Reading the regional GDP data

A few weeks ago SNZ published the annual regional GDP data. These data don’t tend to get much coverage, partly because of the (probably inevitable) long publication lags (the headline data are for the year to March 2022, the sectoral data by region for the year to March 2021) and partly because the numbers are for nominal GDP only. One might also have feared that Covid lockdown and border closure effects would further muddy anything that could be taken from the last couple of years of data.

But the data are worth persevering with, and there are all sorts of interesting snippets one can find.

First, here is how the regional shares of GDP have changed this century to date (the first data available are for the year to March 2000). Bay of Plenty’s share of total national GDP has increased from 5.2 per cent in 2000 to 6.0 per cent in the year to March 2022.

The high placings of Waikato and Bay of Plenty weren’t a surprise, but I hadn’t expected to see three South Island regional council areas in the top six places, or that the South Island’s share of the national economy has actually increased this century. Most of the laggards are in the bottom half of the North Island, perhaps most notably Wellington – an area not only sustained by government spending and employment, but with local authorities and related lobby groups who’d like you to believe that Wellington was some sort of cool tech hub, and thus well-positioned for the 21st century.

(Eyeballing the data, Covid didn’t seem to have affected the rankings materially – numbers to March 2022 being much the same as those to March 2020).

Wellington’s decline has been fairly unbroken

On the other hand, here are a couple of idiosyncratic stories: big temporary lifts for Taranaki (Tui oil) and Canterbury (earthquakes make you poorer but generate a lot of (gross) new activity in the repaid and rebuild phase).

What about population shares?

Here, a positive number means population in that region has grown faster than the national average (eg Auckland’s population has grown from 31.0 per cent of the total to 33.2 per cent). Almost all the above-average growth has been in the North Island, with some contribution from Tasman/Nelson, and Canterbury more or less holding its own. The bottom half of the North Island has again lagged behind. (At a regional council level, no area has had a fall in population over the century to date).

Of the bigger urban areas, Wellington has had the slowest rate of population growth (behind even Otago).

What of GDP per capita? The good news is that all the places that had GDP per capita above the national average in 2000 (Auckland, Wellington, Taranaki) were closer to the national average by 2022. and apart from Northland and Hawke’s Bay all the region with average GDP per capita in 2000 were at least a bit closer to average by 2022. Southland, which includes Queenstown, now has GDP per capita just a bit above the national average. Convergence… isn’t really that common these days. But it has happened here.

The biggest, by far, chunk of the population is in Auckland. Here is what has happened to average GDP per capita in Auckland this century relative to the national average.

My story on this data is that (a) it is quite heavily influenced by construction cycles (a smaller boom in the mid-00s and rising to record levels of construction now), but that (b) if anything the underlying trend is downwards. That second strand might seem a bold claim, but construction really has been at unprecedented levels in the last few years and GDP per capita relative to national average still isn’t back to 2000 levels. It will be fascinating to see what happens to this series over the next few years.

(More generally, and I have written on this before, the margin between GDP per capita in Auckland and the rest of the country is very small compared to what we see in almost all European countries’ biggest cities, and in places like New York and San Francisco in the US. All that talk of “one global city” etc simply isn’t reflected in the economic outcomes).

But if the Auckland story is underwhelming – not much sign of leading edge productivity growth etc – here is the same chart for Wellington

Yes, average GDP per capita is higher than in Auckland (now just), but look at the magnitude and sustained nature of the decline of the century. And a big chunk of Wellington’s GDP isn’t really subject to market tests.

The sectoral GDP data by region lag by a year and the latest data are for the March 2021 year. But here is a time series chart for a couple of key sectors, and one other.

Wellington has become more dependent on core government functions this century, and the category where you might expect to find all those high-tech industries (included the taxpayer subsidised film industry) has shrunk quite considerably as a share of regional GDP (almost as much of a shrinkage as in the share of manufacturing).

That tech-y looking sector has been shrinking as a share of GDP everywhere, and it is still a larger share in Wellington than in Auckland or the rest of the country, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of story the Wellington boosters would like to tell.

And if Wellington is more of a professional services sort of place than Auckland or the rest of New Zealand (lots of public sector consultancy services being sold?) nothing much about the experience this century stands out either.

And for those interested, here is the construction sector share of (nominal) GDP

There aren’t any big messages from this post (mostly just the fruit of fossicking in the data) except perhaps the continuation of the regional economic story of this century, the unbroken relative decline in Wellington – whether population, GDP, or GDP per capita, all accompanied by increasingly unaffordable housing, and all despite things like film subsidies and an increasing size of government. Without those twin subsidies, would Wellington have anything more going for it than Dunedin?

Regional economies

Some months ago, when all was coronavirus, Statistics New Zealand released their regional GDP data for the year to March 2019.  I didn’t even open the spreadsheet at the time, but went looking for some data the other day and remembered I hadn’t written about the regional GDP numbers this year.

SNZ has been publishing the regional GDP data, by regional council area, for some time now.  The first data are for the year to March 2000, meaning that we now have 20 annual observations.

