A discussion with Tim Brown

In October 2022, Wellingtonians will be asked to elect a new City Council and a new Mayor. In this series of discussions, I sit with candidates to understand their vision and hear how they intend to tackle Wellington’s big issues.

In this episode, I listened to Tim Brown, a candidate for Motukairangi/Eastern ward.


Benoit Pette: Kia ora. Today is the 9th of September, 2022. I am sitting with Tim Brown. Tim, you have a very impressive CV. You’ve been chair of the Trust that produces CubaDupa, chair of the Wellington Hockey and Wellington Airport. On your website, you state that the council is spending too much on nice-to-haves, instead of housing, public transport, and water. And today we’ll try to understand what you mean by nice-to-have. You are now running as a councillor in Motukairangi/Eastern General Ward. The themes today will be the city council, the elections, local democracy, climate change, some big developments, housing and transport. Maybe not in that order. Good morning, Tim. How are you?

Tim Brown: Hi. Very well, thank you.

The election

BP: Many people know you through your professional career. Do you want to tell us more about who you are as a person?

TB: Well, I’m a long-term Wellingtonian. I’ve got three children who are now young adults, two of whom live in Wellington and one in Auckland. I’ve lived in my current house for about the last 30 years. My wife is a real Eastie, so to speak. She and her sisters all went to Wellington East, so they all lived in Miramar. I’ve had a lot to do, obviously, with Miramar, because of my involvement with the airport. I’ve also helped set up the Wellington Music Center in Miramar North School. I would say I’m a very active person in terms of… I’ve had a very active business career working for Infratil, Morrison & Co. Alongside that, I’ve been involved with a large number of community and cultural activities. I’m not somebody who spends a lot of time watching TV or playing computer games. So, I’ve seen a lot of the city in a lot of different ways and that’s made me so interested in Wellington and being as good as it can possibly be and so disappointed about the fact that actually at the moment it feels like it’s failing on that criteria.

BP: So if you were trying to place yourself on the political spectrum, where would you see yourself? I mean, I know it’s not easy, necessarily, to have labels and all that. But where do you think you sit?

TB: It’s is a difficult question, which I’ve asked myself. Many people have felt that I was actually, I talked to some people and they think I’m actually quite hard left and other people think I’m quite hard right. The reason for that is that I’m a very strong believer in the state’s role, whether it’s central government, say, or local government, say, in terms of providing services and looking after people. But I believe that they should go about that efficiently. So, I’ll give you one illustration of that.

I really do believe that the Wellington City needs great libraries and great public spaces, but I don’t believe that the Wellington City Council needs to own the library. It can actually rent it out for somebody else. So while I’d like to see the service provided, I believe that there are ways where the council or the state can partner with private providers to actually make sure that the facilities are providing more efficiently.

I think a lot of what I would see is the failure of Wellington City Council in particular the last few years, whether it’s been things like the town hall project or the water project or the library or the civic chambers or the Arlington Apartments, all stuff which has kind of fallen down or is now being remediated. It’s because the council has tried to do everything itself and had done a very poor job of it. This particular issue, especially in my view, relates to housing, where the council has been involved with the profession of social housing for a long period of time. It’s done a truly unbelievably terrible job. And yet, if it had partnered with private providers, I think it could have done a much better job. So, I really believe in the provision of social services, but I don’t like the idea that the state sees itself as a model, I think, provider because I don’t think it does a very good job.

BP: All right. Okay. That’s filling me with countless ideas and things I want to talk about later down the track. But before we go there, how do we find the campaign so far, the election? Towards the election? Do you find you enjoy it?

TB: Well, it’s been… Obviously, it’s a complete novice, so I’ve got a lot of learning to the usual frustrations, getting your billboards put up and all the other bits and pieces are much more difficult than I would’ve hoped. But today, I went to the Kilbirnie and Rongotai Lyall Bay Business group meeting, and it was really incredibly disappointing because there were so few people there. So, I suspect that the worst part of the campaign is that really not very many people are interested. I think of Wellingtonians, about 20% vote. 30% of those who are eligible voters. That is just awful. It’s such a reminder of how disconnected the city council has become from the city. I think that is something which is a shock and a disappointment.

BP: Yeah. Well, that’s going to be our first theme, local democracy. Before we get into this, I want to ask you, if you were elected and you have a team of councillors and the mayor kind of aligned with you, what is your vision for Wellington in 10 years?

TB: I think the first thing that I would like any new incoming council to do, which very much relates to where I’d like the city to be in a decade, is I’d like the new council to spend whatever time is necessary working out how it revitalizes democracy because I actually believe that more than the bricks and mortar, more than housing, transport, water rates, actually getting the local democracy really functioning and people feeling as if the council is responsive to them. Having a dialogue with council is the absolute priority.

So, if there was one thing I would love to see Wellington in 10 years from now, it would be with a really very active, participatory democracy and a high level of engagement between the city council and its functions and the people of Wellington. Of course, I also want all the other great things, a safe city, and clean, and economically viable and all the other bits and pieces. But I think that that connectivity, it’s one of the things I’ve absolutely love about Wellington, perhaps more than anything else, is that when you walk down Lambton Quay, you’re constantly bumping into people you know and everybody’s down there in what was a store or wherever, having coffee with all sorts of people and you see the local MP, and it’s that sort of… But we need to take that, at the kind of personal level, and actually make it more of a kind of institutionalized arrangement.

BP: You would have an opinion, then, on the 12%. I mean, if I tell you 12%, what does it tell you? What has caused that?

TB: I think it’s been a long time in the making. I don’t think this is just this council. But it tells you that the council is not doing the right things. It’s got a very confrontational approach. It’s not consulting with people. There’s far too many people in Wellington who see the council as the problem, not the solution. So for my money, it is all about the council being seen to be not listening and not engaging with what people actually want. This new district plan is just going to be the icing of the cake in terms of the effect of that because that is really going to put Wellington back a long way, in my view.

Local democracy and consultation

BP: All right. Understood. So, there is a crisis in engagement in local democracy. Tim, how do you fix this? What would you like to see? What would be your three main actions that you’d like to see deployed to fix this crisis?

