, welfare and inequality. And nobody wants too many kids to have emigrate in search of work that our cities should be providing.
In Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch the local mayors all have visionary plans for improvement and reconstruction. All Labour has to do to take Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch is to say, ‘Vote Labour if you want your mayor’s plans to succeed’.
This is a rare moment of opportunity. Sixty years ago there was a chapter on Wellington in a book called Great Cities of the World. The author of that chapter wrote that “The two outstanding problems are those of town planning and electoral apathy, and like a pair of simultaneous equations each of them may provide the solution for the other.”
National have been trying to stuff this political genie back into the bottle ever since. It’s time we stopped their little game.
It’s up to Phil Goff, and Labour, to nail down the election on those terms. Goff has the talent to do this. But I fear he may be afflicted by the original George Bailey’s diffidence. As W B Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
We all know the problem, it’s a bit like the King’s Speech. New Zealand tends to clobber anyone who’s any good, making them think twice, three times before saying anything in the end. They keep quiet, or quietly emigrate.
Goff and Labour need to find a way to throw caution to the winds, and fast.
IMAGE CREDIT: Christchurch metropolitan works [cartographic material]. [Wellington, N.Z. : Ministry of Works, 1946] From: Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand, 1946, D-3. Digital copy. Wellington, N.Z. : National Library of New Zealand,