Auckland is New Zealand is Otago

This week Auckland takes the outline of its new plan public. What’s that to Otago? Quite a lot.

Having shoved Auckland together, the government in Wellington now has to work out what to do with it. Auckland’s future is not just Auckland’s. It is New Zealand’s.

That is, Auckland’s future is Otago’s.

Since February 22 there has been a complication: the rebuild of Christchurch. Christchurch’s future is also not just Christchurch’s but New Zealand’s, though differently from the way Auckland’s future is New Zealand’s.

Drop in on the devastated centre of Christchurch.

The national opportunity is to build a world-class showpiece for 2010s-decade technology and design, rather as Napier’s centre is a world-class showpiece of art deco design which draws specialist cultural tourists from abroad in respectable numbers.

To build a Napier-like future — or, less ambitiously, just a well-proportioned modern place that complements the buildings that are usable and fixable (and probably mostly drab twentieth-century) — needs a model agreed between the central government, including Christchurch minister Gerry Brownlee, and the “community”. It then needs that model to be implemented consistently.

That requires imagination and nerve in the cabinet, in Brownlee’s “war” department and in the group of chief executives organised by Business New Zealand’s Phil O’Reilly.

Make your own estimate of how likely that is. The cabinet has yet to show imagination and nerve in other policy areas. Businesslike is its trademark. Things get done, but incrementally, not with daring. This government is sensitive, often hypersensitive, to gripes, grumps and groans (other than from unions and teachers).

Putting Auckland’s local governments together did exhibit daring, initiated by Rodney Hide who carried the cabinet. But the objective was limited: saving ratepayers money and getting a geographically unitary decision-making mechanism the cabinet could deal with.

There were some lofty phrases like “world-class, internationally competitive city” and “magnet for talent”. But ministers and much of the bureaucracy then largely left Auckland to get on with making itself as it saw fit.

Much of the Auckland Council’s effort has gone into meshing administrative and management systems so all services get delivered. To the extent that Auckland has been looking ahead, it has been in writing a “spatial plan”, since renamed the “Auckland plan” or, after the marketers got hold of it, “Auckland unleashed”. That is the basis for this week’s discussion document.

And this 30-year plan is what ministers, when they eventually decided to engage, have focused on. Some attempt has been made to get the cabinet and the council in agreement.

They are in fact said to be mostly on the same page except on transport. Transport Minister Steven Joyce rejects Len Brown’s central city underground rail loop because the cost-benefit calculations which the council says are positive on their long-range projections come out negative on Joyce’s shorter-range ones.

But is the plan transformational? Will it make Auckland a city which attracts the sort of people who generate enterprises that pay higher wages than the city now pays (and that milking cows pays)? Can it narrow the gap with Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane? Does the plan chart a path to an Auckland of the future which is, in modern economic geographers’ terminology, a “spike”?

The discussion document talks mainly of the new city being a beautiful and attractive place to invest and work, a destination for tourists and offering a high quality of life, with “environmental standards that lead the world” — and “has a strong rural character and values” (really?).

It also talks of Auckland becoming “the innovation capital of the Asia-Pacific rim”, a place with “expanding opportunities for its creative peoples and enterprises”.

It is this last point that makes Auckland’s future New Zealand’s. The point of a well-functioning, highly prosperous city is that there is a spillover to the surrounding region. Otago is part of that wider region. Dunedin is too small to be a “spike”. Most analysts would say Auckland is, too, but it is the only realistic candidate in this economy.

A problem is that for Auckland to convert itself into that Asia-Pacific innovation centre, the country will need to pump resources into Auckland University and its researchers — and that means not into others, such as Otago’s. The plan talks of Auckland being “the main campus for academic and research institutions”.

So is Auckland’s future Otago’s? Probably. But maybe at a cost.

The Otago University caveat illustrates the complication in the Auckland issue for the cabinet. A top-flight Auckland facilitated by the government would be the government acting for the whole country by acting for (and with) Auckland. But it might not look that way in the more-than-half of the country south of Hamilton — and that counts for something in elections.