Council is once again under siege by an army of naysayers, whingers, delayers and prevaricators, writes Hayden Donnell.
It was around six hours into the meeting of the council’s Environment and Community Committee when councillor Cathy Casey started to crack. “All the issues that have been raised will be ironed out at the next phase,” she said, her voice rising into a high-pitched whine. “Which is to actually do something.”
The day had been a parade of naysayers, whingers, delayers and prevaricators. There were two contentious issues on the agenda - decisions on whether to build a new town centre in Takapuna, and whether to divide Chamberlain Park golf course to allow room for new sports fields and park land - and each came with a cabal of complainers. They were there to tell councillors why things couldn’t be done, shouldn’t be done, or should be done differently.
It started with Takapuna. Council’s development arm Panuku had arrived at a development plan for a large central area of the beachside suburb currently occupied by a car park, and wanted permission to carry out an advanced business case for the design. Most members of the local board, and some residents, had other ideas. They hated Panuku’s plan, with its elongated laneways connecting Potters Park, Hurstmere Rd and Anzac St, and wanted council to consider another one that they’d commissioned themselves. Their alternate design, by Richard Reid & Associates, would replace the laneways with a large town square that’s more literally square.
Local residents Jeff Stack and Olivia Maidment were the first to speak in favour of the new plan. Then Ian Rea, Ruth Jackson, and Trish Deans of Heart of Takapuna. Devonport-Takapuna local board deputy chair Grant Gillon and board member Jan O’Connor supported the design their board had commissioned from Reid without a tender process, at a cost of more than $10,000.
Their protests would’ve been more convincing if this collective hadn’t spent the last few years undermining any progress on the development. In 2017, O’Connor organised an 8,500 signature petition to save the car park. When that failed, these protestors switched to calls for more democracy. There was a fiery public meeting where Jackson advanced the option of doing nothing. Multiple rounds of extra consultation. After all that, the results came in with between 55 and 69% of people favouring a design similar to the one proposed by Panuku. Now, nine years after the project was first proposed, these protestors were switching tack once more, this time asking council to consider a new town centre design most similar in augmentation to one favoured by 8% of people in consultation
Opponents of the golf course division at Chamberlain Park had undergone a similar sort of conversion. Save Chamberlain Park, headed by Geoff Senescall, started out as a movement to preserve the area as an 18-hole course. Their judicial review appeal over the Albert-Eden local board’s plans to downsize the course to nine holes was rejected by High Court judge Simon Moore in June. Now the group was back before council, this time as budding environmentalists.
Turning half of Chamberlain Park into sports fields and public space would compromise a pristine environment, Senescall said. “It’s a unique inner-city landform that has escaped development until now and provides an exquisite insight into how things looked well before humans ever set foot in this land." It seemed unlikely that pre-settlement New Zealand had included fairways and greens, but Senescall insisted he was talking about the lava formations under the golf course. He was backed by environmental campaigner Wendy Gray, last seen trying to save a collection of dying and dangerous trees in Western Springs. “The business case ignores the cost to Auckland of the loss of up to 1000 mature trees,” she said.
Albert-Eden board chairman Peter Haynes took the podium looking confused. He pointed out that the board’s proposal would include wide-scale ecological restoration. “Our proposal is the ecological solution," he said. "We're restoring the wetlands. I don't know where the idea came from that we're going to cut down 1000 trees. We're going to plant thousands of natives."
Haynes should have known it was impossible to argue. He was up against Boomer progressives and NIMBYs; the single-most impossible-to-please collective that local government has to deal with, and the one at the root of most of the council's most egregious time-wasting.
These groups always start by saying no. If that doesn’t work, they complain there wasn’t enough consultation. When more consultation is done, they claim it was unfair, inadequate, or illegal. When the courts back council’s processes, they come up their alternate designs and demand council adopts them. If council even considers those designs, it’s forced to go back to the drawing board with more consultation and feasibility studies to prove they’re actually worthwhile.
Their arguments are shifting sand. The function isn’t often to improve a project - it’s usually to scupper it; to create paralysis and inaction. And the cost of that inaction is going up every day, as Auckland’s growth strangles the city. There aren’t enough parks, sports fields, or houses already, and as council fights these pitched battles, the pressure on infrastructure only grows. Young people and poor people struggle to get homes, and to find adequate public facilities.
That wouldn’t be so worrying if these groups didn’t have so much traction with many of Auckland’s councillors. Supposedly left-wing representatives like Wayne Walker, John Watson and Mike Lee were their most steadfast allies throughout the day. Walker was especially vehement, arguing at one point for Chamberlain Park to be turned into a wildlife sanctuary, citing a recent visit to Zeelandia. “If ever there was a place where you could also have a wildlife sanctuary, because golf courses essentially are fenced in part, then this is it,” he said.
Lee objected in part to the lack of a driving range on the new nine-hole course, apparently having failed to look at the actual plans. Councillor Ross Clow quickly pointed out his error. “Maybe you didn’t read the fine print, but there’s going to be a driving range there,” he said. Lee went on to explain his rejection of the democratic consultation on Takapuna’s town centre with a reference to Donald Trump’s election. “Would you agree that if public opinion polls were a scientific measure of democracy, Donald Trump would not be president, Brexit would not have happened, and Scott Morrison would not be the prime minister of Australia?” he said.
Deputy mayoral candidate Christine Fletcher was perhaps most bombastic, claiming dividing a golf course to create more public space and sports fields was sinful. “At another and a greater level if you like, this is morally wrong to even consider this,” she said, her voice rising with emotion. “It’s morally wrong to even think of throwing more officer money, more consultants, more reports and everything else, when we know that it has a very high level of failure likely.”
In the end, both measures passed - Chamberlain Park by a margin of 13-7 and Takapuna 11-7. But the local government election is coming up soon, and there’s every chance more delayers could gain ascendence. Lee is somehow standing again in Waitematā. Other opposing voters like Rodney’s Greg Sayers, Manurewa-Papakura’s Daniel Newman and Howick’s Paul Young are likely to be elected again. Heart of Takapuna have formed their own ticket for the local board. Even the slow progress of the last six years could grind to a halt. There’s more votes in saying no to things in local government than saying yes, and there’s always people vying for those ballots.
For now though, a few projects look like they might be going ahead. Council for once has decided it has listened enough, consulted enough, and delayed enough. North Shore councillor Richard Hills summed it up near the end of the meeting, in reference to near decade-long battle for a town centre in Takapuna. "There's a point where you have to say: this can't be endless,” he said. “We need to decide and move on."
Correction: A previous version of this story included an image incorrectly labelled as the Reid Plan in a side by side comparison. Metro regrets the error.