TB: Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples. With the BIDs, with the business groups that are around Wellington, I’d like to see formal engagement rules between council and the BIDs, so that, for instance, Enterprise Miramar, if it has things it wants doing, and I know they do have things they’d like council to do, then they should have to publish what they would like and they should be able to engage with the council, and the council have to formally respond on those issues.

So, one which was pointed out to me is that the stormwater pipes from North Miramar have been periodically floodings been going on for apparently something like 10 years. People should know that the council actually knows that that’s happening. It should have to say to the people, this is why we’re not doing it if we’re not going to do it. Similarly, if they are going to do something, what’s the timeline for it?

Another example is the consultation process. So, I made a submission on the cycleway that is proposed for the mountain bike track, if you like, which goes from the turbine down to the South Coast, which has been quite an interesting issue. I was very much in favour of the cycle group. I’m part of the trails trust. I read the 350 submissions that people made, and by and large, they fell into two particular groups. There were the cyclists and there was the forest and bird group. So if you like, one group was saying the priority should be to allow the cyclist to do their trails, trees, traps type model; and the forest and bird guys saying, “Let’s just do trees.”

I thought to myself, if this was a commercial arbitration or process, then the councillor would ask the two groups to get together and go, “Okay, what can we actually agree on?” Rather than the council being the pure arbitrator, try and actually get consultation where the various groups actually spend as much time as possible together coming up with what they can agree on, and then of course what they can’t agree on so that then it becomes up to the councillors to actually decide on that second group.

But they’ve actually let the proponents and opponents of various proposals actually come forward with things. Things like cycleways around Wellington are another good example, where you’ve got the Newtown Business Groups who are saying we don’t want this, and we’ve got the pro-cycle group saying we do want the other thing. Why don’t the council have a formalized arrangement to get these different groups to actually sit down and agree to what they can agree on, and then try and work out the alternative? Because the way all of these consultation processes are set up is to create as much conflict as possible because everybody develops a kind of semi… If you’re sitting there in your own little bubble, you’re always going to be adopting an extreme position. If you’re sitting across the table from somebody who you know doesn’t agree with you, but at the same time, you’ve got an incentive to agree on as much as possible, it causes a lot of getting together in the middle.

It also means that the other part of that consultation is that the council itself has to then formally respond to how people have actually submitted, because many, many, many people have told me this, and certainly, it’s been my own experience, is that you make a submission, you put a lot of time and energy into your submission, and it just vanishes into the ether. They don’t even, for instance, they don’t even send you a note afterwards saying, “Here’s the final decision or this is where we’re going.” It’s you put your submission in and unless you personally chase it up, you just don’t hear back.

BP: So how does that work in practice? Because at the moment, I think presumably the city council officers would have the best intention to gather all the submissions, make a summary, present the summary to the councillors, and then let the councillors vote, which sounds like a normal process. So what is failing in this and how do you fix this?

TB: Okay. I’ll be slightly controversial on this point. I don’t necessarily believe they have the best intention of doing what you’ve just described. I feel like … my own feeling is that the council officers are often off doing what they want to do and are kind of disregarding both what the council laws and the public actually want. So now, I might be quite wrong on that feeling, but I don’t feel that this sort of formalized consultation process and genuine engagement is actually occurring at the moment.

I’ll give you another example. Several years ago, we all got to… There was a sort of vote on Let’s Get Wellington Moving, I don’t know if you remember. Options A, B, C, D. There was massive support for, I think, option D. The kind of do everything option. So there was a very strong public engagement with that issue. It was very well promoted. There was lots of media coverage. A lot of people turned up and made their submissions or cast their vote. Totally disregarded. So, you can’t run that sort of process and then say, “Oh, well, forget it. We’re not going to listen to what you’ve got to say,” because of course everyone goes, “Well, that’s just the way you guys operate, isn’t it?”

BP: Okay. So looking at the current team of officers and how the city council is run and the buck falls with the CEO Barbara McKerrow. You are saying that somehow she needs to change the way things work to provide a better response of the officers to the elected members? That’s what I’m hearing, yes?

TB: Yeah. I think there needs to be a significant revisiting of the relationship between the elected people and the officers, and it cuts both ways. So, if you go back not very many years ago, and I sat in this conversation with Ian McKinnon, the councillors used to meet three days a week, and it was quite finite meeting times. It was sort of like, as he described it, literally a kind of 35-hour week. Now, you talk to all of the councillors in the current group and they’re saying five-day weeks, weekends as well, massively long hours, huge papers that turn up often two days before. The whole thing is in complete shambles. Again, from my experience of governance and things like Wellington Airport, you could run a really big, complicated business where you have a lot of stakeholders and a lot of interests through once, you have a meeting about every two months. But there are formalized arrangements and there are formalized delegations and reporting obligations on the part of…

So the board and the management aren’t in conflict. The board decides, sets the objectives, it agrees the strategy of the plan, and then it monitors compliance as opposed to this constantly fiddling around. I looked at the senior management team of the council in the most recent annual report. There were nine people, not one of them had been in council for three years. So obviously, it’s not just the councillors who are struggling with the way the regime is working today. The city leadership team within council, over half of the people in council today weren’t in council when this council was elected. So there’s been a 50% turnover in three years. Things like that and just because you’ve got this dysfunctionality, basically.

BP: Tim, before we started this interview, you told me that you had a really keen interest in Greek democratic development. With that in mind, what would you think about a different consultation process where the public would be invited to vote on big issues and the outcome of the direct vote from the residents on that issue would count as a vote at the council table? A mix of direct/representative democracy.

TB: I’m a 100% in favor of the Swiss model, if you like. I went to Switzerland with the New Zealand Initiative a couple of years ago and I think that model just works brilliantly. So, I’m a very big fan on critical issues or on issues which you could actually get enough people on a petition to actually put to a better sight, to all intents and purposes. I would be a very big supporter of that approach.

Transport

BP: All right. All right. In this discussion around local democracy, we talked about cycleways and we touched on cycleways. How do you feel about cycleways in general? I mean, you would know for example, that the previous LTP agreed to spend $226 million on the full network of cycleways. How do you feel about that?