Here is how per capita (nominal) GDP for each of the regions relative to national (nominal) GDP per capita has changed since 2000.

regional GDP 20 yrs

I suppose it is convergence of sorts.  Even in the very poorest region –  Northland – per capita GDP has increased very slightly relative to the national average, while the three highest GDP regions (Auckland, Taranaki, and Wellington) have all dropped back relative to the national average.    The gap between the South Island and the North Island has more than halved and –  if one is to believe the numbers –  GDP per capita in Marlborough now isn’t much behind that in Auckland.

I’ve discussed previously the relative underperformance of Auckland.   There aren’t many OECD economies where the biggest city has per capita GDP only about 12 per cent above the national average (let alone where that gap has narrowed this century).  But it is only fair to note that Auckland had been staging something of a recovery. Here is the time series chart of Auckland’s per capita GDP relative to the national average.

auckland GDP

Population surges and associated building tend to be good for Auckland –  but there is no sign of productivity leadership, when per capita incomes in Auckland are still a bit lower (relatively) than they were 20 years ago.  I think it was the economist Andrew Coleman who suggested, only slightly tongue in cheek, that the business of Auckland was building Auckland.  Here is construction as a share of GDP for Auckland (these data lag another year behind).

auckland construction

Having said that, I was a little surprised to stumble on this chart.

akld popn

Of course, if the Auckland economic performance this century has been underwhelming –  especially relative to the rhetoric and political capital invested in talk of our “one global city” (the one just a bit smaller than Columbus, Ohio) it is as nothing compared to the relative decline of Wellington, despite all the puffery from the Wellington City Council, its “economic development” agencies, and the like.  Here is GDP per capita for the Wellington Regional Council area (largely greater Wellington).

Wellington GDP

Recessions might be good for Wellington’s relative position –  not many public servants get laid off in downturns (including the current one) – but otherwise it is a pretty stark and consistent decline.   Wellington’s share of the national population has also been falling steadily – albeit perhaps more slowly than the decline in per capita GDP might suggest was warranted.

At least if you live in Wellington, one often hears talk of the Wellington IT sector and, of course, the heavily-subsidised Wellington film industry.  The regional GDP breakdowns don’t show either directly, but the red line in this chart remains somewhat sobering.

wgtn sectoral

Last year SNZ decided to discontinue its annual screen industry statistics –  claiming (no doubt fairly) budgetary pressures, although it must have been convenient for the government (this one, like its predecessors) keen to talk about the alleged economic benefits of their massive subsidies to the film sector, even as what evidence there is rarely offers much support for their claims.     The last such data came out a year ago for the 2017/18 year.  Here is a snippet from the gross revenue table, by region.

gross film revenue

And here is the same snippet for 2012 and 2013.

gross film rev 2012

So gross revenues of Wellington production and post-production facilities/services –  mostly feature films (unlike Auckland) in the most recent year were not even three-quarters of what they’d been in 2012.

(There is a longer series of earnings for jobs in the total production and post-production sector – including the domestic-oriented bits – of the screen industry: relative to GDP it was no higher at the end of the period than when the series started in 2005. And estimated number of jobs in the sector has gone from 20400 to 20300 over the same longer period.   It looks like a classic infant industry  –  remaining infant and kept going by massive subsidies that keep the rest of us poorer.)

All this is, of course, against a backdrop in which national-level productivity growth remained very weak, and New Zealand continued to drift behind more and more countries that, not too long ago, we never even thought of as relevant comparators.

queen 4


Wellington: not doing amazing things

This rather saccharine picture turned up in my lettterbox yesterday on the back of a publicity (for the mayor and councillors) pamphlet from the Wellington City Council.


The picture was actually part of an advert for the coming local body elections, but I thought it quite nicely encapsulated what is wrong with the mindset of so much of local government, including the Wellington City Council.

Many people would settle for local government doing the basics well. In Wellington, we are living with the ongoing disaster that is the new bus schedules and bus contracts.  It should really be pretty basic stuff – not as if running or contracting bus services is a new activity for local government – but they can’t even manage that.   That particular failure is the responsibility of the Wellington Regional Council (and you have wonder whether any sitting councillors will be re-elected in October).

What of the Wellington City Council?  In a post a couple of months ago, I noted a little example of ongoing incompetence –  the month it took, after several reports, to get them to fix a water leak in the middle of the road at the end of a quiet no-exit street, defended by a council officer on the grounds that they had needed to put in place a “traffic management plan”.

That’s a small item, and perhaps my experience was unrepresentative. A bigger example was the debacle of the Island Bay cycleway: never mind that it wasn’t wanted by residents, and is now facing a multi-million do-over (and a court case for judicial review): it was an “amazing thing” championed by the Mayor and his colleages.

But there are plenty of really big items too –  both actual failures, and grand schemes (“amazing things” probably) that typically involves plans to spend tens of millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money with little serious scrutiny and evaluation.   The biggest failure of course is house and urban prices: not as bad as Auckland, but certainly getting up there.  Buying a house in Wellington city in your 20s –  the sort of thing that was a normal expectation just a few decades ago –  is quite out of the reach of any average earner now.  And whatever overarching failures of central government in permitting this, the actual choices around land use regulation are made by local governments.  High house and urban land prices in Wellington City are almost totally the responsibility of the Wellington City Council.  An “amazing thing” no doubt.

