Project Auckland: Panel discussion on ‘Accelerating Auckland’ (video)

Tim McCready moderates a panel discussion themed “Accelerating Auckland” with CEO of the EMA Brett O’Riley, Deputy Mayor of Auckland Desley Simpson, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland Dawn Freshwater. The panel discussion was held at the launch of the NZ Herald’s 2024 Project Auckland report following a speech from the Minister for Auckland Hon Simeon Brown.

Engineering Auckland

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown is philosophical when asked to reflect on his time leading New Zealand’s biggest city.

“Well, it’s like a curate’s egg — it’s good in parts,” he laughs.

When Brown won the election in October 2022, he had anticipated the challenges ahead.

Acknowledging his frosty relationship with media, especially during the initial six months, Brown felt “quite a lot of the press were grieving over the fact the person they’d invested a lot of effort in didn’t make it.”

Tensions heightened during the devastating Auckland Anniversary floods. Criticised for showing a lack of empathy, he defends his approach: “People didn’t want empathy; they wanted an engineer to come out and tell them what to fix.

“I think eventually people saw that. While everyone was out wandering around and having empathy, I was providing engineering inputs.”

The media tone is now more even-handed, he says. “I just want it to be fair, and it wasn’t fair at the start.”

When it comes to the city’s finances, Brown highlights his own foresight: “I predicted that there would be a billion-dollar overrun on the City Rail Link.”

While he had no specific figures prior to the 2022 election, his hands-on experience meant he was aware there would be ballooning costs associated with the project.

“I also predicted during my campaign that interest rates would rocket and so would the cost of living.”

He says one of the advantages he brings to the job is that he has had, and continues to have, businesses “from Hawke’s Bay to Kaitāia”.

“My consulting engineering and building and construction businesses have made me interact with councils all my life, so I am deeply embedded in understanding from both sides of the fence what councils do.”

While Brown views his diverse business experience as an advantage, he is frustrated with the lack of practical, real-world experience among his council peers. “I come with way more knowledge than anyone sitting around me at the table. Some of them have been here for 15 years and pretty much learned nothing,” he claims.

He contrasts this with councillors in the Far North, where he was previously mayor. “The councillors up there are part-time. They go back to their farms, orchards, mechanic workshops, dairies… whatever.

“None of them need to be told by an economist that people aren’t buying as much as they used to, or that prices are going up. They can see it for themselves.”

He describes his fellow councillors as “nice people”, but says they are “full-time, political, and unfortunately some are not directly invested in the daily activities of the city”.

Brown considers the $375 million hole in last year’s budget as his first and greatest challenge.

Last-minute changes were made to the budget, including selling fewer shares in Auckland Airport than he would have liked, and, nudging household rates bills above inflation.

After nearly two days of debate, he secured support from a sizeable majority of councillors. “In the end, we got it through — that was a high point, but also the first real test.”

Get Wellington out of Auckland

Brown is staunchly apolitical.

He is proud of the fact that he has worked with and maintains a good relationship with former Prime Ministers Helen Clark and Sir John Key.

Despite the change from a Labour government to the Coalition Government, his message remains consistent: ‘Get Wellington out of Auckland’.

“The message that the public love, but is not being heard well in Wellington, is that Auckland needs to decide Auckland,” Brown says.

“I’m not going to change. I have very strong views on infrastructure, roads, power supplies. These are things that I know a lot about.”

One of the changes introduced during the Government’s first 100 days was the cancellation of the Regional Fuel Tax (RFT) in Auckland, which will leave a shortfall in transport funding for Auckland of $1.2 billion over the next four years. The loss in revenue will mean that Auckland Council’s debt-to-revenue ratio will increase, meaning the council has less ability to borrow when it needs to.

Curia Market Research Poll commissioned by the Office of the Mayor found that 44 per cent of Aucklanders want to keep the RFT. Only 26 per cent were in favour of cancelling RFT projects, and just 22 per cent favoured increasing rates to make up the shortfall in funding.