TB: Look, at one level, I’m a real fan of cycleways. I feel like the current situation is the worst of all possible worlds, where you’ve got a lot of cyclists on the footpath and they’re not being properly policed. So, a lot of people who are pedestrians are feeling quite endangered by cyclists and guys on scooters. So, I just feel that whatever cycleway is developed needs to be a good cycleway and not something like what they put in front of the Newtown Hospital. It may be that actually the cycleway through Newtown, for instance, needs to be in Hanson Street rather than on the main drag.

But I would like the cycleway to be, and I’ll give you an example, a specific example. The Harbor Side cycleway, which I think is crazy the way it is now, where it sort stops simply in a bay and people cross the road and putting themselves in all sorts of risk. Then of course, the cycleway merges with the footpath in Oriental Bay, so on one of the most heavily pedestrianized pieces of footpath in Wellington, you have cyclists, many of them with electric bikes who can go 30 kilometers an hour. The current situation is just in complete shambles, in my view.

BP: Yeah. Were you talking about the design team? So, would you like to be involved in designing cycleways? Is that what you’re saying? When they come to the table?

TB: Well, I guess that I think the council laws need to set the KPIs. If we want a cycleway, which is going to link, Miramar, for argument’s sake, with the CBD, then we want to make sure that the cyclists are as separated as possible from cars and other pedestrians. Then it’s up to the officers to come back to the elected people and say, “Okay, here are the options, here are the ways we could do it. By the way, this is the cost of this stuff.”

BP: Okay. So, that’s about the quality of the cycleways. Now how do we feel about the quantity? Do we want more cycleways? Are you supportive of this significant spending that the previous or the current council is lining up for the cycleways?

TB: I can’t really say because I don’t support spending a lot of money on things like Newtown. It’s not about the money for me. It’s about actually what do you actually want, and then you can sit there and say, for argument’s sake, okay, it’s going to cost, let’s say, $30 million, which I would imagine it’s probably more, to do the cycleway linking Miramar with the CBD. Then it’s up to the council, actually, or the councillors to sit there and say, “Is that $30 billion money well spent? Is that where we actually want to allocate the resources?” But I think you’ve got to start with what you want and then assess the cost of that, and go, does the benefit and the cost actually come together, if you like?

BP: Okay. And staying on transport. The bus network, how do you feel the private-public partnership that you were talking about earlier is working for Wellington?

TB: Totally terribly. I mean, probably…

BP: So what went wrong, then?

TB: Well, first I mean to say one thing about buses. I’m a colossal fan of the buses. So, if there was one transport thing which I could deliver, it would be a significant improvement to the bus services. That’s across the board. So that is better fare structure, more bus ways, better quality buses, and better bus stops, and more frequency and sort of a review of the routing network so that actually, buses are kind of starting and finishing where people actually want them to be going to and from.

The problem, which of course we have at the Wellington City Council level, is that we don’t actually have any control. Now, what’s happened over a long period of time, really the buses have declined in terms of the quality of service and therefore their use for about the last 10 or so years, so since, effectively, the regional council became more controlling of what is going on. So the regional council has massively let down Wellington with its provision of bus public transport.

What can Wellington City Council do about it? The end game has to be that we create a Wellington transport on exactly the same lines as Auckland transport. So there is a single enterprise that is going to do the roads, all local roads, and public transport. So, that’s got to be the end game.

In the short term, I think all the city council can do is turn up to the regional council and say, “You guys have to work more with us.” As a regional council where you’re really worried about what’s going over there on the Wairarapa and Kapiti and wherever else, that’s fine, but we don’t feel like you are in any way prioritizing what the needs of Wellington … I happen to know that, well, a lot of Wellington bus services are subsidizing public transport elsewhere in the region because the core funding model with public transport is that the operating costs are covered 50/50 by fare box recovery and tax and ratepayers. So, ratepayers paid a quarter of the cost; taxpayers a quarter; people using public transport, the other half. At the eastern suburbs, the users are paying well over half. So that money is effectively being then allocated off to services, in particular the trains, where their users pay far less than half. It’s things like that.

So as I say, we can’t directly do anything because it’s the regional council’s hand. But the city council has got to stop being shy about representing Wellingtonians in terms of demanding better public transport for services from the regional council.

BP: What I’m hearing, Tim, is that you are blaming, well, blaming-ish the regional council for the poor services that we are getting in Wellington across the regional network where the regional councillors say, well, the model that has been used to allocate the contracts to NZ Bus, for example, has been a race to the bottom and therefore they can’t actually afford to pay good wages to the drivers because the contract was such that they had to bring the cost down to get the contract. You understand this logic coming from a commercial background.

TB: Yeah. But I mean, look…

BP: So what do you say to that?

TB: Well, to be honest, it’s bullshit. I mean, they could have specified in those contract terms whatever they liked, but they prioritized, far more than any other variable, any other qualitative variable, they prioritized cost minimization. New Zealand Bus, on average, used to pay $2 an hour more for the driver’s wages. So it was by far the best-paying bus covered in New Zealand. I remember when we lost the South Auckland contract. It was the very first contract that was actually led under the new public transport operating model. We lost it by, I think from memory, half a million dollars. So our bid was half a million dollars more than the winning bid.

I remember we were all kind of shell-shocked and I remember saying to management, how come? They said half a billion dollars was precisely $2 an hour per driver. So we lost it precisely on the wages. We had thought, when we’d got into those tenders, that the qualitative factors that we were able to offer were going to balance out the cost factors. The cost factor, you know, think about it: fuel, exactly the same; the bus, exactly the same; the depot is pretty much the same; drivers. None of these businesses were being inefficient. None of them had rapacious landlords or it wasn’t a very lucrative business for Infratil. Also, we are the only company that fully disclosed all of our economics and the returns we got from the bus business.

The one issue was drivers’ wages. The regional councils in both Auckland and Wellington went, “Screw the drivers,” and the consequence was a large walkout by the drivers from the workforce and all of the subsequent problems. So to say, oh, it was totally unfair of the model, is the regional council was the architect of its criteria when it selected who was going to provide the services and they went for the guys who were paying the minimum wage.

BP: Okay. That’s an interesting perspective. Thank you for that, Tim. Staying on the bus theme, you just said that you’d love to see a massive, dense bus network across town with frequent buses and all that thing, and you want to prioritize bus. But you also say that we shouldn’t encroach on road space for private cars on your website. So, how do you resolve this? Do you want to buy more land for more roads? How do we solve this?

