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.

34 thoughts on “Blunders of our local government

  1. The cheapest option, if a cycleway is considered to be desirable to encourage fewer car journeys (an admirable economic and environmental aim), is to share the footpath with pedestrians, using appropriate markings to divide the space if necessary. The only cost is to widen the footpath in some places. I anticipate people complaining about the risk to pedestrians, but there is no comparison between that risk and the risk to cyclists of sharing the road with cars – it is miniscule in comparison. Porirua has done this successfully in a number of locations around the city.


    • They widened the footpath in Moorefield Rd in Jville but by narrowing the roadway – but the footpath gets little stones on in so most of the cyclists use the road – which is narrower now so you can’t pass them safely.

      They spent lots of money on the main road in Jville for cyclists – but very few seem to use it (was months before I saw one) as it only leads to the top of the Ngauranga Gorge and that is too steep for most cyclists. The few that do use it are competent cyclists who seem to prefer the traffic lanes anyway as the cycleway runs along next to the parked cars.


      • Graeme: “They widened the footpath in Moorefield Rd in Jville but by narrowing the roadway – but the footpath gets little stones on in so most of the cyclists use the road – which is narrower now so you can’t pass them safely.”

        We drive that road a couple of times a week, on average. We’ve never seen anybody – cyclists or pedestrians – using that path. Another piece of wasted development, it seems.

        “They spent lots of money on the main road in Jville for cyclists – but very few seem to use it (was months before I saw one) as it only leads to the top of the Ngauranga Gorge and that is too steep for most cyclists.”

        Indeed. The lack of interconnection between short stretches of cycleway renders them largely useless, certainly to commuters. The same applies to the Island Bay iteration.


  2. Initially I was extremely doubtful of John Keys, National party line on Roads of National Significance and cycleways. But the completion of the Waterview Connection has eased traffic congestion throughout Auckland with a single $1.4 billion spend on a state of the art tunnel and the change is impressive. Previous a drive along Dominion road from Mt Roskill to Mt Eden would have taken easily 45 minutes. That travel time today is just around 12 minutes. A nice clear run into the city. Perhaps Len Browns rail is not even necessary given that the first tranche will now cost $3.5 billion from city to Mt Eden.


    • Great job but having cost about 4 times the cost of the Eastern Link from Tauranga to Paengaroa and the Route K toll road into Tauranga its rather an injustice to see you getting a free ride and we in Tauranga have the only town in NZ where we have to pay to get into and pay to leave.
      And what’s rub the salt into the wound is that Bridges the Minister is our MP.
      I can’t even go from my suburb to town on a motorway without incurring a toll there and back.
      Biggest export and import port in NZ. Population and housing growing faster than anywhere else once more.

      That’s why we want Winston back.


  3. Michael
    Wellington streets are narrow and can’t usually be widened. At present they are pretty much 100% allocated to verge, footpath, parking, and moving vehicles.
    Whenever anyone seeks to reallocate any space there is a conflict between the users of these areas. The total inability of Council to create a comprehensive bus-priority corridors is an illustration. The Island Bay cycle-way is another.
    I believe that the fundamental problem, and the only plausible source of “new” space (whether for buses or cyclists), will have to come at the expense of parked cars/verge/pedestrians (not moving vehicles as happen in Island Bay).
    But each of these areas has very motivated and energetic incumbents.
    To be successful, any reallocation plan must be practicable in an operational and political sense. And that means having a strategy and taking time to implement it.
    Every time I drive through the Mt Victoria tunnel and see “1931” proudly carved into its lintel I’m reminded that long term strategies to manage local roads don’t come easily, or often.


    • I know exactly what you mean about that “1931”. The Terrace tunnel is another, more recent, problem – apparently only one lane south to save money back in the 70s.

      There are times when the reallocations you talk of are genuinely necessary. If so, the losers should be compensated (and even the Public Works Act is generally insufficiently generous in its compensation). Such reallocations will rarely be necessary in end-of-the-line suburbs, against the overwhelming weight of public opinion.


      • The road is public space and is not owned by the residents or businesses.
        They have no claim to it & the Council would be rightly justified in charging for parking if it doesn’t already to get an economic return on the parking space.
        Given the limited width of NZ roads most changes always require the removal of parking.
        I note that where I live there is no parking available at all on the main roads.