“It is very easy to remove things, but you’ve got to put something back,” says Brown, noting that the council is still working out what RFT projects will be cut. “One of the things it was going to fund was the battery chargers that will be needed for the electric ferries. That’s going to make the electric ferries look like a clever investment, isn’t it?”

While the Government might insist it campaigned on the RTF removal, Brown says it didn’t campaign on forcing the mayor to put rates up to cover the losses.

“I am not going to do that. We will just have to do less.”

Turning to the Government’s roads of national significance, Brown points out that the roads outlined for Auckland in the Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Land Transport don’t align with his priorities for the city, and some of them have terrible benefit-cost ratios.

Roads planned for Auckland are Mill Road in south Auckland and the East-West Link connecting state highways 1 and 20 through Onehunga to relieve road freight congestion.

Brown pushes back on what he jokingly refers to as “roads of National Party significance”, insisting they should not supersede priorities identified by the Auckland integrated transport plan.

“This is my city. I was elected by people from every part of this city,” Brown says.

“The political party I stand for is Auckland, I am here for Auckland, and particularly the ratepayers.”

“I am insisting on being treated as a regional government, because that is what we were set up as.”

Looking ahead

With 18 months left on the clock, Brown has a lot he wants to achieve.

A bold vision to establish a new regional wealth fund that he insists will provide a better return on investment from Auckland Council’s assets is a priority.

The Auckland Future Fund’s initial capitalisation of $3-4 billion would come from the proposed sales of an 11 per cent shareholding in Auckland International Airport and the proceeds from a 35-year lease to run Port of Auckland.

Brown says the fund would achieve more for ratepayers’ money. He points out that ratepayers get just over 2 per cent in annual returns for its stake in Port of Auckland. The city’s remaining shares in Auckland International Airport are projected to return less than 2 per cent in dividends in the coming year.

Brown also claims a diversified portfolio would spread the financial risk for Auckland in the event of another flood (which significantly impacted the airport) or a tsunami (which he asserts could damage the port).

That portfolio would make provision for climate change risks through self-insurance and help mitigate rates rises for Aucklanders.

The fund will be voted on by councillors as part of council’s long-term plan, which is currently out for public consultation.

“Those that vote against it will be voting against helping those people who flood next time because the cupboard will be bare,” Brown says.

When it comes to transport, he expects to have the first trial up and running of time-of-using charging, aimed at reducing congestion and speeding up travel times throughout the city. A flat fee, charged a maximum of twice a day and only at peak times, is expected to make motorways function all year round as they do on school holidays.

“We will also have at least two or three of the dynamic lanes in place,” he says, referring to roads that use signs and lights to change the direction of centre lanes at peak times to improve traffic flow.

“People will start to see things happen, otherwise there will be wholesale changes at Auckland Transport, I tell you.”

Brown says he is working hard to stop the “disjointed thinking” going on behind the scenes in planning departments that the public might not see, but he thinks can provide big value to the city — economically and environmentally.

As an example he cites planning departments that restrict the amount of metal that comes out of quarries for environmental reasons: “But the environment they’re protecting by taking less out of a quarry is destroying the environment because the demand for that stuff remains and now trucks have to go twice as far — how does that help the environment?”

Another priority for Brown is reducing council costs. He envisions a streamlined governance structure for the city, with a reduced number of councillors and local boards. Auckland currently has 21 local boards with between five and nine members elected to represent their geographic area. Including the mayor and 20 councillors, this means there are 170 elected members in the region.

“How can that be necessary? How can that be justified?” Brown asks.

He jokes: “How can anyone even know who they are? You can go through life and not meet that number of people!”

Brown says that in principle, “councillors agree that there are too many councillors and we should reduce it — as long as it is the others and not themselves.”

Looking toward the elections in 2025, Brown says his message for business leaders is simple: “You’ve got a business leader as Mayor. Don’t waste the opportunity, it may not happen again.

“We’ve got all sorts of failed politicians lining up who haven’t got an income, trying to use their name recognition to get themselves a job. I’m not here for the income.”

Unitary Plan spurs housing development

Unitary Plan spurs housing development

Auckland Council chief economist Gary Blick says recent research provides compelling evidence that up-zoning has significantly increased Auckland’s housing supply and led to lower rents, compared to a scenario where it was never introduced.

