Auckland a world city? Try again

The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance told us last week that “for the future” it “sees Auckland as a unique world city in the Pacific and that high liveability factors will remain Auckland’s most valued assets”. Really?

Royal commissioners have the power to compel evidence and their pronouncements have majestic status. Our accident compensation scheme came from a royal commission. So the Auckland commissioners are by appointment magisterially wise.

But can Auckland be a “world city”? Should we rank it, as the commissioners wish, alongside Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane? Or alongside Adelaide?

Sydney barely, if at all, qualifies as a world city. New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong are among the benchmarks. Compare Singapore, Paris, Rome, Delhi and Mumbai with Auckland. Auckland is a world city?

Then let’s try Auckland for “liveability” and walk the streets of Otara. Count the yacht owners in Glen Innes.

But to be fair to the commissioners, they did say “for the future”. Royal commissioners are allowed, even invited, to be aspirational — Sir Owen Woodhouse was over accident compensation. So were the commissioners who gave us a target in 1972 of a social security system ensuring everyone could fully participate in society.

The commissioners underlined their report’s aspirational nature by saying that it is important that Auckland “define itself” (and that, in doing that, it do so “in relation to the rest of the world”).

“Auckland” is actually a patchwork of petty principalities. The world rugby cup final is to be played on a provincial footy ground because “Aucklanders” couldn’t agree on “world-city” stadium. If Auckland could be the aspirational place the commissioners hope for, the glum, grim waterfront could be a promenade, cultural centre and playground (as, indeed, the commissioners recommend).

It doesn’t help that central Auckland is carved off from the suburbs and secondary towns by motorways. The car has flung Auckland far out into the countryside and flung workers far from workplaces. The threads to the centre are spiders-silk slender without the web’s integrity and strength. The airport trip makes that point.

Is Auckland even New Zealand’s city? It is the biggest agglomeration of people. But most of the rest of New Zealand cracks jokes or worse about Auckland. Auckland does not lead. It is not a progenitor of, or even a channel for, the country’s aspiration. To those outside Auckland it is a ball and chain, not a liberator.

That is a bother because productivity growth — the Key government’s fixation — depends critically on innovation. Economist Richard Florida and others have shown that big cities are drivers of innovation. If Auckland can’t turn itself into a real, bigger city, the country misses out on innovation. Too many innovative New Zealanders will go and innovate in actual big cities.

How to change?

The commissioners have opted for a congressional system: a directly elected executive mayor (in the United States context, the President) who must nonetheless get policy approved by a separately elected council (read Congress in the United States context), with local councils as underdog barkers (states, sort of). Just see the trouble the popular new President Barack Obama is having getting his programme through a Congress dominated by his own party to see how well would-be supermayor John Banks will go.

The reconstituted Auckland will likely be as prone to squabble over minutiae as the region’s competing towns are now. Transcending that to the commissioners’ aspirational city would need a Roosevelt and past elections have not thrown up a superfluity of such types. In any case, the central politicians would not welcome a Roosevelt.

Why? Because very few central politicians could accommodate big local government. This is a small place and they run it.

The 2002 Local Government Act made local councils custodians of their districts’ social, environmental, cultural and economic welbeing and delegated them a “power of general competence”.

But it did not delegate the fund-raising means to do all that. Financial constraints stop councils getting uppity. National campaigned last year against rate rises. In the 2007 elections its surrogates made gains in many councils and regained control of Auckland City on that ticket.

Now note John Key’s choice for Minister of Local Government: Rodney Hide. Hide’s party, ACT, wants local government pared to its “core functions” (such as flood control and roads) and far lower rates. Hide excludes even quality drinking water.

“Core functions” do not obviously include the commissioners’ aspirational wider world-city Auckland that plans and promotes a splendid waterfront.

So what happens? The government wants a workable wider Auckland. But don’t bait your breath with hope of a “world city”. Most world-city Aucklanders are living in actual world cities — ex-Auckland, offshore. Few still at home are big enough for a big Auckland.