Public discussion to save Wellington from collapse

Peter Dunne
Wellington, February 7, 2024

Earlier this week, Wellington’s newspaper, The Post, launched a “conversation” inviting public responses about how Wellington could move on from the problems currently besetting it.

The responses published so far show a level of fondness for the City, but a deep frustration at its current problems and the way they have been dealt with by recent Councils.

It all smacks of a desperate recognition that Wellington, the nation’s Capital, is slowly dying. The current Wellington City Council borders on being dysfunctional; the City’s infrastructure is collapsing, or, in the case of the pipes, bursting and leaking profusely, seemingly without the prospect of repair anytime soon. Severe water restrictions have been threatened and the prospect of a double-digit percentage rate increase looms. Wellington has been surpassed by Christchurch as the nation’s second City, and the gap between the two looks set to widen in the coming years.

Divided Council

The Council is polarised and divided on just about every issue facing it – from cycle ways to developing more space for housing. Civic amenities are being closed to try to make ends meet. The once “Coolest Little Capital in the World” now looks to be a leading candidate to be the “Most Rundown Little Capital in the World.”

And still, the Council squabbling continues.

In light of this chronic failure – which has affected the City for most of the last twenty years, if not longer, it is no surprise that whispers are intensifying that the Capital City is now headed on the mortifying but inevitable path of having the Council sacked by the government – the way the Council in Tauranga was – and replaced by Commissioners to sort the mess out. For many Wellington ratepayers, the move cannot come quickly enough.

Wellington has always felt it was living in the shadow of Auckland.

The joke used to be that Auckland, with its then myriad number of local boroughs and Councils, was too divided and disorganised to ever pose a real threat to the capital City.

But when more and more major companies started relocating to Auckland because of the port and airport, leading to then-Prime Minister (John) Key’s infamous comment that Wellington was “dying,” Wellington’s civic leaders expressed predictable outrage but otherwise failed to heed the warnings.

Now, with the advent of the super City and the arrival of a Mayor with an uncompromising and unashamed “Auckland First” agenda, Wellington’s faces being left well and truly behind, to moulder away quietly.

Auckland’s significant progress

After an extraordinarily shaky and uninspiring start, Mayor (Wayne) Brown is starting to make significant progress. His uncompromising non-partisan approach to unrelentingly pushing Auckland’s interests appears to be paying dividends.

Even his left-wing critics are now grudgingly beginning to acknowledge that while his methods and approach may be unusual, he is making a beneficial difference for his City.

Brown appeared to be developing a good relationship with the previous government in its latter stages and certainly looks to have a good working relationship with the present government.

Already, as Mayor of Auckland, he has met various government Ministers more frequently than most of the other metropolitan Mayors, to push his City’s case.

By way of contrast, Wellington’s Mayor, who, as The Post helpfully pointed out recently, has but a twelve-minute walk from her office to the Beehive, has had the least contact of all metropolitan Mayors with Ministers, despite her City probably facing the most serious immediate problems of all.

The British Model of Local Government

The new government says it is interested in developing City-specific plans, along the lines of an approach being taken by the current British government.

It is also a concept Mayor Brown says he wants to promote for Auckland, so there is already synergy between the Mayor’s aspirations and the government’s policy.

But there appears to be no such aspiration in Wellington. Even if there were, the prospects of Wellington Councillors ever being able to agree on what a Wellington-specific plan should look like are near zero.

When Wellington adopted the “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day” and the “Coolest Little Capital in the World” mantras, they captured the public mood. That helped create a positive mood in the City and helped Wellington get over, at least for a while, its historic inferiority complex.

For once, Wellington people had a spring in their step, feeling positive about their City and what it had to offer. Those days are long gone now – a tired inner City, leaking pipes, road works everywhere you go, bickering Councillors and civic amenities being closed have changed all that.

Positive Conversation

So, good on The Post for trying to whip up a positive conversation about Wellington and its future. Every little bit helps. However, the campaign looks too much like one desperate final effort to make an impact.  It smacks more a case of manning the pumps to keep the steadily sinking ship afloat.

While it may save the ship for a while, allowing it to drift aimlessly on towards the ever-nearing rocks, it is most unlikely to be enough to bring the dysfunctional Council to its senses. Therefore, the only remaining question is how long the government will let this situation continue before it intervenes.

Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led government from December 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly Column.

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