Mostly this blog is focused on national policy issues and national economic developments. But local government matters too. Often the choices local government make affect us at least as much as questionable central government choices do, and – so it seems – they are typically based on less-robust analysis, and with less transparency and serious accountability. The cavalier approach towards the use of our money – from people who would not be so rash in their private lives, with their own money – would almost beggar belief. “Almost” except that public choice literature has been analysing for decades the incentives, and absence of constraints, that lead to such behaviour.
In the headlines this week have been the efforts of the Auckland Council. The Mayor, it appears, commissioned a $1 million report on a possible new ($1.5 billion) sports stadium, which his own fellow councillors have not been allowed copies of. The Mayor and his office – again – defy for months the provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (the local government equivalent of the OIA). The first element of the purpose statement in the LGOIMA is
The purposes of this Act are—
to increase progressively the availability to the public of official information held by local authorities, and to promote the open and public transaction of business at meetings of local authorities, in order—
to enable more effective participation by the public in the actions and decisions of local authorities; and
to promote the accountability of local authority members and officials,—
and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote good local government in New Zealand:
Something that too many mayors, councillors, and local government bureaucrats seem to treat with contempt.
The Wellington City Council is at least as bad as any of them. On the LGOIMA, I gather that requesters have still not been able to get from the council documents relating to the subsidy the residents of Wellington are paying to Singapore Airlines (now to provide additional flights between Wellington and Melbourne). It is as if councillors – and their staff – believe we work for them, not the other way round.
On spending, we don’t have anything quite as expensive as a $1.5 billion stadium – not happening for now, but presumably only a matter of time. But that is about $1000 per Aucklander. Here, we’ve had the desperate desire of councillors to kick in $100 million or so to extend (privately-owned) Wellington airport’s runway (a project fortunately stymied, at least for now, by the courts), $90 million to refurbish and strengthen the Wellington Town Hall, $165 million for a convention centre and film museum. Not one of those projects would be likely to survive the scrutiny of a proper cost-benefit analysis, but that, of course, doesn’t deter our council.
And the waste – and the arrogance – flows all the way down to individual neighbourhoods. I live in Island Bay, a pleasant seaside community of about 8000, where the residents as a group tend to vote for big-government parties (around 60 per cent of the party vote in last year’s election went to Labour and the Greens). We had the misfortune to be the test-bed for the Council’s cycleway policy (which I wrote about here).
The plan was for a cheap cycleway all the way from Island Bay to the city. Never mind that the supporting analysis never stacked up, or that hilly Wellington is one of the least propitious places for cycleways anywhere. Years later, we have a deeply unpopular cycleway to nowhere (running a couple of kilometres along one of the safer wider roads in Wellington, before petering out just as things start to get tricky for the few potential cyclists). The Council spent $1.7 million putting the thing in – originally they thought to spend less than that getting the whole way into the city – and is about to spend another $4 million to change the scheme, and in doing so they still avoid responding to the clearly expressed preferences of residents in a fairly well-designed and run “vote” organised by the residents’ association. $700 per resident – almost as bad as a sports stadium on Auckland’s waterfront, and a great deal of aggravation later – all to impose something that local residents simply don’t want, and wouldn’t choose to spend their money on. But councillors have a dream……while we have a nightmare (expensive, unattractive, and dangerous). One might suppose that on an issue that affects no one outside the local neighbourhood, majority local preferences should be an absolute basis for not proceeding, not wasting public money. As it is, there is next to no effective accountability, since Island Bay is subsumed in a larger ward and of the local councillors who voted for the scheme, one resigned shortly afterwards to become an MP in rock-solid Labour seat, and the other has announced he is moving to Christchurch and will be standing down at the next election. The Residents’ Association is reduced to taking costly and risky legal action against their own council.
But today I wanted to highlight another small Wellington City Council excess. It is of no wider interest, except as symptomatic of the way our money is wasted by councillors up and down the country. As I said, Island Bay is a pleasant seaside place. Just to the left of the photo, fishing boats lie at rest, and the eponymous island guards the entrance. There is a pleasant sandy beach, good for swimming (if somewhat bracing). There weren’t a lot of people around when I took this photo on a cool late-autumn morning, but on summer afternoons the beach is often crowded and finding somewhere to park can be a challenge.
And so what is the Wellington City Council in the process of doing? Why, removing probably half a dozen carparks on the main road (you can see where the dark new seal is by the van) – and others on the side street – as part of putting in a new roundabout. This little project is said to be costing $400000. There was, it appears, no consultation with either residents or beach users.
Both roads are wide, and neither is particularly busy (I walk down there most days). There is no obvious problem, no apparent record of accidents, but that doesn’t stop the Council frittering away public money. I guess we should be grateful for small mercies: a few years ago when the sea wall was damaged in a storm, some councillors wanted to rip up the road (past the new roundabout) altogether and let the sea “take back its own”. Fortunately, they lost that battle.
Each individual project like this doesn’t sound like much. But they add up, and before you know where you are, hundreds of millions of hard-pressed ratepayer’s money is being lavished on the big stuff with little rigour, less transparency, and not much accountability. It is a shame there is no way to have councillors put rather more of their own money on the line: perhaps for each new initiative they vote for councillors could consider making a personal contribution equal to, say, ten times the average per capita cost of the project in question. When the mayor, Justin Lester writes a personal cheque for $4000 as a contribution to the convention centre, and another for $2500 for the town hall refurbishment or the runway extension, I’d start taking the views that underpin his wastefulness (with other people’s money) a little more seriously. Of course, even then it might just be considered a campaign expense on a journey towards Parliament. Instead, we go on with citizens being plundered to pursue the whims of councillors and specific vested interests.