Research on the impact of up-zoning on housing construction in Auckland by Associate Professor of Economics Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy and Distinguished Professor Peter Phillips from the University of Auckland sheds new light on the efficacy of up-zoning to address housing shortages and affordability challenges.

“Different households have different preferences, but in the main people generally want to be closer to jobs, transport and amenities — whether that is parks, schools or shops,” explains Blick.

The study, which considered the first six years since the Unitary Plan was introduced, compared parts of Auckland that were up-zoned and parts that weren’t, and used statistical analysis to determine the increase in housing development as a result.

It found strong evidence that from 2016 to 2021, almost 22,000 additional consents occurred due to the policy change.

Blick says this works out to be about 32 per cent of the total 67,000 consents over that period.

To put this into context, Blick’s own analysis shows a significant increase in dwelling consents per thousand residents since the introduction of the Unitary Plan.

In the 20 years prior to its introduction, the average number was 5.9. Since the change in policy, the average number of dwelling consents has jumped to 9.5 per thousand residents. This figure has seen Auckland surpass New South Wales and almost match Victoria.

Impact on rental prices

Blick’s analysis shows the increased housing supply may have helped limit rental price growth in Auckland.

Data from Statistics NZ’s rental price index shows that although Auckland’s rents are 22 per cent higher in nominal dollar terms since 2017, rents in New Zealand overall have grown about 50 per cent faster than Auckland over the same period.

“Research also shows that for a three-bedroom home, rents are 20-30 per cent lower than they otherwise would have been,” Blick says.

He argues that without the increased supply of housing, rental prices may have been higher, and people may have decided they couldn’t make Auckland work for them and would have chosen to leave or not come at all.

“It has given the city a better chance of holding on to some of our younger people who want to form households and of attracting people with skills who compare us with other destinations.”

Looking ahead

Blick acknowledges development under the Unitary Plan is ongoing and will require continued monitoring to assess its long-term effects.

However, these early indications are encouraging and suggest that up-zoning can be a viable strategy for addressing housing shortages. Blick says the Unitary Plan’s success is being closely observed by other cities facing similar challenges, potentially offering a valuable roadmap for tackling their own housing crises.

The Unitary Plan

Auckland’s Unitary Plan, operative from November 2016, allowed for denser housing options, such as townhouses and apartments, within existing urban areas.

Prior to the Unitary Plan, Auckland’s residential zoning was dominated by standalone houses, making it difficult to accommodate a growing population.

Up-zoning resulted in roughly 75 per cent of Auckland’s residential land being reclassified into denser categories.

Since up-zoning allows for higher-density housing options that require less land per dwelling, it allows lower development costs per dwelling and makes it more profitable for developers to build more houses, ultimately increasing supply.

An economic powerhouse

Auckland’s city centre continues to be the economic engine of New Zealand, outpacing national growth in GDP and employment for the second consecutive year.

The recent Auckland City Centre Overview report from Infometrics reveals that GDP grew by 9.2 per cent in the year to March 2023, reaching $30.4 billion and representing 8 per cent of national GDP.

This growth rate sits well above New Zealand as a whole, which increased by 2.8 per cent in the same period.

“The city centre has grown at a faster rate than the rest of Auckland and New Zealand for many years,” Blick says.

He attributes this growth to the concentration of high-value services businesses.

“The city centre is accessible for the workforce needed in this sector. Although working from home has become more of a thing, people still need to form social relationships at the workplace and engage with clients.”

Unsurprisingly, high-value services account for the largest proportion of GDP, 65.2 per cent, in Auckland’s City Centre (compared with 27.3 per cent of the national economy).

Primary industries account for the smallest proportion at 0.2 per cent (compared to 5.7 per cent in the national economy). Employment in the city centre was also up 7.3 per cent in the year to March 2023, compared with 2.5 per cent for New Zealand as a whole.

Blick acknowledges that the pandemic threw a curveball at the city centre.

“The shock really hit street-level businesses, particularly hospitality and retail, which are heavily reliant on foot traffic from tourism and students.”