TB: Well, I mean, in the first instance the solution has to be around curbside parking. I think that is clearly… I had this conversation with Justin Lester, when he was the mayor, and said to Justin, the council should have a long-term plan to basically get rid of as much curbside parking as it possibly can because it’s just a fundamental problem. Where we were trying to put on busways through the city, it was always the curbside parking because people just don’t want to give up that. Of course, it becomes a zero-sum game. So whether it’s the cyclist today or the bus guys, when we were involved, it was always the curbside guy who was like, “I don’t want to give up my park.” I understand that. So they needed a long-term plan to work out how they could actually effectively create alternatives for private motorists of where else to pack their cars.

I think that means things like suburban car parking where you don’t have to park the car right in front of your house. You can sort of park it in a common space, which is sort of an inevitability with electric vehicles as well because I’m not too sure if you’re aware of this, but Wellington it has the highest rate of curbside parking of any city in New Zealand. So, fewer people park their own cars on their own property anywhere in the country. I don’t know how these guys are going to charge those cars once electric becomes prevalent because we’re not really going to be walking down the street and there’s going to be like cables running across everyone’s footpath. That’s just not going to work.

So, there is another problem that’s looming for us, and I do think that small-scale suburban car parking would actually be part of that solution. I hope that things like Mevo and I hope that better public transport and all of these other things mean that there’s going to be less cars, but to the extent that there are cars and we need to get them away from the curbs, the council needs to come up with solutions.

BP: It’s all about the transition and how do we transition to this new model while considering the fact, for example, that there’s been those changes in the regional plan where any new developments don’t require car parks. So, if we don’t have car parks in new developments if we don’t have curbside car parks, then where do we put the cars. Staying on cars, so you are supporter of the Four Lanes to the Planes, which is not really a city council prerogative, is it, it’s Waka Kotahi, yes?

TB: Yeah. State highway number one. Yeah.

BP: So for me it’s trying to reconcile what I’m hearing from you around support for buses, support for cycleways, and yet no encroachment on road space and also the fact that you support this Four Lanes to the Planes. How do we do all the things at the same time?

TB: That is a good observation. I think if you actually have a great bus service, you are going to have fewer cars on the road. So, I’d just like to say that. My absolute priority… If it encroaches on vehicle moving or vehicle space, I would do it. My absolute priority is busways. So that’s number one. My preferred source of that space is curbside parking. But if that’s not practicable, then the moving vehicles have got to give up some of their space.

I think that for me, state highway number one route running across Wellington is a colossal problem for the city, and it’s because Wellington is a very north-south city. If you look at all the arterial roads, they are all north-south, and then we have this one great big massive artery running east-west, which every one of those junctions is a real problem. I always think during CubaDupa where I stand there looking at Vivian Street and all the cars were going… Like how the hell can state highway number one be running through Cuba Street? That is completely crazy, in my view.

So it’s been one of those problems that successively has just been kicked to touch. What I would like to see done is in an ideal world it would be we would expand them out Victoria and the Terrace Tunnel and we would do as much undergrounding as possible of state highway number one so that it didn’t cross Willis Street; it didn’t cross Cuba Street; it didn’t cross Taranaki Street.

I remember talking to Chris Finlayson about the Terrace Tunnel. Chris, why didn’t you add a few hundred meters? There was a great chance. He said, “Oh, look…” (I don’t think he was telling the truth. But this is what he told me.) He said, “Look, I really wanted to, but it was a done deal between Helen Clark and Chris. They agreed on it.” That’s why they didn’t have to get any resource management approval or anything because there’s actually an active parliament that enabled that to happen. So in other words, you can get rid of all the consenting stuff because they can just pass the law. I said, “Yeah, just a few hundred meters more?” And he said, “Oh, Helen wouldn’t agree to that. She only would agree to…” I don’t think Chris even asked. That would be my view. But I mean, imagine if they had passed the law and Terrace Tunnel had gone under Taranaki, even, just how much better that would’ve been.

BP: Yeah, it’s a very complicated game where you have so many partners involved, the governments, the regional and city councils …

TB: That’s why Let’s Get Wellington Moving is a complete fiasco, isn’t it? Because you’ve got four parties, and it shouldn’t be that. NZTA in particular should not be partnering up with the council as such. It’s a funding party, and what should be happening is that Wellingtonians, in the form of Greater Wellington and Wellington City Council, should be working together to come up with the plan and then presenting that to NZTA for funding and approval, not this four-party thing where every so often Michael Wood wants to sort of write a letter into it saying, “Oh, by the way, here’s the government’s priorities,” and you suddenly change direction all over again.

BP: Yeah. I guess also in the case of Let’s Get Wellington Moving, we have the business case process that is imposed by Treasury, which takes years. We talked about consultation earlier and all those cycles, and, yeah, just seeing that for example the mass transits …

TB: I know. You look at Terrace Tunnel and you think, “Helen Clark, Chris Finlayson, sit down, have a chat, have cup of tea,” next minute, there’s an act of parliament about because they all had a deadline because they had to, obviously, build it before the anniversary of the start of the First World War. Deadline. Done.

Housing

BP: Yeah. That’s it. Speaking of transition, of course, there’s a big one around housing in Wellington and preparing Wellington for the influx of new residents and the growth forecast, as well as dealing with the current housing crisis and those people who left in dark. You say that Wellington needs the equivalent of the Auckland Council Eke Panuku Development, which is a standalone enterprise charged with undertaking and shaping residential development in Wellington. How would you reconcile that theme with what you said earlier around local democracy where you want great input from residents and much greater engagement, while at the same time outsourcing if you want the housing development and planning to a separate, independent identity which has no accountability to the community?

TB: No. I don’t think having enterprises that actually are standalone does not in any way mean they’re going to be so far below the radar, no one’s going to know what’s going on. But I’ll give you a specific example. Wellington Airport, which obviously is a partnership between Infratil and the city, is extremely accountable. So, very heavily regulated, a huge amount of transparency. There’s kind of nothing the airport is doing today, or what it’s intending to do over the next 20 years, which isn’t actually public information. You could go onto their website and you could see what their 20-year plan actually looks like. So it’s all there. You look at Wellington Water? Nothing. That nothing goes back well to before the JV, which they’ve established now with Greater Wellington and Paraparaumu and whoever else. So, actually creating standalone enterprises and properly regulating them and enforcing transparency on them, actually creates real accountability.

