Project Auckland: Phil Goff on his greatest regret as mayor of Auckland (NZ Herald)

Project Auckland: Phil Goff on his greatest regret as mayor of Auckland (NZ Herald)

After almost six years as Mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff has decided to end to his 41-year political career and will not seek re-election in October.

After two terms leading the Super City, he points to his achievements: Auckland Council has maintained its credit rating through prudent borrowing, it pays its employees a liveable wage, the Central Interceptor is on track to reduce wastewater overflows into waterways, funding is available for transport infrastructure has nearly doubled, and the Unitary Plan has unlocked future housing growth.

“Environmentally, economically, infrastructure-wise, there have been some big steps forward — notwithstanding the difficulty of the environment in which we’re operating,” Goff says.

But it is the pandemic that has been the most dominant factor in his mayoralty, contributing toward his biggest challenges and regrets.

“My greatest regret would be the impact that Covid has had in delaying or holding up the changes that we were busy making,” he says.

“Suddenly it came along and ripped $900 million out of our revenue — and that’s ongoing.”

Auckland Council has warned of its worsening finances. Earlier this month it released a statement indicating the impact of the pandemic on its revenue is a result of a slower than expected recovery in revenue from public transport, events and facilities, and a slower recovery of dividends from Auckland International Airport.

On the cost side, it said payments to staff and suppliers, finance costs and depreciation expenses are all increasing faster than anticipated.

Considerable savings have been made. Last year, the council found $126 million in cost savings and budgeted a further $90m this year and beyond.

“We have sold surplus assets, and we’re looking at what we might do with carpark buildings and various other buildings that aren’t critical to what we do,” Goff says.

“We are going to have to focus on what our priorities are.”

Further mitigations being considered include the deferral of non-critical capital expenditure projects that are not yet subject to contractual commitments, permanent operating expenditure reductions, and fully utilising the $127m in central government Better Off funding associated with its Three Waters reform to fund operating expenditure, and possible future rates increases.

“It has been bloody tough,” says Goff. “And it has meant we couldn’t fully realise the dreams and ambitions we had.”

“But having said that, when you look at similar councils like Tauranga with the same growth problems as Auckland, we have had stable governance, we have got through our business and had clear majorities for our budgets, and the council has been in safe hands.

“There are those things to celebrate — but the job has been really tough because of the environmental circumstances that we face.”

Not enough progress on homelessness

One of Goff’s cornerstone commitments before becoming mayor was to end Auckland’s chronic homelessness. But it will be obvious to anyone that has visited the city centre over the past year that sufficient progress has not been made. The mayor accepts this. But he says Auckland Council’s instruments are limited.

He says a significant problem is the lack of housing — not enough homes were being built when the city was growing rapidly.

Statehouses were sold off, and the cost of housing in Auckland has risen.

There is movement. Kāinga Ora is creating a pipeline of small, medium and large-scale housing developments in Auckland over the next 10 years and the Auckland Unitary Plan allows for 900,000 dwellings to be built within residential areas.

Goff is a big believer in Housing First, an initiative tasked with ending homelessness that he has supported since 2017.

It provides housing to the homeless, but also wrap-around support that addresses the causes of their homelessness and helps to provide stability.

Goff was instrumental in converting council building facilities during the Covid-19 lockdown to help provide meals for the homeless. “But we need to do more of all of these things,” he says. “Because we’re still we’re still a long way from tackling the problem of rising homelessness.”

Working with different governments

In his time as mayor, Goff has worked with three different Prime Ministers: Sir John Key, Sir Bill English and now Jacinda Ardern.

He says his role as mayor is to work for whoever is in government.

“I don’t care what someone’s political background is, as long as they are there and willing to use their integrity, energy and determination to tackle the problems and not simply play politics with it.”

A former Labour MP for 32 years, Goff said the shift from a National-led government to a Labour-led government had some advantages.

“I can pick up the phone and ring Jacinda, I can ring Grant Robertson, I can talk to Michael Wood,” he says.

“That’s not to say that I can ask for something and they’ll say, ‘of course Phil, we will give it to you,’ but at least I can pick the phone up and talk to them.”