Then, of course, there are the schemes championed by the Mayor to spend lots of money on a Wellington airport runway extension, even though the owners of the airport don’t regard such an extension as economically viable for them. At present, that one is tied up in courts, but it is another “amazing thing” they are keen on.  Or the planned convention centre?   A mere bagatelle at $180 million, and never a reasonable explanation for why –  if this was such a good idea –  no one in the private sector was rushing to build it.   Or the ever-escalating cost of fixing Wellington’s Town Hall (well over $100m and rising).  Another “amazing thing”?

And this week, residents suddenly found that the Central Library has been closed down indefinitely.  I’m a bit of a sceptic on public libraries, but my kids (and many other people) use them a lot.  According to the mayor, it wasn’t a legal obligation to close the building –  a new seismic report –  but a “moral obligation”.  No hint as to when library might re-open, let alone of the cost of fixing this council-owned building.   Too bad about the lost revenue (the closure meant closing down yet another car park), or the people who will lose their jobs (from the cafe inside the library –  the public servants are protected).   Like so many councils, Wellington can’t get the basics right but is only to happy to burble on about doing “amazing things”.

Okay, so that was the rant bit of this post.  I had been planning anyway to follow up on my brief reference to Wellington’s (greater Wellington this time) economic performance in my post the other day on regional GDP.   Over the period for which we have data (starting in the year to March 2000), Wellington has had the slowest growth in average per capita GDP of any region in the country.   I might almost have expected that if the starting point had been 1980 –  before the economic liberalisation that (a) slimmed down central government, and (b) meant many few companies were motivated to have head offices in Wellington.    From a starting point of 2000 –  and being anything but a Wellington booster – I was more surprised.

Of course, it is only fair to point out that average per capita GDP in Wellington is the highest of any region in New Zealand (Taranaki was higher for several years after 2007, after new oil production came on stream but it dropped back to second a few years ago now.)

wgtn GDP pc

For the last 10 years, Wellington has grown only a touch more slowly than the nation as a whole, but none of the lost ground has been recovered.   (Recessions tend to be relatively good for Wellington, as the public sector lays off staff –  or stops hiring –  much more slowly than the private sector.)

There are various reasons why Wellington’s average GDP per capita might be higher than that in the rest of the country.  One factor is that the share of the working age population employed is higher here (70.1 per cent last year in Wellington, 67.7 per cent in the country as a whole).   Some of that –  but not much –  is because Wellington has a smaller than average share of population aged 65 and over (13.2 per cent in 2013, vs 14.4 per cent nationally).  Wellington also has a slightly smaller (than average) share of the population in the under-15 age group.  So there is something –  but perhaps not much –  to the old story about Wellington that it was where young people came, but as many as possible later left.

I suspect that the biggest part of the story  –  say, why average per capita GDP in Wellington is materially higher than in (similar population) Christchurch – is simply that Wellington is “dominated” by head office functions of the biggest entity in the country, government.   “Public administration, defence, and safety” makes up about 4.5 per cent GDP nationwide, and 10.4 per cent in Wellington, and the overwhelming bulk of the well-paying jobs in that sector will be in Wellington head offices.   And it isn’t just activities that are captured in that “public administration etc” component of production GDP.  Like any head office (or, in case, system of head offices) there is a myriad of specialist functions – in private sector services businesses –  that are in Wellington because the public sector head offices are here (consultants, lawyers, lobbyists etc).

(You can have arguments, if you like, about whether these public servants etc are in some sense overpaid –  which, if true, would also inflate Wellington’s nominal GDP.  Since I was a head office public sector functionary for decades and my wife is a senior public servant now I’m not even going to try to offer a detached perspective on that one.)

Of course, no city of 400000+ people is ever just about one industry, even indirectly so.   As I noted in the earlier post, there is lots of hype at times about the Wellington tech sector, the Wellington film sector etc  I’ve written previously about the film and related industry, which may well have a range of high-paying jobs, but is –  on their own telling –  totally reliant on central government subsidies for their survival here.  The presence of that industry isn’t a sign of a city/region with an economy on a robust long-term footing.

In the regional GDP release, SNZ includes tables showing a breakdown by sector of each region’s GDP (although with another year’s lag, so the new data in that area are for the year to March 2017).    I showed a chart the other day on the share of the “information, media and telecommunications” sector component of Wellington GDP.   Here is a slightly revised version of that chart (this time as share of the total GDP of all industries, without the GST etc correction). I’ve also shown the share for public administration etc.

wgtn GDP 2

Without further digging it is nothing more than correlation, but do note that Wellington’s greatest relative regional decline (see previous chart) was over the period when the share of public administration etc was rising quite strongly.

There has been a decline in the nationwide share of GDP accounted for in that “Information etc” category, but it is nothing like the magnitude of the fall experienced in Wellington.   That’s a relative decline.   (The regional numbers include “other services” under that same heading, but nationwide – where a more-detailed breakdown is available –  the share of “other services” has changed little over the period since 2000.

Perhaps all the good and exciting Wellington tech stuff is lurking under other headings?  Glancing through the table the only obvious other category is “Professional, scientific and technical services”.   But even add them together with the “Information etc” category and you still get a significant drop in the combined sector’s share of Wellington GDP (albeit in the first half of the period, the combined share has been fairly flat for the last decade).