You look at the way that the airport has operated in terms of its engagement with the community, you’d find a very high level of genuine engagement. The local resident noise interest group is always listened to. The airport, to give you a specific example, not only has it done a large number of initiatives to reduce noise impacts such as the engine testing bay, such as the rollout of home insulation too, I think it’s a few thousand homes, but it’s also bought houses which have actually been very adversely affected by noise or activities.

So when we started to actually do that project around the extension of the runway to the south, the people at Maro Point were kind of up at arms and we said, “Look, at the very least, we will buy your houses if you are sort of… This is going to take years before it happens.” Which of course is what’s transpired. “If you feel the uncertainty, and the worry is causing you grief, at the very least that you can sell your house in a way that won’t financially disadvantage you.” So I think I look at the airport as an entity that has actually been very transparent, very accountable, and very engaged with people who are affected by its activities. I compare that to other activities like water, nothing like that at all.

But coming on to your housing point. The first reason I wanted to run for council, the thing that got me over the line, was because I was seeing what was happening in the entry-level housing market, because in particular, my son and other young people I know looking to buy first-life houses and I was looking at what they were being offered by the market, and it was truly horrific. I saw people who I genuinely believe that, had they bought, and some did, that they would be financially ruined, basically, or financially in a millstone, cut up for years. And they’re sort of eight times average earnings, pretax average earnings issue that the average house price of Wellington last year was just awful for people.

Then I thought, “Okay, so what’s happening was social housing?” One of the things I find really fascinating about Wellington social housing is that nobody seems to have the faintest idea of how many tenants there are or how many units there are. There’s just so little information. I’ve had so many different figures, and I’ve tested the Wellington City Council to get the data and nothing. I’ve given the sort of vague thought figures. Kainga Ora, they now produce, which took years I know for the government to get it out of bed, but they do provide a quarterly schedule of how many houses they actually of one bedroom, two bedrooms, three bedrooms, et cetera, they provide to Wellington. So you can’t get that information from the Wellington city council at all about its social housing stock. So, social housing is a really big deal. They’ve got this $440 million line in their 10-year plan to spend, but in terms of the public awareness of where the money’s going, how many people are actually getting the benefit, is being done efficiently, no transparency at all.

BP: So, to address the housing crisis in terms of the price to pay to get on the property ladder, but also the social housing, the response from the council at this point in time has been to revisit the district plan and obviously lay out some intensification rules. So how do you feel about the district planning and what’s going on at the moment?

TB: Sorry can I just go back to the other point for a sec? What I’m advocating, when I was looking at what they’re doing in Auckland as an example, is I believe that the Wellington City Council should take all of its social housing and the land, which it could make available for social housing or housing, full stop, and put it into a joint venture with Mana Whenua, with social housing providers and with property developers. So, a group of people who would then work together to develop the existing stock and do so in a way that was provided as small as possible and cost on the city as opposed to the $440 million which they’ve budgeted, but at the same time, rely on the expertise, whether it’s in the social housing area, or for instance, the city mission type people, the Presbyterians and whoever else, Salvation Army, and that work with property developers, guys who are actually really good at developing things.

So, that’s what I would like to see done, is that the council provide its resources, provide certain objectives, enforce transparency and accountability, but leave the actual job of doing the work to people who are actually good at doing that sort of thing.

In terms of your point about the district plan, the district plan is on two specific levels an absolute disaster for Wellington. I mean, one level is obviously Wellington’s got a bit of a problem with its three waters infrastructure. The last thing Wellington wants is lots of people suddenly turning up in areas where the infrastructure is already inadequate. I know that the densification rules that whether they were looking at Mount Victoria for instance, would go to cost the city something like $150 million to accommodate three waters infrastructure. So there are areas of Wellington where you do want people to live and you actually have the infrastructure, so the arrow flat type area that’s south of the Basin Reserve area, sort of north of Johnsonville area.

If you’ve invested in the infrastructure already, you want the housing to go where the infrastructure is already. You don’t want the housing and the densification to occur in the wrong areas. Under the new district plan, of course, densification just happens Willie nilly. So it’s going to cost us, the ratepayers, a very large amount of money to accommodate that sort of disorganized growth if you like.

The other aspect of it is that obviously there’s a very significant impact on amenity value, that if somebody can build right on your boundary and go up 11 meters, that is going to really be an awful experience for a hell of a lot of people because they are going to lose their sun and their views and…

BP: So they will lose this. But the advocates for densification say, “Yeah, well the value of your property will not decrease. It will increase, in fact, because if you were reselling right next to this new development, then you’d make a good profit out of it.” So what do you say to that?

TB: Well, I don’t necessarily totally disagree with that, but of course it doesn’t imply that affordability does it. Because for instance, in the north Mount Victoria area, the land here is worth over a $100 million a hectare. So that’s the land value according to the RPs. Now, if you turn up and you buy three or four houses in the street and you demolish the houses and you build densification, those are going to be very expensive apartments.

So the reality is that this argument of, well, we’re going to get rich and, by the way, there’s going to be lots more affordable housing. Obviously, there’s a non-sequitur in that. It’s not going to happen, is it?

That’s why I would like to see the council actually participate in the development in areas where there is an opportunity for the development to occur. If there was an enterprise that was charged with developing on council land or on poorly utilized land around the city, I think that would actually be a lot better than having some developer come along, knock down a house, and build three stories.

BP: Well, listening to you, Tim, I kind of anticipate what would be your answer. But how do you feel about NPS-UD, then?

TB: I just think it’s just absolutely appalling. I think it’s also interesting, though, that both Christchurch and Auckland have vociferously pushed back on it. So, they are really putting the case. It’s been a major issue in both election campaigns in Auckland and Christchurch, that how opposed they are to the government imposing those sorts of rules on those two cities. And Wellington, absolutely nothing. And yet, Wellington, in many ways, will be even more adversely affected than elsewhere because of course when you’ve got the sort of terrain that we live in, in an ideal world, you actually build up the hills so that the guy… You don’t want the guys at Oriental Bay to build a great big huge wall of houses that then means that absolutely everybody behind has suddenly lost their sight of view. You want to make sure that you actually sculpt the constructed building so that they actually conform with the landscape.