When Goff campaigned in 2016 to get rid of plastic bags, he couldn’t make it work with the supermarkets and didn’t have the power to force them. But he was able to speak with the government, and they brought in enforceable legislation which he says has been a huge benefit environmentally.

“That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been areas where I’ve had strong disagreements with government — Three Waters is one of them,” he says, noting that he understands why the government wants to reform water services but doesn’t support the form that reform has taken.

“I’ve argued consistently and strongly — and although I haven’t won the battle, I have been able to talk on a personal level with an understanding and a mutual respect with ministers that I’ve known for a long period of time.”

The job’s not done yet

With six months left on the clock in his current role, Goff says he is not done yet.

In the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel of Climate report, he says it is clear that the time to act for the climate is now.

“We are seeing more frequent and severe weather events, we had our hottest year on record last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this year exceeds even that.”

Goff’s council has put money into electric buses, is converting its ferry fleet from diesel to electric, is putting money into cycling and walking, and is planting trees to provide shade and increase Auckland’s canopy cover.

But he says this is the start of the solution, and more needs to be done.

“What worse time to try to find funding to deal with the impact of climate change than when you’re dealing with Covid?

“You’ve lost revenue, and your costs have gone up,” he says. “It is easy to say Covid is the big problem at the moment, and we’ll do climate tomorrow.

“But tomorrow is when our kids grow up. If we don’t act, it’ll be harder and more expensive and economically and environmentally more disastrous.”

Goff has proposed a climate action targeted rate of $1.12 a week for a median-value residential property. This is expected to raise $574m over 10 years and unlock a further $471m through central government co-funding and other sources, ringfenced for direct climate action to cut Auckland’s emissions and respond to extreme heat.

“The council we are handing over will hopefully have funding to tackle the problem of climate change, one of the predominant problems that is confronting our city, our country and the whole planet,” he says.

Councillors will vote on the decision as part of the annual budget in late June.

Goff is, of course, just one vote out of 21.

But he says the council has consulted with people, taken submissions and done polling. “I believe there is public support to make this happen,” he says.

“This is something we are doing for the long term.

“Too often people say the trouble with parliamentarians and councillors only think in three-year terms — and too often we do. This has the chance to act with a longer timeframe in mind.”

Taking Sir John’s advice

It was just after Goff’s first month as mayor that Sir John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

Goff laughs that the way Key departed might have inspired his decision to go.

“He had been in my office a week earlier and I thought, ‘he’s looking remarkably relaxed, what can be causing that?’…

“Maybe he was the role model for me — make sure you stand down while you might still be wanted, rather than waiting to the point where you’re not!”

Reflecting on his time as mayor, Goff says he has been lucky to have had people around the council table that have worked with him on things he has wanted to achieve, and he is grateful for that.

“Because in the end, success is a collective endeavour.

“The mayor might be the person at the top of the heap, but he or she is not the only person there, and it relies on that team.”

To pass his final budget, he will need them on his side.

“It might be the last six months of my mayoralty, but it won’t be the easiest six months of it,” he says.

“I’ll be working out right up to the last moment.”

Project Auckland: Gary Blick on creating foundations for the future (NZ Herald)

Project Auckland: Gary Blick on creating foundations for the future (NZ Herald)

Tim McCready talks to Gary Blick, Auckland Council’s new chief economist about Auckland’s long-term performance and the pandemic’s impact on the city centre.

As Auckland Council’s chief economist, Gary Blick assists Council staff and elected officials to evaluate the economic implications of policy and infrastructure proposals. This means assessing the likely impacts on society’s resources and wellbeing over time – including the financial, social, environmental and cultural aspects.

Originally from Southland, Blick has been in the role since late last year and has lived in Auckland for the past decade. He is particularly interested in the long-term performance and trends of the region and thinks a lot about the wellbeing of Aucklanders now and in the future, and the legacy we will leave them. He says this includes not only those that migrate to the city, but the children and future generations that do not have a voice here yet.

“I often think about the generation I am – what did we inherit? A lot of great things, but then you think about missed opportunities,” he says.

“It is very easy to get caught up with where we are now in terms of the economic cycle and what is happening with housing this month or this quarter, but I am particularly interested in where we have come from, and where we are heading over the long run.”