And which sectors have grown strongly in Wellington since 2000?  The three fastest growing sectors were  –  in first place –  “rental, hiring and real estate services”  (a corollary of the decline in owner-occupancy rates?), and then “electricity, gas, water, and waste”, and “food and beverage services”.   It reminded of a recent conversation with someone who immigrated to New Zealand a few years ago and holds a high level head office job, and who really really loves Wellington.  When I pushed him on why, a lot seemed to come down to the coffee.  Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but hardly a successful outward-focused economy.

There aren’t really any policy lessons I want to draw from these data.  In fact, the worst thing I could imagine would be the Wellington City Council –  and its peers in the rest of the region –  deciding they needed to “do something”, flinging more money at more wasteful proposals or the so-called economic development agency.  Of course, they could –  and should –  fix up the housing and urban land market, and that might actually do a little¹ to boost the attractiveness of Wellington, boost average productivity, and do something to reverse the relative income decline.  But there is less than no chance of such sensible policy emerging from the Wellington City Council –  they’d rather carry on with their version of “amazing things”.  Wellingtonians live with the results –  and (in fairness to the the mayor and council) I fully expect my fellow citizens to re-elect the cheerleading incumbents come October.   Just as New Zealanders keep electing governments that preside over our ongoing economic decline relative to the rest of the advanced world.

  1.  I had an exchange with a reader in the comments section of Wednesday’s post as to why I’m not persuaded that the best housing (and transport) policies in the world would make much difference in closing the nationwide gaping productivity gaps.  Perhaps if Wellington alone were to fix these things, it might make more difference. But location is, powerfully, against us.


Perhaps Councils could consider doing the basics right?

Wellington City Council is just one of the many local authorities whose staff and elected officeholders seek to use their office to pursue grand visions, that rarely stack up on any proper cost-benefit analysis.  In Wellington’s case there are big things like the airport runway extension, which fails on any decent analysis (notably the one that says no private sector owner would fund it) but only limps in through the planning process because councillors want to waste tens of millions of ratepayers’ money on it, or the convention centre, or the earthquake strengthening of the Town Hall (I quite like the building, but at what price?).  Or the smaller things like the Island Bay cycleway, supported by very few residents, costing ever more money, but……..part of the dream of Justin Lester and his team.

One might find their excesses slightly less annoying if the Council managed to get the basics right.  But they fail on that score too.  The housing and urban land market is only the most visible example –  a holiday climb to the top of Mt Kaukau is a reminder again of just how much land there is in Wellington City, and yet of how council restrictions mean house and land prices move to ever more unaffordable levels (a real estate agent’s letter yesterday suggested Wellington was the last significant rising market in Australasia).     Whose interests are they serving?  Certainly not those of the rising generation of Wellingtonians, but this is an ideology to pursue.

And then there are real basics like water.  Perhaps like many places, Wellington has watering restrictions in place over summer, whether or not there is much rain.  I don’t have too much problem with that, even if I can’t help thinking that using a price mechanism might be a better approach.  But it sticks in the craw when people are restricted in their ability to water their gardens while the Council does nothing about fixing leaks even when they’ve been reported (and WCC does have a user-friendly page for reporting such things).    This is a case in point.


These leaks –  two side by side – have been going on for more than two weeks now.  I walk past them almost every day.  They were reported to the Wellington City Council more than two weeks ago: about two weeks ago I stopped and talked to someone who lived next to the water flows, who told me she had already reported it to the Council.

I watched it day after day, until finally yesterday I filled in the Council’s form and notified them again.  I even got a prompt response.   This is how it ran

We are aware of the leaks here and they are in progress with our Water Team to be repaired. There is a bit of a delay due to the location of the leak with it needing a traffic management plan in place for the crew to carry it out safety.

Talk about a jobsworth excuse.     This leak is at the very top of a dead end street.  To the left of where the leaks start there is a single private driveway, and just slightly closer to where I took the photo is the start of a pedestrian walkway.   It is true that there is a building site on the right (you can see one of the two entrances –  the other is on another street), but:

  • there is no through traffic at all,
  • the spot where the leak is could easily be fenced off with some cones, separating it from the traffic for the building site.

Perhaps more importantly, for several weeks the building site was closed for the Christmas holidays.  Work only resumed on Monday, and these leaks had been notified to the Council at least two weeks ago.  For several weeks there was almost no traffice anywhere near the leak –  and even now there is no through or passing traffic.

How do they ever manage when leaks occur on genuinely busy roads?  It is just waste.

But why would they care when there are ideological agendas to pursue?   I suppose voters keep electing these people, although between a Regional Council that stuffed up Wellington’s buses, and a city council that renders houses unaffordable, I’m firmly resolved not to vote for any incumbent (or anyone supported by incumbents) in this year’s local body elections.

Victoria University of Wellington

The proposal to change the name of Victoria University (dropping “Victoria” and just leaving the institution as University of Wellington) probably doesn’t get much attention in the rest of the country.  But here it has excited quite a flurry of interest, with thousands signing petitions opposing to the planned change.  Graduates and staff seem to have been particularly vocal, amid reminders of the ancient conception of universities in which graduates are forever, in some sense, “members” of the university.