I think it’s just terrible. I think it’s symptomatic of central government centralizing things, and I’m absolutely appalled that Nicola Willis would have supported that. For me, there’s no way I can vote for any central government politician who is supporting that sort of initiative because I feel like it’s completely disempowered local communities.

BP: Okay. Last on the housing theme, there’s this idea that’s floating around, that’s looking at leveraging what we’ve learned from COVID and working from home, where basically you kind of release the pressure on office stock in the CBD by encouraging and supporting working from home for as many people as possible for those who want, for those who don’t want, and sometimes who can’t. By repurposing big office buildings, which are staying empty at night, into new homes, solving multiple crisis at the same time: housing, transport, and also climate by not building new developments. So how do you feel about that? Do you think it’s a stupid idea, do you think it’s… Is it feasible?

TB: Well, I mean there’s been lots of repurposing of buildings over the last few years. Ian Cassel in particular has bought a lot of C-grade office space and gradually transitioned them into something else. You see it all the time around Wellington with the… What was it? The KPNG building or the Deloittes building? Where they’ve bought basically earthquake-compromised buildings that have strengthened them and repurposed them in one shape or form or another. That’s just part of inevitable evolution. Obviously, it’s way cheaper for somebody to repurpose a building than it is to actually knock it down and start again from scratch. So I don’t necessarily see the council as having a particularly active role.

Although, ironically the council does have this one aspect of, it’s the way it prices things, which is highly beneficial for the people who do buy a commercial building and repurpose it, because of course the rates are a lot less and they get EQC coverage. So, suddenly your insurance goes down as well because everyone who’s… If you’ve got one commercial building at the moment, it’s not necessarily covered by the quarter of a million dollars of EQC cover. Suddenly, if you’ve turned it into 20 apartments, every one of them has now got EQC cover. So you can see that suddenly you’ve got a lot more cover provided by EQC, so the cost of your insurance goes down. So, there are quite a few economic incentives both in terms of the commercial rate differential and in terms of EQC cover to repurpose buildings. So, I guess I think it’s happening now and it’s a good thing.

BP: Well, here’s what you said, the council doesn’t have much active role to play in this. Although, after the different lockdown, they explicitly invited as many people as possible to come back to the CBD, which was a message, a signal, an invitation. So maybe there was a different stance to take at that time if this is what they wanted to do.

TB: That’s a good point. I suppose, actually, I’m obviously a super fan of a vibrant central city. So, to the extent that… Would anybody really be going to work today because the city council said, “Please come to work, and buy you a coffee in Lambton Quay”? I doubt it. So whatever council says is going to be irrelevant, isn’t it?

Climate Change

BP: We’ve talked about transport. We’ve talked about housing and two of the crises that, or not crises, but challenges that lie ahead for Wellington and for everybody, really, whether it’s the region or the country. The third challenge that’s ahead of us is climate change. So do you agree that first of all, there is a challenge that is called climate change that’s ahead of us and this is happening now or… Yeah. How do you feel about this? What’s your perception?

TB: Look, the company I worked for, Infratil, was by far the earliest company in New Zealand to realize that climate change was the coming thing. Our investments back in the mid-90s, when we were buying hydropower stations around New Zealand, and there was a period there for instance, where the government sold a bunch of hydropower stations Matahena, Mangahao, Cobb, Coleridge. We bought every one of them, and a lot of other local power companies sold hydropower stations and we bought all of those as well. So, I’ve been very heavily committed to this particular initiative, and I’ve understood what was going to happen in this space or at least had some sort of concept of that. I’ve been involved with people who’ve kind of put their money where their mouth is, if you like, in terms of that.

So, I would say I definitely was an early adopter of understanding. I’ve very, very closely followed and very much supported James Shaw’s climate legislation and what he’s actually done and the way he’s gone about it. So, very much a strong supporter of what Shaw has been doing.

I think, though, when I read the Climate Change Commissions report, for me that was an absolutely brilliant roadmap, and I think New Zealand’s super lucky to have a guy like Rod Carr as the climate change commissioner because of what he has done in that report gives a clear, balanced approach that’s necessary, where he said climate change is this existential problem and it’s got four legs in terms of how we have to actually respond to it. So, we have to do what we have to do to reduce our emissions, and we have to meet, obviously, the non-agricultural zero by 2050. We’ve got to do that. We have to do that in a way that isn’t going to socially disadvantage people who are not able to accommodate them. If you’re well off and you can afford the electric vehicle and you can pay the carbon tax when you fly to Auckland and you don’t mind if your power bill goes up, fine. But there are a lot of people who are not in that category.

So, we’ve got to look after people as we go through the transition and we have to realize that climate change is going to have a lot of impacts in terms of our infrastructure. There are going to be real physical resilience issues, sea level rise, and storms. We’ve got to protect the physical environment that we live in and work out how we actually accommodate that in a non-destructive, non-harmful sort of way.

Finally, there are all the treaty obligations, where we have to recognize that there is a treaty consequence to this, and we can’t just turn up and say, “Okay, well, Mana Whenua, tough luck. Plant pine trees all over your properties or something.” So, I really do think that we’ve got to adopt that, have the four planks in whatever we do, whether that’s a personal level; whether you’re investing, buying shares in a company, you want to be aware; or at the Wellington City Council level.

BP: Well, that’s a very good point as I was about to ask: our businesses, central government, and communities are all asked to make an effort towards climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. I am interested to hear what you thought the local government can do to participate in that effort.

TB: Well, let’s take the resilience issue because that’s obviously the one where the council has the particular priority responsibility, because after all, as we saw a few weeks ago with the storm and the slips all over the roads, the council’s core responsibility, more than anything else, is as a provider of infrastructure, whether it’s the roads or whether it’s the pipes that go under the roads.