    • ..or sometimes you have a bus priority lane that you didn’t ask for and didn’t want and cost a fortune – the $11M Manners Mall one springs to mind. Sometimes special interest lobby groups can try to get expensive things like longer airport runways too.


    • Speaking of reallocations – now there are no trolley buses going thru the Mt Victoria bus tunnel – it could be opened up to one way traffic for cars – into town in the morning and out of town in the evening. It would cost zilch as the traffic lights are already there – and the inbound traffic can go down Elizabeth St and the outbound up Pirie St from Vivian St.

      The buses can return through the Mt Vic tunnel – as they are mostly empty in that direction anyway. I am sure the Mt Vic Residents Assn would approve as they really didn’t want that overpass…..


    • A good long tern strategy for buses and transport would be to deregulate the industry just as the trucking industry was. along with taxis the bus industry remains one of the few still propped up by Govt. regulation hence no changes for 100 years other than new trucks and bigger transport subsidy trough. Say for instance in the case of Tauranga, where buses run according to the socialists, a person wants to get to work from various suburbs at 6.00 or 6.30 am. Bus drivers either are still in bed or the buses simply don’t go in the directions needed. I kinda like the idea that I’ve seen where owners run their own buses and can get allocated routes that WILL SERVE THE CUSTOMER.
      No owner can do that, the route has to be set by the socialist gatekeeper and supporter of the bus companies as they are with out regard to the customer. So we have industrial area’s and suburbs and never the bus routes will meet.
      The biggest beneficiaries of the socialists desire to do this is of course the big bus companies including Mr Browns. ( Not his fault he is just troughing the system like all beneficiaries do.) Deregulate and let the market work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You would wonder if an Uber style phone app might make buses redundant at some stage. There is a terrific wastage in cars driving around with empty seats – and say the Govt/Council were to give a rates/tax rebate to private drivers to pick up passengers then we could get much better overall mobility than we do now.

        Some years back I proposed to the Wellington Regional Council the idea of a multi-booth “car pool” bustop style shelter – so you could stand in a booth with the destination sign over it. Drivers could pick you up and then be paid like Uber for your trip. The Govt/Council could pick up part/all of the cost for those that qualify.

        Surprisingly buses use more energy and produce more CO2 per passenger than cars do (see Wikipeadia). Certainly a car going past is going there anyway – so there are good environmental reasons for getting rid of buses.


  4. Yes it is the triumph of arrogance and ideology over reason. The Wellington City Council and the regime in Venezuela have much in common. Another fake consultation and a preposterous outcome that ignores the very real concerns of those directly affected.


  5. Cant help thinking you are being a little bit precious
    I had a look on Google Earth and cruised along The Parade to Adelaide Road
    You got a tonne of room – what on earth are you talking about

    I lived south of Melbourne for many years down near Beach road which follows the Port Phillip Bay and they have put in a 20 km dual footpath cycle way which works really well go and have a look at it and swing around 180 degrees and see the people using it

    Beach Road is no wider than The Parade, but it is configured differently and it works

    Have a look,145.015029,3a,75y,334.34h,94.07t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sq-PEoms0v805411A3Wy6Cw!2e0!!7i13312!8i6656


    • Maybe, but there are v few cyclists here, the residents don’t want it, and the latest scheme to wipe out 50 more carparks reaches whole new levels of craziness. Personally, I’d rather they left the thing as is than spend another $4m plus, and wipe out numerous carparks which will undermine the shopping centre (that I count on being there when i’m really old!)

      As I said, The Parade is wide by Wgtn standards. We liked it like that. My point is more about democracy and majority-rule etc than about the substance of the cycleway.


      • Michael Reddell: “the “chief planner” – no one should ever have such a title – sounded like an Australian import.”

        He is. He spoke to us at the public meeting organised by Greg O’Connior about the Jo’ville Mall. Our impression was that he’s attempting to impose Australian solutions on the Wellington environment. His contribution was not well-received, to put it mildly!

        We agree with you about the title. After numerous unfortunate interactions with these people, in more than one council, we consider that “planner” – whether or not chief – is the world’s most unnecessary occupation.


  6. What about blunders of the Labour Party? These guys must be the dumbest party in the entire world. It is very simple. You cannot garner votes by saying “Vote for me and I will tax you!”