I graduated from Victoria, some decades ago.  I suppose I do still feel a vague warm fuzzy sense of association with the place, and have even done the odd lecture there over the years.   But even that association probably has more to do with a career spent at the Reserve Bank which has long had reasonably strong associations with Victoria.  I suppose I have fairly happy memories of my time as a students (low fees, universal student allowances and all that), but I was living at home and Victoria was never the centre of my life.  So, equally, I can’t summon a great deal of analytical or emotional energy to object to the latest plans of the corporate bureaucrats who now run the degree factory.

This proposal seems to be all about money.  Money isn’t unimportant, of course.  But the bureaucrats claim that simply changing the name of the institution will somehow boost the institution’s prestige, and in turn boost their international student numbers by up to 850 a year  (I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but that must be a fairly large percentage –  actually, on checking a 25 per cent increase).  Something doesn’t really ring true.

The university has published various papers in support of its proposal.  One is some market research conducted by people in various countries who might be of a stage to consider foreign study, as well as some interviews with international agents (presumably advising potential students).

The agents apparently noted that university name might matter a bit at the beginning of a search process but

Agents think as students do more research, name becomes less important as the students rely on university rankings and the agents to identify universities.

Which seems about as rational as one might expect.

The market research people also asked how much various factors matter in deciding where to study.  These were the top seven, all of which seem (again) strikingly sensible.  The name of the institution doesn’t –  as one might expect – matter very much at all.


There was also an interesting page about the name options that were market-tested

Three names tested well: National University of New Zealand, New Zealand National University, and University of New Zealand, Wellington. When presented in isolation students preferred National University of New Zealand or New Zealand National University. However, when presented with other factors (in the choice modelling task), University of New Zealand, Wellington produced the greatest increase in preference. We think this is because having the city name in a contextualised decision making task provided the students with more information to base their decision on.

The impact of the names on preference for Victoria differed by country, for example changing the name to New Zealand National University would increase preference by 6.2 percentage points amongst Chinese students but drop it 1.9 percentage points amongst American students.

Nothing like grandiose ambitions from the Vice-Chancellor: National University of New Zealand indeed!   From an establishment that trails far behind Auckland in the international rankings, and which would have no claim at all to a title “National” (although one can see why foreign students might be misled if such a title had been adopted).

The corporate bureaucrats are keen to stress that Victoria University of Wellington isn’t a very old name –  and indeed it isn’t (we had the University of New Zealand, with (mostly) various constituent colleges (thus Victoria University College) until about 60 years ago).   That in itself is hardly good grounds to scrap a well-established name (and, as their material also notes, this is apparently the third or fourth time they’ve tried to change the name).

As various observers have pointed out, there are many universities around the world with names that (in isolation) give you no clue about where they are located (unlike Victoria University of Wellington, or VUW). I just had a look at one list of global universities: by my count, 7 of the top 25 in that list had names that didn’t tell directly of specific location.  One could add the Sorbonne, Imperial College, Notre Dame, Brown, McMaster, and the list would run on without limit.     Perhaps the difference here, if there is one at all, is that Victoria University of Wellington is just not that good a university?   That wouldn’t change by trying to jettison a historical name.    If anything, if location-based titles really matter a fig, there is probably a stronger case to consider change for Wellington’s other university (Massey), except of course that it is a multi-campus operation.

But, to be honest, the thing that surprises me a little is how many Wellington liberals have come out to defend the name: empire, colonisation, and all the rest being more than a little out of fashion, and no name being more emblematic of the British Empire and its colonial foundations than Victoria.  Why, even the local newspaper has an editorial this morning calling for the name to be kept –  the same newspaper that only weeks ago was weighing in strongly supporting the Wellington City Council’s Maori strategy, prioritising Maori street names, jettisoning old names for civic features, jettisoning Guy Fawkes for  Matariki, and aiming for some sort of bilingual city by 2040 (a city with one of the smallest proportion of Maori in New Zealand).    The Dominion-Post is keen to preserve its social justice warrior credentials, so gratuitously compares Queen Victoria to Lenin and Stalin (eponymous cities in Russia now renamed), but still somewhat surprisingly it ends on a note of “Stick with Vic”.

There seems to be a huge amount of guilt, perhaps even shame, about our heritage among the Wellington (and no doubt non-Wellington) liberals. I’m a bit surprised our mayor and his deputy haven’t been out campaigning not just to drop “Victoria” from the university name, but to replace it with primarily a Maori name.  Perhaps University of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the Maori name for Wellington harbour)? After all, the Duke of Wellington is hardly someone today’s liberals will admire.  Or calling for Mt Victoria to be renamed (or its scrubby companion on whose lower slopes I’m typing this, Mt Albert).  Not content with having relegated the city’s statue of Queen Victoria to the remote fringe of the inner city decades ago, some of them are probably keen to junk it altogether.  These days Victoria University includes what used to be the teachers’ college, and primary school teachers now seem to see it as their goal to make kids rather ashamed of their heritage (my 11 year old is doing colonisation at the moment, and we have long discussions in which I remind her that, for all its faults and failings (captured in her little hand-drawn poster above the dinner table marking “exploitation, murder and robbery”), New Zealand was –  and in many respects still is –  one of the finest countries in the world).  These days an increasing number of official government agencies aren’t even content to leave the country with its proper name, New Zealand, slipping in an “Aotearoa” whenever they can.