So, I think what the council’s got to do is that it’s got to actually have a way clearer plan as to what is this going to mean over time? The illustration is the arguments you hear a lot about Shelly Bay, where I doubt Shelly Bay is actually at significant risk if the sea does rise. But anyhow, let’s assume that it is at risk, let’s actually know what is going to be required to make sure that Shelly Bay is not going to be inundated the minute after Ian Cassel and the Mana Whenua are finished building it. So, I would like to see a much clearer plan and awareness of what the future holds for the coastal areas of Wellington. I’d like to have much greater certainty that the council is aware of, I guess, the greater volatility that we’re going to have from the climate, whether it’s the super wet winter we’ve just had, or whether it’s maybe we have a drought now for the next six months. So, are we prepared for this stuff? And I don’t really see that we are.

BP: Well, you’re talking a lot about adaptations. Maybe you’ve got some ideas around mitigation. You know that residents have kind of an emotional connection to the council and the council being the beholder of their voice and their aspirations, somehow. Of course, this connection exists also at a central level. But it was a strong sense of community that we all live through. People have got high expectations of the council. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be so shocking to see the council being a leader on mitigation as well, in terms of setting the paths and showing the example. One of the things that the council has done, for example, which was very symbolic and yet extremely useful, was declared the climate emergency back in, what, two years ago I think it was, or three years ago?

TB: Yeah. It was under Justin. Yeah.

BP: Yeah. And then followed by the Te Atakura, First to Zero, the plan. On this one, you can’t help but look at the gap between the targets that the city is setting for itself and how far the actions that Te Atakura is listing and the outcome they will produce. The target is 40% reduction of our emissions at a city level by 2030, as you probably know. And if we do the 24 actions listed in Te Atakura, we only get to 24%. We’ve got around 16 points a bit more than that. So, since our plan does not stack up, what would you do, Tim Brown, to fix this?

TB: Ah. Well, one of the things which I look at is where can you actually make a difference, obviously is the critical equation. I guess there’s a lot of focus on transport. So I would like, as I say, my absolute priority, in terms of transport, would be the improvement of the busways and whatnot. But to give you an idea of how difficult this area is, it’s only a few years ago that Fran Wilde got rid of the electric trolley buses and…

BP: 2017.

TB: Yeah. 2017, this was not on the horizon. They were perfectly happy to go, “Electric trolley buses, see you later. Rock on the diesels.” So you’ve got this kind of almost absolute U-turn in terms of attitudes and views over a very short space of time. So, I’m not surprised that people are struggling to come up with a plan. But I do feel, for instance… Just to give you an example of some initiatives I’d like to see the city council at least be thinking about, is clear things like double glazing and house, home insulation. It’s not to say that other people like ECA aren’t already doing this, but as I understand it, home heating and home cooling is big energy use. So, if you can do something to reduce energy use, that’s got to be a good idea.

I’m very interested in micro-grids and what are the problems that anybody, and Wellington is obviously hardly got any solar. Walk around. You hardly see a solar panel anywhere in town. Even brand new houses don’t bother about it, which I don’t fully understand the rationale for almost like the aversion for solar in Wellington. But I would like to see the city offer the idea of batteries that could actually then link suburbs because I think that would be a practical solution that would show that the council was actually doing something. I’d like to see them at least trial it. I know that Victoria University has done quite a lot of research on this issue and have got even a trial solar, I think, in New Zealand. Electric buses are obviously a significant part of it. So, I don’t have much more than that. So yeah. It would be home insulation, microgrids, and electric buses.

The big developments

The airport

BP: Okay. In this case, leaving climate change slowly towards the big developments: the airport. Is it a good idea to expand an airport and bring more flights to Wellington, enable more flights when we’ve got this massive challenge of climate change ahead of us, where of course transport is playing a big part in Wellington?

TB: The airport project is a good example of the issue of what’s the net effect. Let’s say Air New Zealand is upgrading, for instance, it’s a A320s at the moment to A321s. Now, this airplane carries about 50 people more than the A320. It uses pretty much exactly the same amount of fuel. So, as you can gather, the fuel per passenger has gone down by 20 odd percent. So, when you’re looking at aviation, it is one area where you can see quite dramatic technological improvements. The average car life in New Zealand is what, 15 years or something? So when somebody buys their Ford Ranger or something, that’s got to be burning gas for a long period of time, whereas Air New Zealand’s ability to upgrade their fleet and do so in quite short order is, I think, one area where aviation has got an advantage over land transport.

I also feel that if Wellington impoverishes itself, and if it creates a very congested airport and you can’t fly anywhere except Auckland, so you can then fly out of the country, is Wellington taking an economic head by not having as good an airport as it should and could have, really, actually good. So, it is making a trade-off, isn’t it? It’s saying if we had direct services to Asia and North America, the Wellington region would be significantly more prosperous because of that connectivity. I think there was a sort of economic analysis that showed that was pretty well certain. Do we want to give out that economic prosperity for the sake of wearing the hair shirt? Is it really going to change people’s travel or they’re just going to travel somewhere else? Remember, that the airport itself has virtually no emissions. It’s like…

BP: The airport. You’re not talking about the airlines.

TB: Yeah. It’s got one or two that’s negligible. So the question you’re asking is, do we try and stop something like the airport, which is facilitating more travel, but is it really going to be in gross terms and what’s going to be the net effect of that?

BP: Well, you talked about the fact that Air New Zealand was upgrading its planes to lower emission, but what we’ve seen in the past, is that it has enabled reduction in price, resulting in more flying and therefore a net increase of emissions. So you can fly for cheaper, but the whole question around flying – or even driving your car – is do you actually pay the real price attached to your emissions? At the moment, you don’t. You basically…

TB: No. You do if you’re flying domestically. Domestic travel is covered by the ETS.

BP: Yeah. Then if you were expanding the airport into all those international connections, just thinking about that, you wouldn’t anymore [pay the real price attached to your emissions].

TB: No. I completely agree with that point. So I do feel that international air travel should be covered by the ETS just as domestic air travel is.

BP: I kind of feel that what we’ve done for the past 40 years has put us in a situation where we are rushing to find a plan to try to react to the fact climate change is now on our doorstep. We’ve always favoured economical development and to not close economical opportunities for growth, while the climate always came as a second thought. Once again, we are doing the same thing with planes.