Yet he remains optimistic about its long-term prospects.

“The underlying drivers of the city centre are still there,” he says, pointing to the return of tourists, students and workers and the opportunity that the City Rail Link will present. “We may have had a shock that meant that activity, population and jobs took a hit, but we’re now in a period of clawing some of that back.”

Bold investment needed for success

With Auckland’s tourism industry continuing to navigate a post-pandemic recovery, Franz Mascarenhas is urging local and central government to step up investment in attracting visitors.

Mascarenhas has been in the luxury hotel industry for more than 35 years, including leadership positions at ITT Sheraton Hotels, Hyatt Hotels Corporation and the Langham Hospitality Group.

He steered the city’s largest hotel through the pandemic, one of the few that didn’t take on MIQ guests during the Covid years. Unsurprisingly, the hotel saw significant signs of recovery from 2022.

“With international travel not being an option at the time, an overnight stay or a longer staycation quickly became a very popular treat,” he says. “This growth in demand was obviously gratefully received for a business like ours, but it brought its own set of hurdles, primarily in recruiting enough staff to meet the increased demand.”

Since then, the industry has seen a decent recovery and has come through a strong summer period. Mascarenhas says Cordis has seen occupancy rates back close to the mid-70s over the summer months, although looking ahead to the winter season, numbers do not yet look as robust.

Mascarenhas says cost of living pressures seen worldwide along with increased prices of airline fares have undoubtedly contributed to lower inbound travel numbers.

Key markets like China (151,000 visitors in 2023 compared with 407,000 in 2019) and Australia (161,000 in 2023 compared with 196,000 in 2019) have seen a significant decline from pre-pandemic levels.

“An exception we have seen at the hotel has been US visitors, thanks to the strength of the dollar and strong connectivity, with some existing US airlines increasing their schedules and new airlines like Delta flying in,” he says. (There were were 337,000 US visitors to NZ in 2023, falling only slightly from 368,000 in 2019).

To help boost tourism, Mascarenhas wants local and central government to take the importance of the sector to Auckland and New Zealand seriously.

“We are a large contributor to the Government’s GST intake, a large employer, given we are a people-related business, a large foreign exchange earner, and the conduit to much more economic activity such as shopping, eating out and entertainment.”

He says there is not enough ability for the tourism industry to effectively market Auckland or New Zealand as a destination.

“Every major event — be it business, sport, entertainment or cultural — needs significant funding to secure them to the city or country.”

Events like last year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup provide an immediate boost to the tourism industry. So too did this month’s Pink concerts, with Cordis at capacity for the shows.

However, Mascarenhas highlights the disparity between Auckland’s investment and the returns major events can bring. While Auckland struggles to raise $15 million in a year for tourism attraction, other markets pay millions just to attract a single event. Singapore’s recent investment to lure Taylor Swift pales in comparison to the economic boon her Eras show delivered, with economists estimating it generated up to NZ$600m. Had the shows been hosted in New Zealand, they could have amounted to around $70m for the country.

“Bold investments have proven to have an incredible impact on the economy and a large return on investment,” he says.

He proposes a solution is needed that not only helps to attract tourism to Auckland, but all of New Zealand. This could involve a partnership with contributions from the private sector (including all who directly benefit from tourism), central government and local councils. “The fund should be ring-fenced and exclusively used for reinvestment in tourism infrastructure and destination marketing activity.”

According to Mascarenhas, the industry is open to considering contributions through new sources of funding but wants to be involved in finding the solution.

He stresses the urgency of the consultation, given the lead time required for major events.

“We may well be losing out as we speak,” he says.

Migrant workers will help

The border opening has helped to address Cordis’ staffing challenges since the pandemic, with skilled migrants arriving in increased numbers.

“We find that combining local talent with skilled migrants, coupled with the training and development that we offer at Cordis, is a winning formula that elevates our overall standards.”

Mascarenhas says he is pleased with the business-friendly approach of the new Government when it comes to areas like wage growth, fair-pay agreements and migration. “Getting these settings correct help businesses to succeed and ultimately have a natural positive flow on effect to the workforce.”