As I say, I’m a bit puzzled at the way the liberals have emerged to defend the Victoria name for the university.  I’m pleased they have, but even if somehow they win this time, I can’t imagine the success will last long.  Even if Professor Guilford himself is simply after more money, and an implausible increase in foreign student numbers, it surely won’t be long until the crusaders will be coming for any names associated with our colonial heritage, Victoria University of Wellington among them.

A new reform for Wellington’s mayor

Wellington residents –  at least those still buying a hardcopy newspaper –  woke on Thursday to find that the shrunken Dominion-Post newspaper had given itself a temporary Maori masthead, and an apparently permanent change of name, to something that looks as though it might be the longest newspaper name anywhere in world.

I guess private businesses can do whatever they want to try to boost sales –  or in the case of newspapers, temporarily stem the decline.  And given that pundits offer odds on how much longer daily hardcopy newspapers will survive, I don’t suppose this particular marketing effort will be with us for long.  In today’s paper, they claim to have been flooded with messages of support, but in the letters to the editor, the only letter in favour was an over-long (and thus abridged) effort from the head of the Maori language commission.

What was perhaps considerably more questionable is the way the newspaper and its proprietors launched their new name to coincide with, and explicitly to celebrate, Wellington City Council’s own new Maori language policy.   Since one role of newspapers used to be to provide scrutiny and criticism of those in power, I guess we can’t expect any such scrutiny of this particular act of culture war and virtue-signalling.

Wellington City Council is a beacon of awfulness, pursuing political visions and cultural agendas that (a) aren’t really any business of local councils, and (b) seem to be a substitute for doing the basics well.    As I’ve noted here before, there are smallish things like the Island Bay cycleway –  millions and millions of dollars on something ugly, and largely useless, which the residents (a clear majority) have indicated strongly that they don’t want.  There are staggering sums wasted on convention centres, film museums, and saving an old Town Hall, and rather smaller sums (so far) devoted to plans to tip tens of millions in to help pay to extend Wellington airport runway.  And then there is a scandal of house and urban land prices.  Perhaps Wellington City Council is no worse than most other councils on this score (all are reprehensible) –  in a city with abundant land, the council is determined it won’t be used, and instead want to compel future generations to live on top of each other (often literally), while delivering house and land prices that are simply unaffordable to most.     It is like some San Francisco model (on a smaller and poorer scale), pricing out ordinary people, and in a city with some big captive businesses (central government).   Life might be sweet for the middle-aged liberal elite; shame about anyone else.

The Council’s latest initiative –  approved unanimously on Thursday –  was the new Maori language policy, aiming to make Wellington “a te reo Maori city” by 2040.   Which is puzzling –  except for the culture war/virtue-signalling angle –  given how scarce people of Maori descent/identity actually are in Wellington city (and likely to remain so, given the housing/land use policies which increasingly crowd-out lower income people –  a group Maori are overrepresented in).

If one ranks all the territorial local authorities by the percentage of the population identifying as Maori in the 2013 census, the top 10 TLAs (mostly central North Island, plus Far North and the Chatham Islands) averaged 46.3 per cent Maori.  The bottom 10 TLAs in 2013  –  all in the South Island –  averaged 6.6 per cent Maori.  Wellington City was 7.6 per cent Maori, just a touch ahead of Dunedin.

What compounds the oddity is that Wellington is one of only two TLAs in the entire country with a far larger Asian population (“Asian” of course encompassing a whole range of quite different ethnicities) than the Maori population.

Per cent of population identifying as…. (2013 Census)
Maori Asian
Auckland 10.1 21.7
Wellington city 7.6 14.9

It seems likely that the relative share of the different Asian ethnicities will have increased further in this year’s Census.

The Council claims that their goal is that the city should become a “bilingual capital”, with the aim of “making te reo a core part of Wellington’s identity by ensuring it is widely seen, heard, and spokem in the capital”.

All of which, frankly, seems highly unlikely, given the demographics, aided and abetted by the Council’s own housing and land use policies.    It isn’t, say, like Wales where efforts to save the language actually involve a language that was the heritage of most of the current residents.

Not that it stops Justin Lester and his crew of councillors.   In future, new streets will preferentially be given Maori names and (whatever this means) they plan on  “incorporating te reo in its decisionmaking processes and functions” (when roughly one in 14 residents identifies as Maori).     Some place names in the council precinct are being given Maori names now –  there was talk of the heart of the city being renamed, but the stark windswept Civic Square is barely used most of the year.   Already, the annual civic fireworks display has been shifted from Guy Fawkes to Matariki –  a “festival” barely anyone had heard of even 20 years ago.  Fortunately, councils don’t get to decide public holidays, but Mr Lester is also calling for Queen’s Birthday to be scrapped as a public holiday in favour of the same pseudo-festival Matariki (an occasion which appears to be observed mostly by taxpayer and ratepayer funded entities –  my in-box is awash with newsletters from schools proposing that I attend such events).