TB: Oh, look, I totally agree. As I was saying before about Infratil buying hydropower stations back in the 1990s and Greater Wellington Regional Council getting rid of the electric trolley buses in 2017. It’s just unbelievable how shortsighted the horizons of people have been. So people should be, especially people in power, should be thinking about: the first question, what’s the long-term vision for Wellington? I mean, people should be going, okay, Wellington in 2050 is going to be a zero-emission city, so what does that actually practically mean? What are we going to have to do to put ourselves there? But don’t do things which we’re going to hurt this group of people. We’re going to make life really super inconvenient. If you want to go anywhere, you’re going to have to fly to Auckland before you can fly anywhere else.

BP: Or you could take a train.

TB: Well, if you’ve got a day-and-a-half. I mean…

BP: Well, you could invest in train instead of investing in airport expansion.

TB: Yeah. But I’ll give you an example. The electric train between Wellington and Johnsonville produces more carbon dioxide than a bus service because a train is a very large, heavy piece of machinery. Even if electricity is 85% renewable, the amount of energy that goes in driving the Johnsonville unit to Johnsonville and back, divided by the number of people who catch that versus the output of diesel buses, not electric buses, diesel buses… So, are trains with their massively greater energy consumption than airplanes, really, the answer, I doubt it. I mean, I think the objective has got to be energy efficiency alongside making sure that the efficient energy you’re using is more electric than diesel.

Shelly Bay

BP: Okay. Speaking of another massive development in the east, Tim, there is obvious Shelly Bay, and Shelly Bay is happening. It’s heavily loaded emotionally in the east, as you can imagine. People have strong views on that. It’s extremely controversial. Of course, there’s not much that can be done either because it’s just happening, yet, I think it’s quite interesting to know how candidates feel about this development because it actually says a lot about also their approach and whether it’s consistent with their aspirations for local democracy, housing and all that. So in a nutshell, Tim Brown, are you supportive of the development or do you think it’s not the right place, the right time, the right development?

TB: Well, I think your starting point is the right one, which is to say it’s a done deal. So the issue now is what should happen at this point. I think that what should happen is that the Wellington City Council should recognize its responsibilities in respective infrastructure, and that means that the road has to be made fit for purpose. It means that there has to be the sort of obviously the three waters type services. They also need to do whatever they possibly can to make sure that the public transport links with Shelly Bay as good as possible. To the extent that there is a role for council in terms of putting out affordable housing or trying to encourage that sort of development as well, or even working with the Mana Whenua who obviously owns part of the development, to help them progress their part of that development, that’s what I’d like to see the city do.

The sort of specifics of the Shelly Bay, I’d like to see Wellington City Council get on and help that happen as quickly as possible because I think Wellington’s got a housing shortage, and I’d like to see it done to the right standard and in the right shape and form and all the other infrastructure requirements.

In terms of the other issue, which I guess is the impact on traffic flows, which obviously a lot of people are worried about the idea that you might even have a bus depot on the wharf area, for me, the council needs to absolutely do everything possible to make sure that the existing terrible traffic situation is alleviated. This is something that’s going to add to the traffic problem you’ve got today and the council has to work out… But as I say, the problem with that is that a lot of that is actually in the hands of the regional council. So for me, it’s up to the city council to put pressure on the regional council to improve the bus services and the public transport services.

BP: So, you’ve got a kind of future focus answer there. But if you had had a choice on Shelly Bay, which is another way of asking the question, if you had, before it was a done deal, what would have you done? Would you have gone, “Yeah, let’s do it. It’s a good idea,” or, “No, it’s not the right place and the right time.” Sorry, I’m repeating the question.

TB: No. No. I think that’s a good question. I guess, again, I would’ve liked to have had a much more participatory democracy-type issue around it. I do feel that we all fall in love with all of Wellington’s green spots and whatnot, and Mount Crawford is another of the green spots and everybody kind of goes to bat for them. But I would’ve preferred that it wasn’t a council making a kind of unilateral decision the way it did. I would’ve liked there to have been, if you like, much greater participation by as many people as possible in that decision-making process so that it wasn’t a case of… I got the feeling, from talking to people who were opposed to the development that they were opposed for all sorts of different reasons. A lot of it was to do with infrastructure rather than they so love Shelly Bay, but they felt that they should preserve the old Air Force base.

So my position would’ve been that if I had been at the table many years ago, I would’ve created a process or I’d have liked to have set a process that was much more participatory, as I was saying before.

BP: Okay. The last big development that was agreed in 2016 as a partnership between LINZ, and I believe as well the regional council, was that Regional Park, North of Mount Crawford. Since nothing has happened. Are you supportive of this project and, if you are, what would you do if you were elected to make it happen?

TB: Yeah. Look, I’m a 100% in favour of that particular initiative. I know that, for instance, the Defense Forces, years ago, you might recall, I think it was Gerry Brownlee when he was Minister of Defense, he was proposing a peace park there that they were going to plant trees from all around the world, wherever New Zealanders had fought. Anyhow, it seems like there have been a million ideas. Occasionally, I go mountain biking up there and there are still cows. There are still fences and it’s in shambles. Really, it’s a good example, isn’t it, though, of too many people participating in the process without anyone actually being really responsible. So it becomes sort of a low-priority initiative and years pass, and nothing much happens. I’d love to see the whole project revitalized in some shape or form.

Conclusion

BP: So Tim, we’ve talked transport; we talked housing; we’ve talked climate change and the big developments. We’ve also talked, obviously, about local democracy, which here is a very important point for you. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we close?

TB: One thing I would like to say is that I do feel as if this council, and a lot of the conversations which I’ve had with people on the hosting, so to speak, is about people saying what they want. The upshot of that, of course, is the 75% rate rise and… What is it? $1.3-1.4 billion debt rise of the council. I think that people have to start thinking more about prioritization and efficiencies. I know that that’s sort of kind of a boring topic, but if the council owns property, for instance, and it’s not being well used, then please, the council needs to sell it and it needs to redeploy the capital. I can’t just sort of sit there kind of owning everything and managing very little of what it actually owns. So, I think the next council is going to have a pretty grim task because the last couple of councils have been in a bit of a spending frenzy, and I would like to think that actually the next council will make some pretty hard decisions to make sure that there’s better prioritization and there is more focus on the boring topic of efficiency.

BP: Well, thank you very much, Tim, for your time. I really appreciate it. And have a good one. Thank you.

TB: Thank you.

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