Auckland used to be one of the world’s least ambitious cities. With its beautiful harbour, easy access to beaches, its young, creative workforce and excellent universities, it’s a nice place to live. But thanks to decades of indecisive leadership, political gridlock and a lack of investment in core infrastructure, the city hasn’t lived up to its potential.
That all changed last week with the inauguration of Len Brown as the first mayor of the “supercity”, the Auckland Council, which is an amalgamation of seven former councils representing 1.4 million people, a third of New Zealand’s population. Brown – elected by a landslide 65,000 votes – has promised to make Auckland the world’s most liveable city.
That plan includes a commitment to building NZ$4bn (€2.2bn) worth of new rail links within 15 years and a promise to deliver 100 projects in his first 100 days of office. Not yet formally announced, those projects range from building a rail loop under the city centre – which would revolutionise Auckland’s sclerotic train system – to a possible rail link to the airport and cleaning up graffiti in preparation for next year’s Rugby World Cup. It also carries over a number of community projects begun under the previous political structure.
Brown has huge challenges and huge opportunities – the new council owns $30bn worth of assets and has revenues of $1.1bn a year; the expected savings created by its new scale are estimated at $95m a year. He has already been talking to politicians on both sides of the political fence: so far, there is a large consensus on what needs to be done. Now, the city just needs to pay for it. In 2008, $680m was gobbled up by transport, and the council’s main revenues come from land rates, which Brown has pledged to peg to the rate of inflation. The government – which has already invested $1bn into Auckland’s rail network – has said it is unlikely to stump up more cash. Critics are predicting a large rise in the city’s debt.
Brown will have to be resourceful, says Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and a former member of the defunct Auckland Regional Council. The new council, he notes, will have to look at public-private partnerships, better use of its assets, targeted local rates and selling development options around projects such as new railway stations. “Auckland has made a great effort to unite for the purpose of making a fresh start,” he says. “We didn’t elect a new council to have more of the same.”