These people seem to be embarrassed by their own heritage (almost all the councillors appear to be of predominantly Anglo or Celtic descent).   I’m pretty sure that even in secular Wellington the churchgoing share of the population is roughly equal to the Maori share (with some overlap of course), but I can’t recall the last time the council was championing Easter celebrations to anything like the extent they champion Matariki (and nor would I want them to –  it simply isn’t the role of a council (roads and drains and rubbish –  oh, and land use)).  And while the Mayor is no doubt embarrassed that New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, it is –  with clear public support at present.   Even civic heritage is for the chop: the lagoon down on the waterfront was named for decades for an eminent former mayor (not one of my particular political sympathies) but now the councillors –  but probably no one one much else –  want to call it Whairepo Lagoon.  But no doubt Mr Lester and his team will feel better for it, having (as he puts it) provided a lead for New Zealand –  including most of the rest of New Zealand where Maori actually largely live.

I’ve another idea for Mr Lester and his bunch of culture warriors.  Guess who Wellington is named for?  The dreadful old Tory, the Duke of Wellington –  former soldier and Prime Minister of Britain and its empire of which we are now apparently supposed to be ashamed.  He might have beaten Napoleon, but what’s that to anyone now, here?   The Wellington City Council’s buildings are on Victoria Street (yes, she the Queen-Empress) and Wakefield St  (Edward Gibbon, master colonial expansionist –  who spent time in prison for abducting an heiress).   Lambton Quay is named for chairman of the New Zealand Company, Cuba and Tory streets for two of the first ships carrying settlers and the bacillus of western culture to Wellington.  And so on.

I hesitate to mention it lest I give someone an idea, but this particular virus is already afoot elsewhere, with a story recently about people calling for name changes in Levin, Hamilton, and Gisborne (although, to be honest, and notwithstanding the history, I have some sympathy in respect of Poverty Bay).  But why stop there?  Surely the culture warrior left must be embarrassed to live in a country with places named for

Lord Auckland

Lord Nelson  (with streets named for Hardy, Victory and Trafalgar)

Sir Charles Napier  (“The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed”)

Lord Palmerston (twice over)

and when our third largest city is named for an Oxford college, itself named (with such uncomfortable particularity) for the Messiah, when a southern city’s name celebrates Scotland and its leading role in the empire, and when Hastings surely evokes memories of militarism and conquest,

then surely it is past time for reform.  Lets just junk our heritage –  the roots that built one of the better societies on earth (amid all its flaws) –  for some expensive feel-good campaign.

Or perhaps the Council could refocus and actually make Wellington an affordable city, for Europeans, Maori, Pacific people, Asians and whoever else chooses to live here.  It really isn’t so hard –  except of course that it runs head on into the planners’ mentality that pervades our local government.  They know best…..and we’ll suffer it.




Wasteful and ill-disciplined councils

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—

(a) 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—

(i) to enable more effective participation by the public in the actions and decisions of local authorities; and

(ii)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.

island bay

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.


WCC approach to housing problems: hot-bedding

I think the imported chief executive of the Wellington City Council, Kevin Lavery –  he of non-transparent subsidies to Singapore Airlines, and the like – must have pushed “send” on an email to staff without checking just who he was sending it to.   My household just received two copies, on two different email addresses, of what looks a lot like a staff email.  Since we used those two email addresses to make our separate submissions last night on the Island Bay cycleway –  and the Council otherwise wouldn’t have one of the addresses –  it looks as though he sent his staff email to online responders to the cycleway proposals

Most of it looks harmless enough, although it was wryly amusing to note the self-congratulation about the Council’s Annual Report

Congratulations to everyone involved with our 2015/16 Annual Report, which received a silver medal at the Australasian Reporting Awards. The award is a reminder that the public documents we produce are not just about our performance as an organisation – they are also an opportunity to communicate effectively with our stakeholders.

When this is the same Council that simply refuses to comply with the Official Information Act, in its local government manifestation.   Self-promotion, rather than transparency, is rather more like the hallmark of the council.

But included in the email was a “Good Reads” section, with links to various articles on housing and cities related issues.    Perhaps next time he could make room for Brendon Harre’s interesting new piece on “Successful cities understand spatial economics”. Out of interest, I did click on one of the links, described this way

Some interesting ideas from outside of New Zealand at possible solutions to housing affordability issues. I like this because it looks, with a different lens, at the challenge of providing adequate, secure and affordable housing and suggestions for tackling them.

Sounded promising.

But I was somewhat taken aback by what I found, in an article championed by the chief executive of a Council that is keen on promoting Wellington as a cool, successful, and prosperous city.

The author –  a freelance writer in the US –  is writing about a report from something called the World Resources Institute, on housing options.  Not mind, housing policy options for advanced countries, but for

the global south (India, Africa, Asia, Latin America) where the lack of affordable, adequate and secure housing in cities is projected to grow the fastest.

We are told that

The paper spotlights three key challenge areas “to providing adequate, secure and affordable housing in the Global South,” as well as suggestions for tackling them. They include the growth of informal or substandard settlements (i.e., slums), policies and laws that push poorer residents out of the city, or to its fringes, and, interestingly, an overemphasis on home ownership.

The authors apparently favour skewing the tax system to “incentivise renting”.

It gets worse

Beyond the policy-side, however, it also looks at a number of creative rental models, from land leases and co-ops to lump-sum rentals, which are popular in a number of Asian countries, including Thailand, China and India. …… The paper also makes a case for a practice known as “hot bedding,” in which “a bed space in a shared room is rented for a specific number of hours to sleep, typically 7 to 10 hours.”


