Blunders of our local government

Shortly after I began this blog, I wrote about a couple of books on government failure.  There was Why Government Fails So Often which had a US focus, and The Blunders of our Governments which had a UK focus.

The authors of the second book define a blunder as

as an episode in which a government adopts a specific course of action in order to achieve one or more objectives and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes, either fails completely to achieve those objectives, or does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of “collateral damage” in the form of unintended and undesired consequences….financial, human, political or some combination of all three.

Most of the specific episodes the authors wrote about were on quite a large scale.  But smaller debacles can be just as telling.   Take, for example, the Island Bay cycleway.

I was the among the hundreds of local residents who crammed into a local church last night for the latest round in what must surely be a case study in how not to do things.  Unless, that is, your purpose is to deliberately and repeatedly ignore the cleary-stated wishes and preferences of the most directly affected members of the public –  in this case, the residents of the suburb.

Some years ago, the Wellington City Council and its cycling (Island Bay resident) mayor kicked off an ambitious (to give it the most flattering possible description) plan to build a cycleway from the sea (Island Bay) to the city.  The cost would, we were told, be modest and the benefits considerable.

As most readers will know, Wellington is not a flat city.  And much of the territory the cycleway was supposed to go through included older suburbs with cramped housing, narrow streets, and no nice wide grassy verges.   Berhampore isn’t Grey Lynn.  It was never remotely likely that creating a cycleway the full length planned would be cheap or easy.  Probably not very sensible either, but set that observation to one side.

By contrast, the main road through Island Bay is flat and wide (at least by Wellington standards), lined with pohutakawa trees that help make it a pleasure to be around home at Christmas.  So, thought the Council enthusiasts and the cycling lobby group, lets start in Island Bay.  A cycleway might go nowhere, but at least we’ll have made a start: they’d show sceptics what could be done.  It should have bothered evidence-based policymakers, that (a) there that weren’t many cyclists, and (b) that over the decades there had been very few accidents.   In other words, not much case for doing anything at all.  The status quo seemed to be working well.  Not, of course, that that ever deterred a visionary with someone else’s money and no effective accountability.

The process that led to the cycleway being constructed a couple of years ago was deeply flawed.  There was no proper consultation with residents, and the Council simply barged ahead with their plan.  In the process, they spent around $1.7 million –  that was originally what the entire cycleway (sea to city) was planned to cost.   And thus we have today a bizarre cycleway.    There still aren’t many cyclists.  There are more accidents than there were.  And in the one potentially dangerous part of the road –  though recall, with few or no actual accidents over the years –  through the main shopping area, there is no cycleway at all.    Visibility is much worse than it was (especially turning from side streets. or getting out of driveways of houses on The Parade), and the designers coped with bus-stops by weaving the cycleway onto the footpath in places.    Dozens of car parks were removed –  and anyone who does find a parallel park has to remember (in this small part of the city alone) to look on the passenger side before opening the door, lest they open the door into the path of a (rare) cyclist.   It is an outcome that has almost nothing to commend it.

Most of all, most residents really don’t like it or want it.   The Residents Association last year organised a vote of residents.   It wasn’t perfect, but as these things go it was organised pretty well, the checking was pretty good, and the final result wasn’t even close.  On a pretty big turnout, there was overwhelming opposition  (80 per cent plus, if I recall correctly) to what the council had landed us with.

That prompted a rethink.  In a constructive spirit, the Residents Association and the Council agreed to work together in a consultative process on better options.  That was more than a year ago.   There was a series of public meetings and workshops, and then the council staff went away to consider.  In all this, the elected councillors seem to have been largely absent  –  as if the staff ran the council, not the councillors.

Last week. the council staff revealed four new options, and opened a short period of public consultation on those options.    When I picked up the newspaper and read the story, I was flabbergasted. I have a low opinion of the Wellington City Council, but even I wasn’t prepared for what I read:

  • four possible options, not one of which involved simply unwinding what was done a couple of years ago and putting The Parade back as it was,
  • the cheapest of these four options –  recall, to fix something that had already cost $1.7 million –  was anouther $4.1 million (others cost up to $6.2 million).

And having taken out 34 parking places when they put the cycleway in, the council bureaucrats now proposed to take out another 57 parking places – including, in three of the four options, removing more than half the public carparks currently available in the shopping centre.

It was incredible.

And thus there was a huge turnout to the public meeting last night, at which council staff and their engineers/architects attempted to make their case (burbling on about “urban design principles”, the priority of safety etc) and councillors rather lamely defended the process.  We’ll see what the overall tone of the submissions/votes is, but I think it is prety easy to predict that residents’ opinion will be overwhelmingly opposed to any of the four council options, and in favour of something that looks a lot like a simple reinstatement of the way things were until a couple of years ago.

The committee of the Residents’ Association, and representatives of the local business community, took the stage to denounce the council.    The president of the association –  who has been keen to work with the Council –  described the process as a travesty of democracy, noting further

Greco called the four sanctioned options an insult, and warned the removal of 57 car parks could economically ruin the suburb.

She said residents had been put in an untenable position by arrogant council officers.

They offered a fifth option, which they estimated –  using some of the council’s own numbers – could be put in place for well under $1 million.   Applause from the floor suggested that at least among those attending the meeting it would command a great deal of support.

Who knows how it will end.   Most councillors don’t live in Island Bay, and aren’t necessarily responsive to residents’ wishes.  It is easy for them simply to impose a Green/cycling agenda, at ratepayers’ expense.  Of our own two ward councillors, neither will be standing at the next local body election –  one is heading for Parliament in a rock-solid safe Labour seat, and the other is also running for Parliament, in Christchurch, and plans to move to Christchurch anyway. He appears more interested in his Green Party agenda than in the interests and preferences of residents.

There are roughly 8000 people in Island Bay.  The cheapest of the Council’s four options is another $4.1 million –  or around $500 per head.    I know that my family of five would much rather have the $2500.  In fact, if the Residents Association costings are roughly right, we could have our main street back, parking spaces and all, fewer accidents, easier driving, better visibility, and still save 80 per cent of that money.

Island Bay is at the end of the road.   Get to the end of our suburb and the next stop would be Antarctica.  There is no through traffic, so no obvious reason why people outside the suburb should have any say at all, especially when the clear preference of residents is the spend much less money (most would prefer none had been spent in the first place) than the Council bureaucrats want to spend.    The principle of subsidiarity – making decisions at the lowest level possible –  seems highly relevant here.  If the Council don’t trust expressions of public opinion so far, perhaps they could run a proper little referendum, restricted to Island Bay residents, and including the Residents’ Association option.  Ask people to rank the five options, use preferential voting, and see which option wins.    It seems highly likely that the cheapest option would win, and not just because it is cheapest but because it reflects the way most residents would prefer Island Bay to be.

But I guess there is an ideology to pursue and bureaus to build.  And even our notionally centre-right government is apparently committed to lavishing public money (our money) on cycleways, whether they are needed and wanted or not.    I’m still torn as to whether the cycleway is a blunder of our (local) government, or a deliberate arrogant strategy.  Even if the latter, I suspect it is destined to end up the former.  It will be a long time before residents –  not just here, but in much of the rest of Wellington looking on –  will trust councillors again.