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MICHAEL BASSETT: THE SILLY SEASON AND AUCKLAND

When the news is restricted to beaches, roads, and swimming accidents there is always an opportunity for some fantasist to air an idea. The most recent example is the call for a new sunken stadium on Auckland’s waterfront. It’s an idea that has surfaced from time to time in the past, starting in 2006 when Helen Clark’s government tried hard to shift the principal venue for the 2011 Rugby World Cup from Eden Park to downtown. The idea collapsed, and a considerable sum of public money was invested instead in Eden Park. It is a name synonymous with New Zealand Rugby, and to be found in several rugby-loving towns around the world. I remember staying in a French pub in La Rochelle where the public bar was named “Eden Park” and was covered in bits of rugby memorabilia belonging to the Kiwi-loving owner.


“Some of the world’s biggest names in designing, building and running stadiums are behind a bold vision for a 55,000 rectangular stadium at Wynyard Point on the Auckland waterfront” we are breathlessly told by a Herald reporter, who quickly makes it clear that the same enthusiasts require a substantial contribution from council and government. “We are the only city in Australasia that hasn’t built a new stadium in the last 30 years”, asserts the principal promoter who calls himself a “financier”, failing to add that Auckland already has at least one too many stadiums, and next to Wellington, possesses the worst problems with underground infrastructure anywhere in New Zealand. Anyone following the local news will know that without the cost of a new stadium as well, Auckland already faces massive expenditure on infrastructural renewal: everything from a second harbour crossing to further separation of storm water from sewerage, to replacement of major sewer pipes all around the city. Remember the sink hole at the bottom of St George’s Bay Rd and the overflow into the Waitemata Harbour only a few months ago? And the consequential closure of Auckland’s beaches this summer to swimmers? 


Mayors love to leave monuments behind them. Since the formation of One Big City in 2010 Auckland has paid dearly for indulging their ambitions. Len Brown (2010-2016) commissioned the Central Rail Link which is still being constructed, very slowly, and promises to cost us not only twice the original construction price, but to leave behind a $200 million annual fee for ratepayers once it is functional. Phil Goff (2016-2022) thinks he left a beautiful main street for us to enjoy - and then shot through to London, and doesn’t have to live with his handiwork – a ruined main street that is dangerous to venture into after dark because it is full of vagrants, beggars and piddlers. Attracting shoppers back to town requires the removal of the “for lease” signs that disfigure too many Queen Street shop fronts. A revived main drag is far in the future. Below Shortland Street there is a moderately commercial air to Queen Street at the moment, but it’s nothing to crow about. Wayne Brown (2022- ) is better known for his life spent in the Far North, but promised to “fix Auckland” when elected. At his age, he bears the hallmarks of a one-term mayor. Initially, he talked of a desire to improve the downtown area, but has already startled ratepayers with preliminary stories about huge rates hikes over the next few years to handle the city’s existing financial commitments. He hasn’t, so far, endorsed this latest stadium pie-in-the-sky. Let’s hope he doesn’t. His promise to “fix Auckland“ requires an unrelenting focus on management and finances.


Exacerbating Auckland’s financial problems is the high post-pandemic annual rate of immigration. A high proportion of the 130,000 immigrants remain in Auckland where the pressures on infrastructure are already huge. It takes time for newcomers to settle, find jobs and housing. Their demands for water and sewage add to an already collapsing system, raising the question of how to speed up necessary work. Public works contracts in Auckland are notoriously casual with time and cost over-runs. We have all seen the plethora of orange cones, the groups of workers standing around smoking, with little work being done. Bonuses for swift completion on budget seem not to be in favour when City Hall negotiates contracts. 


Such are the financial burdens for already necessary projects that serious thought needs to be given to the on-going financing of local government. While renters pay some of their share of rates through their rents, property owners find it difficult to carry all the costs involved with infrastructural repair. It might well be that the time has come for some sharing of GST income. Certainly, there is no way that central government’s taxation can be much further reduced in the decade ahead.


And one thing is for sure. Auckland’s need for a new, expensive underwater stadium when there is so much else on-the-go is non-existent. Possibly, nice to have, but a waste of time, and of newsprint, at this stage of our journey.

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