In conclusion,

“Promoting a range of rental housing options expands opportunities for more renters while testing which types of rentals best meet local demand,” the authors conclude.

I’m all for flexibility, but does the chief executive of the Wellington City Council really think that “hot bedding” is an appropriate or desirable solution for the increasingly unaffordable Wellington housing market?   Is his vision of the city he temporarily serves now so diminished he regards the growth of slums as the sort of pragmatic idea his staff should be interested in, to fix the mess the Council itself has created?

To be clear, I’m sure Mr Lavery believes none of those things.  And perhaps they are reasonable and practical partial solutions in very poor but rapidly urbanising countries.  But what does it tell us about his mindset – and that of his political masters –  that this is the sort of stuff he is encouraging his staff to read?    Most New Zealanders –  most Wellingtonians –  want to own their place.  They don’t have much tolerance for imported bureuacrats who think that home ownership

in many economies just takes up too much mental bandwidth

They are just excuses for the decades-long failure by New Zealand central and local governments.

Free up the land use rules instead. There is plenty of land in greater Wellington, but owners simply aren’t encouraged, or even allowed, to use it.  And look for creative ways of allowing greater density where people would prefer that, but in ways that respect the interests of current owners.  Above all, look and sound as if you think Wellington might have a future as a first world city, in which residents –  present and future –  might be able to buy good quality housing at genuinely affordable prices.

But “hot-bedding”………I still can’t quite believe it.  But it was good of Mr Lavery to send his email to (presumably) the wrong list of recipients, and thus shed further light on the sort of mindset that prevails at council headquarters.

UPDATE: While I was typing that another email arrived

For those of you who’ve unexpectedly received an email from Wellington City Council – we apologise profusely! The message from our Chief Executive was meant to be a routine communication to Council staff but we’ve hit the wrong button and so it’s received a considerably wider audience. Hopefully it provides a positive, albeit unintended, glimpse inside the engine-room of the Council.

“Positive” –  I think not.



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.

In sort of, kind of, half-hearted partial defence of Wellington City Council

That isn’t a stance that comes naturally.   Wellington City Council wastes money with the best of them (convention centres, possible runway extension, bike stands outside our church, and so on –  they even use ratepayers’ money to help fund the New Zealand Initiative) and presides over land-use restrictions that deliver increasingly high house prices.  And then there are more localised gripes – but which have managed to get quite a bit of national coverage –  like the Island Bay cycleway.

It was built without adequate consultation, and after it was built an overwhelming majority of participants in a well-run survey of residents conducted by the Residents Association told the Council they didn’t like it and wanted it gone.  There was never an obvious reason for it in the first place –  The Parade was one of the wider flatter safer streets in Wellington –  but the then Mayor lived in Island Bay and liked to cycle to work.   (It remains part of a grand vision of a cycleway all the way into the city –  key bits of rest of the route currently serviced by roads that are barely wide enough anyway).   And the only bit of the street I’d be a bit hesitant about cycling –  through the shopping centre, with reversing angle parkers etc –  is the only bit where there is no cycleway.  It has been a fiasco all round.  It is still relatively early days, but as someone who is mostly a pedestrian or a motorist, I suspect the overall environment is now more dangerous than it was (not very).  As a pedestrian, one suddenly finds the cycleway merging with the footpath (to get round bus stops).  As a motorist turning out of side streets it is materially harder to see oncoming traffic than it used to be.  And I’m not at all sure how people who live on The Parade, backing out of their driveways, cope.  It would probably matter even more if there were many cyclists, but on a nice autumn morning I just walked the length of the cycleway and didn’t see a cyclist.

The story is back in the news because a local dairy owner has decided to close his business, and blames the loss of short-term parking for a downturn in business (more than a few parks were removed to facilitate the cycleway).  Perhaps so, but I’m just a little sceptical.  Perhaps that is partly because it isn’t clear to me who uses dairies, even when parking is no problem, apart perhaps from school kids buying lollies.   I’m in the neighbourhood all day, and I might have used a dairy twice in a year.  But along the length of the cycleway –  a distance I just walked in 14 minutes –  there are six dairies (including the one planning to close soon) and a full-service supermarket (open from 7am to 10pm every day), for a population of around 7000.  There were only one or two more when I first moved here 40 years ago.  On one corner, two dairies face each other across the street –  and somehow seem to survive.  And actually, the dairy that is to close is the furthest from all the others, and the only one everyone has to pass coming into Island Bay from the city.  It is a little hard to believe that the ill-considered cycleway is the only, or even dominant, factor.  The Wellington City Council is guilty of many things, and a prima facie assumpton that they will be guilty of whatever they are charged with is often safe (don’t get me started on the walkway they currently have indefinitely closed to protect “heritage interests”), but perhaps not this time.

None of which excuses the inaction on the cycleway.  It was kicked beyond the election last year, even after the survey results had been released, and now we are told to expect a decision in six months time.  Meanwhile, of our two local councillors, one is off to become a member of Parliament –  unless perhaps the Greens find a more dynamic candidate, in this one of their strongest party vote seats –  and the other sees his future in Christchurch –  he’s running for Parliament for the Greens in Ilam.   The fear remains that the other councillors, the bureaucrats, and the cycling lobby  –  all keen on a whole network of cycleways –  will just wait things out and the monstrosity will be with us forever.