He would like to see continued efforts to market Auckland as a great place for hospitality workers to stay.

“With the cost of living impacting everyone, the size of Auckland is an advantage compared with smaller cities which struggle when it comes to the likes of housing and job opportunities.”

After 11 years, Mascarenhas will soon step down from running Cordis Auckland and move to an advisory role with the Langham Group.

NZ has built a reputation among the best international investors

Tim McCready spoke to Angus Blair, Partner at Outset Ventures and head of its investment team.

Herald: How does the physical space of Outset Ventures foster collaboration and innovation?

Angus Blair: The Outset Campus has always been about founders helping founders and the facilities are there to enable that. The community seeks to capture the magic that helped start Rocket Lab, LanzaTech, Mint Innovation and others to get going and move quickly.

Outset is also the only place in the country that can accommodate almost every type of research operation, whether that’s heavy machinery, physical confinement, extraction, customs zones, hazardous materials or all of these things at once.

An added benefit is that it’s right here in the heart of Auckland!

Herald: What factors contribute to Auckland’s attractiveness as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Blair: All of Aotearoa is brimming with innovation and entrepreneurship, but it’s hard to understate how significant Auckland is as the heart of the industry.

It’s the centre of our migration boom, has the highest density of talent, and for companies looking to export their wares around the world, it’s typically one less flight to get wherever you need to be.

It’s worth noting that as the fastest-growing subsector in tech, it’s the best time in New Zealand history to build a deep tech company, and these businesses are largely gravitating to our largest city.

We have a legacy of major success stories like Lanzatech to learn from, and a healthy network of start-ups working across diverse problems and solutions, many from the Outset hub.

Herald: Outset operates an early-stage venture fund to support innovative ideas. How is the current climate for attracting capital into New Zealand’s deep tech innovation?

Blair: New Zealand has quietly built a reputation among the best international investors as not only the birthplace for great deep tech companies, but the place they grow, and ultimately provide phenomenal returns.

As with all fundraising, high interest rates and low liquidity in public markets mean that fund investors aren’t able to deploy as readily as they would like. However, increasingly the money that was flowing to software during Covid is now being redirected to deep tech, where investors are seeing greater potential return on investment.

Herald: What more would you like to see happen in Auckland to attract and nurture talent?

Blair: I’d like to see our schools from Year 1 to 13 get the support and strategy they need for New Zealand to get back near the top of the OECD for science and maths. We’ve really fallen behind and it’s hard for our universities to get people where they need to be from that starting point.

We certainly still produce the outlier talents that start companies and great people want to move here, but to grow these important businesses we also need to nurture and grow the workforce capable of operating them.

Herald: What developments or trends in deep tech are you excited about for New Zealand in the coming year?

Blair: I think trends are over-rated when you’re in a market as small as New Zealand. One company doesn’t make a trend, so we just try to look at the most compelling founders going after the biggest problems off the back of advances in science and engineering.

Yes, we are building incredible capability in areas like aerospace or biosciences, but does that explain that the most exciting start-up last year was in nuclear fusion?

Our philosophy is to keep meeting the world-class founders who this country produces and to understand their aspiration to build impactful, world-class businesses, whatever they might be doing.




Mayor on the Port - 'It's a pragmatic approach'

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown was elected on a platform of moving the Port of Auckland.

But he has now made selling a lease to operate the port a cornerstone of his 10-year budget, known as the Long-Term Plan (LTP).

Critics have questioned Brown’s approach, concerned the port lease would keep cargo locked in its current location for an extended period.

But he says the proposed 35-year lease is a pragmatic solution to extract maximum value from the port. The phased approach would see the return of Captain Cook and Marsden wharves to the public in two years, with Bledisloe North following in 12 to 15 years.

This phased approach would mitigate against a significant drop in land value if the entire port operation was put up holus-bolus.

“If we get it back progressively, the market has shown it can pick up about 5 hectares a year and still pay top price,” Brown says. “If you put it all up straight away, the price will drop sufficiently that even I’d be able to buy a few hectares of it.”

