A couple of months ago, I started a journey. In the beginning, there was a painting, a fresco almost. I tried to look at all the challenges Wellington was facing, half-way through the term of the city council. Taking a high-level perspective, I looked at how our elected members were helping our city to navigate these troubled waters. I will concede an inclination to look more closely to the East for all the mega-developments lining up on that side of the city.
I was quite critical of the ability of our Eastern ward Councillors and the Mayor to articulate a vision, and lay out a strategy to deliver it. For all the issues and questions our city was facing, I struggled to understand the journey we were on, and if we, the residents, had a say in it.
So I thought the best way to challenge my understanding was to ask them directly. I sat with Sarah Free, Andy Foster and Sean Rush discussing climate change, engagement, housing, transport, the city council, Shelly Bay, Mount Crawford, and the airport expansion. Despite multiple attempts, that discussion with Teri O’Neil wasn’t meant to happen and the interview didn’t take place, which I regret.
(I also interviewed Tamatha Paul, but that discussion focused on climate change for the portfolio she used to be in charge of, and the genuine passion she has for that topic. I exclude this – very interesting – conversation here as the angle wasn’t the same, which wouldn’t make it fair on Councillor Paul).
I will start by saying that I found these conversations easy going. Each elected member was approachable, available and genuinely believed they were doing the right thing for the city. Their drive is only rivalled by the number of hours they throw at the job. It’s relentless, and at times, gruesome, to the point one would wonder why anyone would sign up for this. But there they were, humans trying to do their best at their job. And rested as they were from the recess, all were keen to take a fresh start returning to their seat at the Council table.
All that said, I came out of these conversations still frustrated. The big developments in the East? A misperception: despite the infamous Shelly Bay, the equally controversial Mount Crawford and the airport expansion fantasy, all three were prompt to explain that the biggest share of the changes would be seen in the CBD and North of the city. While this might be true from a Spatial Plan perspective, their cumulative worth north of $2B is certainly not dwarfed yet by any known development. Ignoring the significance of these changes, depriving them of that vision that is so badly needed, is dangerous and foolish.
More specifically, on the airport expansion, I only found Sarah Free to be unequivocally opposed to it. Both Sean Rush and Andy Foster were keen to let the market decide whether it was a good idea or not. Never mind that this dinosaur’s fantasy would be responsible for the destruction of at least two burbs (Strathmore and Kilbirnie), and make a 2050 carbon neutral goal even more unattainable. No mention was made either of the contribution ratepayers would be asked to make to this white elephant, at a time of a very tight City Council budget, bearing already a 14% rate increase (and more to come).
On this note, and for completeness, I don’t think Teri O’Neil will hold against me to share here that she is, like Sarah Free, opposed to this airport expansion (source: all the discussions I have had with her on airport related issues. Councillor O’Neil, if you would like to comment, please reach out).
To me, this airport expansion is tied to the ability of a group of humans, here the residents of Wellington, to choose their own future. I keep coming back to the 2020 survey, captured in Te Atakura, where 92% of Wellingtonians demanded action on climate change “no matter what”: surely this should have a bearing on a project like the airport expansion? I thought that if our engagement processes were functional, it would be easy to capture our shared aspirations.
So I was keen to know if our elected members had some ideas on how to improve the consultation process, or how to restore faith in our local democracy. Sadly, nothing substantial came out of my questioning. There is so much to do in that space, it is so fundamental, yet the void for solutions is so big, the disconnect so profound that, I predict next year’s council satisfaction survey will drop even lower than the 16 per cent shown in this year’s survey.
Engagement was again a victim during the discussions on Spatial Plan, so crucial to solve our housing crisis. Granted, the consultation was wide and long, but also painful and divisive. And what’s left of it in the final Plan? Wellingtonians will decide next year if they that accept their voice, so painfully harvested during consultation, should be overridden so easily. Meanwhile, I was curious to hear if our elected members had considered swapping a 3 “B” approach (Build, Build, Build) with a 3 “R” approach (Reuse, Reduce, Recycle), freeing up private office spaces in the CBD by promoting working from home where applicable, and re-purposing them into housing. This novel idea seemed too scary or not worth trying. Vision, anyone?
Transport discussions, finally, focused on the symbolic Cobham Drive crossing. There, Andy Foster agreed consultation had been an absolute disaster, with the outcome decided before it had even started. All has been said on this. As far as I’m concerned, yet another missed opportunity by the City Council to bring everyone on a journey to a consensus, one that would address safety, climate, and the congestion plaguing our city.
Closing this journey, I ponder, one last time, if our current team of councillors has that vision, this essential element to navigate icebergs in the dark and bring us all in this journey. I don’t think I have an answer.
PS: I need to step back from this blog to attend family matters for a couple of months. Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to comment and share your thoughts on these interviews.