A push to turn more of Auckland’s road space over to public transport has led to a standoff between the Auckland Council and its giant subsidiary company Auckland Transport.

The transport organisation resisted a council request under its three-year Statement of Intent process to commit to “reallocate road space to more efficient modes of transport” – instead agreeing only that it would “review the financial implications” of that policy.

It also failed to make changes to a number of its intended policies and initiatives that were sought by councillors. At the heart of the dispute is a power play over how much of Auckland Transport’s funding and efforts should be redirected to uses identified by the politicians in their big-picture and longer term plans for the city.

The standoff prompted criticism of Auckland Transport’s approach at the council’s Finance and Perfomance Committee and a pointed public statement by the committee chair, Desley Simpson, that “the committee was keen to provide Auckland Transport with further direction”.

The council owns Auckland Transport and appoints directors. However while a big user of rates revenue, Auckland Transport has at times acted as if it has autonomy within the council ‘super city’ system. 

Auckland Transport is chaired by Dr Lester Levy and includes government appointee Sir Michael Cullen. It is responsible for everything from local roads and footpaths to bus and train services, and road safety in the city. It oversees $19.1 billion in publicly held assets.

The council push-back over the deficient Statement of Intent would begin with “a letter outlining specific issues that have come to light post the adoption of the Regional Land Transport Plan, Auckland Plan and 10-year Budget”.

A council official also advised councillors to take concerns up directly with Auckland Transport’s board members at quarterly meetings, rather than relying on official communications.There were timing issues and delays caused by both sides needing to take things to their “governors” at scheduled meetings and one solution might be to delegate powers to smaller groups of councillors or officials.

This year’s Auckland Transport Statement of Intent was produced after major policies were declared in the Regional Land Transport Plan and the two other major planning and budget documents but did not fully align with them. 

Councillor Chris Darby expressed “significant concerns about the AT Statement of Intent” which were supposed to outline objectives and intentions for the next three years. “AT is about one year and even on that front it does not reflect the higher ranking documents.”

He listed numerous failures by Auckland Transport to adopt the council’s wishes, saying its statement did not reflect the Auckland Plan 2050, the regional land transport plan, approach to climate change, policy on disposal of assets via another council organisation, Panuku Auckland, road safety or other council requests.

Councillor Richard Hills said Auckland Transport’s document was not in the “transformational place where everything else has been” and declared himself “a little bit ‘whelmed by some of the details in here”.

The request to reallocate space on road space ought to be implemented.

The deputy mayor Bill Cashmore joined in, saying transport was a large part of the council budget and work. “We’ve replaced virtually half the board. It is a new chief executive and executive. It is time to assert our wishes on to that board in a way that is agreeable.”

Councillor Christine Fletcher also noted Auckland Transport “has had a few little glitches along the way, and I want to know at what point, if we are about to appoint a new director, will all this work come together?”

The committee approved the Auckland Transport Statement of Intent with others for Watercare, Ateed, Regional Facilities Auckland and Panuku, with the extra letter headed for Auckland Transport requesting the council be directly involved in its intended review of the financial implications of the road space review.

The frustrations over the Statement of Intent have also prompted the council to review the entire process by which its Council Controlled Organisations set out their plans.

Simpson said after the meeting: “We are signalling our intent to be more robust around our quarterly reporting process. This will complement the SOI process…. and allow us to hold each CCO to an even higher level of scrutiny as would be expected by our ratepayers.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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