Detractors say the port is a strategic asset and should be kept by the city to retain jobs.

Brown explains his proposal would lock in a 35-year commitment, providing certainty to businesses and workers about the long-term footprint of the Port.

“If we offer a lease for 35 years, the jobs will be there for 35 years. If we don’t sell a licence, it will be gone in 10 years.

“Winston and I will be under way dismantling the port.”

He is adamant he will not carry on using the rates paid by some 35,000 houses to cover the difference between what the port makes and the cost of ownership.

Brown acknowledges it might look as though he has done a flip but says the one thing he knows is you have to compromise.

“All those people who think the port will stay there forever are dreaming,” he says.

“I am being accused of changing my mind, but it’s a pragmatic approach. I’m the ultimate pragmatist.”

Greg Fleming on being the newly elected MP for Maungakiekie (Onehunga FM)

Greg Fleming, our newly elected MP for the Maungakiekie electorate, discusses his transition into Parliament along with the challenges and surprises he has encountered.

Tim dug a little deeper into Greg’s parliamentary maiden speech which incorporated significant use of Te Reo Māori and a good dose of humour.

Finally, Greg provides a glimpse into his busy schedule, balancing time in Wellington and his new electorate office at 222 Onehunga Mall, just opposite Curry Leaf.

Dynamic Business: ASEAN key to ambitious trade goals (NZ Herald)

Dynamic Business: ASEAN key to ambitious trade goals (NZ Herald)

Over the past five years, New Zealand’s economic ties with Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have undergone significant growth, from $17.15 billion in 2017 to $27.42b in 2022.

With 10 member states, the union is New Zealand’s third-largest trading partner — we now trade more in a week with Asean than we did in an entire year in the early 1970s.

The National-led Government has set an ambitious trade goal to double the value of our exports within a decade. Despite the region navigating the same economic challenges that echo worldwide, it is clear Asean will be an important component in New Zealand reaching its lofty ambitions.

The NZ Asean Business Alliance Conference in Kuala Lumpur last month saw more than 250 attendees gather from across the region and New Zealand to explore the tremendous opportunities inherent in mutual collaboration. There is a keen interest to do more and a desire from Asean to deepen its ties with New Zealand.

An economic anchor

Dynamic Business: NZ ministers tout Government’s trade ambitions at US summit (NZ Herald)

Dynamic Business: NZ ministers tout Government’s trade ambitions at US summit (NZ Herald)

Key coalition ministers have articulated a unified vision for New Zealand’s future that embraces innovation, value uplift and enhanced diplomatic ties with the United States and beyond.

The have also pledged to undertake a record number of trade missions in the Government’s first term — more than any government in the history of New Zealand.

Speaking at last week’s United States Business Summit, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Trade Minister Todd McClay delivered their first major speeches since the Government’s formation to a room packed with business leaders.

Peters outlined specific actions to unlock economic potential, including maximising the value of bilateral trade, resolving barriers to trade and strengthening supply chains. He stressed the importance of collaboration in industries that are key to building a more prosperous and secure future, including critical technologies and space.

He also spoke of the enduring and special relationship between New Zealand and the United States.

Silver Fern Farms’ Rob Hewett wins Chairperson of the year at Deloitte Top 200 awards (NZ Herald)

Silver Fern Farms’ Rob Hewett wins Chairperson of the year at Deloitte Top 200 awards (NZ Herald)

Rob Hewett, a prominent figure in New Zealand’s agribusiness sector, has been honoured as the 2023 Chairperson of the Year at the Deloitte Top 200 awards, celebrating his impressive leadership roles and the business success he has overseen.

Hewett is co-chair of Silver Fern Farms, a leading producer and global marketer of grass-fed red meat, owned in equal partnership by Silver Fern Farms Co-operative (a farmer co-operative that he also chairs) and Shanghai Maling Aquarius.

He is also chair of Farmlands Cooperative, Pioneer Energy, Woolworks, Fern Energy and Haulage.

Hewett has directorships at Pulse Energy and T&G Global.

Additionally, he actively manages a carbon-positive farm and participates in a think-tank for agricultural innovation.