    I told that to David Cunliffe when he was in charge of the finance portfolio with Phil Goff as Labour leader. I said to him, that he was barking up the wrong tree. I predicted to him that he would lose badly and cost Phil Goff his job. He did not belief me. Dumb.

    I warned David Shearer and David Parker to get off the tax wagon. But no they did not.I told them they would lose their jobs and lo and behold they got the sack. Dumber

    Andrew Little came in strongly saying No Capital Gains tax and then he went and did the dumbest thing. He went and jumped back onto the tax band wagon. Dumber than dumb.

    Now we have little missy Ardern with zero work experience and a politician from day 1, the dumbest of them all still harping about pushing more taxes.

    They need to get through their thick skull to get off the tax agenda. Dumb, Dumber and now the very dumbest. It has got nothing to do with the leadership. It has everything to do with having a Capital Gains Tax and wealth distribution agenda as a policy platform to launch a stupid campaign.


    • Former Prime Minister David Lange is reputed to have described a capital gains tax as the sort of tax you introduce if you want to lose not just one election, but the next three! And he should know since the Fourth Labour Government considered a capital gains tax back in 1988, eventually rejecting it as being too difficult.


  7. Mike you must understand that these cycle ways which are being built everywhere and getting little use, are straight out of Agenda 21 now Agenda 2030.
    Councils are infested with indoctrinated staff that push cycle story nationwide.
    It is costing ratepayers millions .


  8. Tauranga Council is infested with them as well. The Transportation Manager at Council is a bus freak.
    Buses here are about as useless as tits on a bull. Cycle ways are hardly used and they spend like one armed bandits. Recently spent 2.something on a pedestrian over bridge that leads to the Polytech.. Now I go under that often and so far have seen 3, yep 3 users.

    Our roads are clogged and in some cases not fit for purpose any more. We have 60 or so year old bridges on the main roads that are begging to collapse but do they care. Hell no. And, the Minister for Bridges is our MP. But, he did get and underpass to get himself elected. Trouble is that it won’t fix the bloody bridge which is the problem on the way into town.


    • Those new cycleways are a great wide walkway. for pedestrians. No complains from me. What is annoying is being yelled at by cyclists that think they have exclusive rights to those cycleways. Cyclists should be banned. They are a danger to motor vehicles and pedestrians and are far too abusive in their behaviour.


  9. It’s always fun to blame the planners but don’t under-estimate the influence of Free Money (TM) on these decisions. Councils are shameless in what they will do get some equity capital out of someone other than ratepayers.

    We have a national Cycling & Walking Strategy administered by NZTA. In the current year $61m has been allocated to this programme. The bulk of this funding will go (I imagine) to councils who also have formalised a Walking and Cycling Strategy. Such councils can apply to NZTA for funding to implement their strategy. While ratepayers will still be up for some of the capital and all of the operational expenses I am sure WCC are delighted not to have let a chance for Free Money pass them by.

    I suspect the problem is that NZTA does not impose the same level of rigour when assessing funding applications for Walking & Cycling projects as it does for its Local Roads programmes (also a subsidy to councils).


    • I think you get extra points for annoying motorists with your cycleway.

      A really good use of the money would be a cycleway/walkway on the seaside of railway the along the Hutt Motorway from Ngauranga to Petone – then the existing unused cycleway could be used as an extra lane. But the Wellington Regional Council has a policy of not supporting road expansion as they think a certain amount of traffic congestion is desirable to get people on to their trains. (They even made that statement in their submission to the Grenada to Petone link)


  10. Doesn’t seem right to have a trade mark on free money! 🙂

    It is not at all reassuring, but similar nonsense is being wrought in Christchurch.


    • I suspect you will find lots of councils justifying unwanted cycleway projects because of the funding it attracts. CCC also add another twist – again, almost certainly repeated in other councils – by charging development contributions to build cycleways. The only way that can be legal is if they can prove that they are adding capacity to the transport network. In other words they avoided upgrading some roads because of the number of cyclists using the new cycleways. I would be astounded if they could prove that.


  11. Michael Reddell: “In all this, the elected councillors seem to have been largely absent – as if the staff ran the council, not the councillors.”

    A couple of years ago, we in Khandallah were presented – at a public meeting and in drop-in sessions – with planners’ visions for medium-density housing in this area. We’d had no idea that anything of the sort was in the wind, and we hadn’t been consulted at all.

