John Key caused outrage in 2013 when he told an Auckland audience Wellington was a “dying” city, but time is proving him right, says Peter Dunne
The decision to establish an independent review into governance issues at the Wellington City Council would have surprised few people.
Following recent fiascos over the finalisation of this year’s annual plan, increasingly fractious division between the Mayor and some councillors, accompanied by the regular spectacular bursting of water mains around the city, an intervention of this type had seemed inevitable for some time. The only question seemed to be whether the Mayor or the Council would initiate the review, whether the Government would step in and install a Crown Monitor, or, more dramatically, replace the Council with a commission.
Either way, a council that was looking increasingly dysfunctional could not be allowed to carry on the way it had been, especially with ratepayers facing the prospect of a rates increase of up to 14 percent to cover the costs of meeting the infrastructure deficit and the Council’s ongoing activities.
The Mayor’s inability to establish his leadership of the Council and promote his agenda in the face of trenchant and uncompromising criticism from a bloc of left-wing councillors many Wellingtonians will have never previously heard of was the final spur for the setting up of the independent review.
However, that cannot be allowed to become the only reason for such a review. The issues run much deeper than that.
This is not a situation like Tauranga’s, for example, where a specific falling-out between a new Mayor and some councillors rendered the city essentially ungovernable, causing the Minister of Local Government to step in and replace the Council with a Commissioner to sort things out.
Wellington City councils over the last twenty-five years or so have frequently been wracked by division bordering on dysfunction, often requiring council “retreats” or the use of external facilitators to try to bring councillors together.
In that regard, what is happening at present is no different, albeit somewhat more extreme, than what has been going during those years. It certainly did not just happen because of the last local body election result, even if some councillors are yet to get over the fact that the Mayor to whom they owed their allegiance was defeated.
It is no coincidence that while successive councils have been fighting among themselves, the city has been stagnating.
While the ravages of Covid-19 have undoubtedly had an impact on the city’s economic and business fortunes that proved the final straw for many shops in the suburbs and central city, including the flagship David Jones department store, the signs have been there for some time.
Former Prime Minister Sir John Key caused local outrage in 2013 when he told an Auckland audience Wellington was a “dying” city, but time is proving him right.
Certainly, there has been no substantial infrastructural development in Wellington in years.
The opening up of the Wellington waterfront in the 1990s and the construction of Sky Stadium later that decade were the last significant projects carried out in the city, and the current debacle over Shelly Bay and one or two other major prospective housing developments in the central city shows how difficult things have become.
Meanwhile, councils have focused on slogans like the “Coolest Little Capital in the World”, or the development of a controversial cycleway in Island Bay or changing the city’s pedestrian crossing signals to include famous local personalities. None of this Nero-type frippery has done anything to arrest the city’s long-term decline.
In the meantime, the city’s infrastructure has been crumbling. The frequent bursting of elderly waterpipes is perhaps the most dramatic and visible example, but by no means the only one. The central city is crying out for revitalisation (perhaps more pedestrian malls to reduce carbon emissions, and pressure on the roading system?), and a new sense of purpose.
As the seat of government, Wellington’s focus will always be on the business of government and presenting an image of stability and competence to go with that. Poorly performing infrastructure and a central business district that looks as though it has seen far better days do not contribute to that. Nor does a constantly bickering council.
A sad but true consequence of the stagnation and infighting has been that good people with much to potentially offer the city have become less inclined to put themselves forward for election to its offices.
This is not to denigrate all those fine councillors who have done their best over the years to advance Wellington’s interests, but, sadly, there have not been enough of them and they have been simply drowned out by the shenanigans of their battier colleagues.
The current council is but the latest iteration of that, and the prospects for the future do not look bright as a consequence. Good and capable people are just not going to put themselves forward for election in such circumstances.
To succeed, the present review needs to focus on the situation the city currently faces and the strategies necessary to turn Wellington City Council into an effective and cohesive unit, able to develop the solutions necessary to tackle the city’s ongoing problems, rather than the rabble it has become.
… the review needs to drill into these issues to ascertain what systemic reasons have contributed to the litany of dysfunction that has developed, and what more fundamental steps are required to overcome them.
In that regard, imbuing councillors with a clear sense of their duties and responsibilities – and the limits on those – will be important, as well as ensuring the respective roles of elected officials and council officers are properly understood and followed.
At the same time, the Mayor needs to be able operate effectively as the leader, without being kneecapped whenever he tries to do so. The imperatives on the Mayor and all councillors and officers to work towards a constructive solution are paramount, given the parlous state of the city at present.
But beyond the immediate task, the review also has another more difficult responsibility to discharge. The problems now paralysing the Wellington City Council have been building up over the last quarter century, clearly pre-dating the current Mayor and Council.
To be truly worthwhile, the review needs to drill into these issues to ascertain what systemic reasons have contributed to the litany of dysfunction that has developed, and what more fundamental steps are required to overcome them.
After all, successive mayors and generations of councillors and officers have come and gone in that time while the problems appear to have intensified regardless. Combative and unpleasant personalities, or people elected or, in the case of officers, promoted beyond their capability level therefore offer only a partial explanation.
Was John Key on the money when he described Wellington as a ‘dying city’? Click here to comment.
There is a deeper disruptive systemic and cultural issue at play that needs to be identified and resolved to prevent future councils becoming side-tracked the way this one and many of its recent predecessors have been.
Almost 80,000 Wellington city ratepayers who have observed, largely in silence, the decline of the last quarter century, and who now face skyrocketing rates bills to address some of the deficits that can no longer be avoided, want this issue resolved once and for all. They want a council that focuses on the things that matter to the future of the city, not gets bogged down on divisive pet projects or ideological pipe dreams that mean nothing of significance happens.
Wellington will never have the population to compete with Auckland or even Christchurch and should stop pretending it can. Rather, Wellington’s compactness means it can develop effectively as an efficient, modern working and sustainable national capital city, if only its leaders would let it do so.