Getting the foundations right

Blick says for Auckland to be successful in enhancing living standards for residents, including future generations, cities need to get a couple of foundations right.

“For me it is about using our land efficiently and improving accessibility in terms of how we get around,” he says. This means enabling more people to live in locations with good proximity to job opportunities, transport links and amenities. “Many other things matter too, but getting those things right matters a lot because they are the foundations for everything else.”

The Unitary Plan, implemented in 2016, has helped Auckland to take important steps forward with its land use and transport links, including enabling more opportunities to build multi-unit dwellings such as townhouses and apartments.

“All else being equal, having more development opportunities enabled and a more responsive supply of dwellings is supportive of improved affordability over time,” Blick says.

He points to econometric research into construction activity trends that shows, relative to plausible counterfactuals, there was a material boost to supply following the Unitary Plan. He says this likely contributed to the stabilisation of Auckland house prices from 2017 to 2019.

But he acknowledges that events over the past couple of years have complicated the situation, and says it feels like housing affordability took several steps forward with the Unitary Plan, but a step or two back recently with house prices increasing approximately 40 per cent over the past two years.

“The pandemic crisis caused central banks everywhere to head off a drop off in demand and introduce low interest rates to try and stimulate activity and maintain employment. That enabled people to bid a bit more for houses,” says Blick.

“Then with rising case numbers and public health restrictions, we have seen disruptions to supply chains globally, as well as the closing of the borders and a reduction in cross-border labour flows.”

This is problematic because since before the pandemic, Auckland has been losing more residents to elsewhere in New Zealand than it has gained. There were net losses in internal migration in 2019 (11,400 people), 2020 (11,100) and 2021 (13,500), showing that plenty of people judged they would be better off living in other regions and raising a question about Auckland’s overall liveability.

Blick expects the border reopening will see population growth resume as migrants and New Zealanders with needed skills arrive or return to the city, but he cautions that if Auckland isn’t doing as well as it could be then the city may miss out as those with needed skills compare Auckland to other places.

“Liveability and productivity depend on many factors, but it is reasonable to ask whether Auckland can do better on the fundamentals of land use and transport networks,” he says.

Covid-19 hangover in the city centre

The impact of the pandemic has been uneven across businesses.

“The city centre is home to many large professional services and financial services firms that have big office-based workforces with perhaps more flexibility to adapt and adopt remote working,” says Blick.

“Often their customer base is not foot traffic on the street, it is with other businesses and may involve exporting services to elsewhere in New Zealand.”

Even so, GDP – as the measure of the economic output of all businesses in the city centre – decreased by 4.6 per cent for the year to March 2021 – more than the decrease of 2.8 per cent for Auckland as a whole.

But it is the hospitality, retail and events-focused businesses that have borne the brunt of the loss in visitors to the city centre. Heart of the City data last month showed that city centre spending was down more than 40 per cent on the same time last year, and pedestrian counts were almost 50 per cent down.

“Household spending has held up well, but the city centre has lost out as spending has been reoriented to other locations, whether that is online or other centres of Auckland,” says Blick.

While employers and workers have become more comfortable with remote working, he doesn’t expect this to have a permanent devastating impact on the city centre.

“Having that choice may suit some workers and it may mean there are fewer visits on a daily basis from people in the near term relative to before,” he says. “But not all jobs lend themselves to being done remotely on a permanent basis, and people joining the workforce and those starting in new roles may seek in-person collaboration and opportunities to build up their connections.”

The city centre is comparatively very accessible, Blick says, and the concentration of people and businesses in proximity can deliver productivity gains known as agglomeration benefits.

Proximity promotes ease of access, lower transport costs, and knowledge sharing, and a higher population density enhances proximity benefits by supporting deeper labour pools and specialisation among suppliers. As a result, cities can offer higher-paying jobs, as well as more choices in consumption and leisure.

It is this that Blick says will stand Auckland in good stead for the economic recovery post-Covid.

“There’s a good case that the reduction in visits to the city centre will be made back over time, because of its long-run trend growth in density, economic activity and jobs.”


The Panel: custard squares (RNZ)

After attempting custard squares for the first time and receiving positive feedback from Twitter, I was invited onto The Panel to explain the secret behind a good custard square. Listen below.