    Our impression was that, not only had councillors also had no input into the proposals, they actually had no idea of the extent of what was being proposed. We pointed out that we elect councillors to represent us, and that Council staff work for the ratepayers, not the other way about.

    Unsurprisingly, those proposals went down like a bucket of cold sick. The opposition was immediate and eloquently-articulated. The planners who were at the meeting looked like they’d had cold water thrown over them: they had clearly not expected the level of opposition expressed. Any opposition, even.

    Council was forced to back down and go back to the drawing board, so to speak.

    We’ve just this week had e-mail notification of a public meeting next week, at which we’ll hear from both mayor and councillors about plans for our area. Let’s hope that this time, they’ve listened to the local residents. We shall see…

    With regard to the Island Bay cycleway, we haven’t commented, judging that to be the prerogative of the locals. But we’ve been astonished at the expense of the options recently presented, and that there’s been no suggestion from Council that the road layout would just be returned to what it used to be. We’re deeply sympathetic over the removal of car parks; as we get older, walking for any distance – or even using public transport – becomes increasingly problematic. We need access to cars, and somewhere to park them when we get to wherever it is we’re going. Any of you sceptical about this, just wait till you get to where some of us are now!

    If ever there were a city mostly unsuited to cycling, it is Wellington. Council staff should abandon their obsession with cycleways and stop annoying the rest of us with their idealistic and wildly impractical proposals.


      • Michael Reddell: “I wrote about one of those medium-density meetings, on this side of town, a couple of years ago”

        I’m not sure whether I’d read that piece at the time. The meeting in Island Bay was exactly a week before ours in Khandallah. Aside from the nature of the audience reaction (I don’t think that anyone was concerned about who might move into the neighbourhood), you could have been writing the script for the Khandallah meeting.

        A couple of weeks before the public meeting, we’d received in the mail a submission form, inviting our feedback on medium density housing in this area. The form took as a given that we the residents agreed with the proposals: it merely asked for our views on location and design standards, and our opinion on the so-called “town centre” – meaning Khandallah village – and so on. There was no mention of public consultation on the form: it was sheer chance that we saw a notice at the village hall about drop-in sessions. We went to one; there were some pretty robust views expressed in opposition. After those sessions, and in response to the opposition, Council organised the public meeting that was eventually held 19 November 2015.

        At that meeting, Council staff told us that they’d had a public meeting in Island Bay, that those in attendance agreed with Council proposals, and that it was all go there. Or words to that effect. Were it not for there being a person at the Khandallah meeting who’d also been at the Island Bay event, we’d not have known that what we’d been told wasn’t true.

        Residents’ opposition centred on the fact that, firstly, the village is nowhere near large enough to be characterised as a town centre for planning purposes. Secondly, there is a paucity of flat – or even flattish – land, such as the planners were saying would be used for medium density housing, in the suburb as a whole, let alone within walking distance of the village. And much of what there is has already been subdivided for infill housing, which is allowed under current planning rules. Residents were spooked by talk of small housing footprints, which means multi-storey units; given that Khandallah tends to be vertiginous, people are very protective of their views and access to sunlight. The thought that somebody could without notice to neighbours build a 3-storey (or higher) town house or apartment building next to their property scared the hell out of people. I think one person spoke in support, but I’m guessing that he’d think that right up to the point that a 3-storey building went up on his north or west boundary…

        The entire process was in our view a demonstration of how not to do consultation. The residents have had one or two unfortunate experiences with developers in this area, and people were understandably leery of anything that would give such people extra powers to do what they like. We don’t altogether trust Council officers, and especially not planners. We shall see what eventuates at next week’s meeting.


  12. It’s very similar in Chch, except for scale — we have a whole network of these things gradually being rolled out, costing around $200 mill at last count. And every week there’s a new disaster — businesses having to shut, people’s houses being demolished, cycleway land turning out to be owned by another government department etc. And for what? More road delays, more traffic accidents, and nothing beneficial (except for the small number who now have their own private lanes to do their cycling on).

    Truly a triumph of lobbying and fake-science over substance and reality.


    • Yeah there will be nothing left for these people to cycle to….

      I read expenditure per predicted additional cyclist in the Wellington area was $28,000. Sure way better than the Auckland rail tunnel at around $300K per new user – but still a lot more than the cyclist would consider paying themselves.


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