Thursday 22 September 2011

Party Like It's 1949

The Auckland That Never Was: The visionary 1940s urban design of Ernst Plischke would have given birth to an Auckland with a decidedly European feel. Held together by its ultra-modern light-rail system and high-density state-housing, the city would have become the Stockholm of the South Seas. The defeat of the First Labour Government in 1949 put an end to the Ministry of Work's grand plan, and, under successive National Government's, Auckland was transformed into the car-dependent, South Seas version of  Los Angeles we have today.

THE DEBACLE that was Auckland’s public transport system last Friday night was more than sixty years in the making. That’s how long it’s been since a group of brilliant urban planners, based in the Ministry of Works, sent their blueprint for post-war Auckland to Parliament. Had the Labour Party won just 50,000 more votes in the 1949 general election, that blueprint would have become reality, and Auckland would now be a very different city.

But, Labour lost the ’49 election, and the National Party government which replaced the planning-friendly administration of Peter Fraser was not impressed by the MoW’s version of Auckland’s future.

As far as the National Party was concerned, Auckland’s post-war growth was the business of the private sector – not the state. Housing construction, and the infrastructure required to service the new suburbs of the 1950s, would, as far as possible, be the preserve of commercial builders and contractors.

National’s belief in individualism and self-reliance similarly militated against the MoW’s plans for an Auckland woven together by an extensive network of electric railway units on the Hutt Valley model. The government of Sid Holland was convinced that the future belonged to the private automobile. In the nostrils of the Nats, trains always carried the whiff of socialism.

They still do – as anyone who has listened to Transport Minister Steven Joyce’s paeans of praise to the virtues of the motor car can attest.

To be fair, however, the failure to create a modern public transportation network in Auckland is not the National Party’s alone.

One of the largest and most important elements in the import substitution plans drawn up by the Second Labour Government, were the car assembly plants. Not only were these factories intended to save overseas funds, but they were also excellent devices for manufacturing loyal Labour voters. The MoW’s plans for an Auckland that ran on rails continued to gather dust.

It would be another 12 years before Labour was again in office. By the 1970s, the party needed little convincing of the shortcomings of Auckland’s congested car culture. Finally, Labour was ready to back (but not to fund) the plans for a light-rail network that Auckland’s indomitable Mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, had been advocating for more than a decade.

They had not reckoned on Sir Robert Muldoon.

The monstrous hydra of motorways continued to grow, along with the number of cars crawling along it’s sinuous necks.

Labour’s neoliberal conversion in the 1980s saw the railways ruthlessly downsized and readied for privatisation. Free marketeers drove cars: public transport (especially trains) were for state-subsidised losers.

Not even the election of a Labour-Alliance government in 1999 was enough to halt the madness. And when Prime Minister Helen Clark backed and won New Zealand’s bid for the Rugby World Cup 2011, there was scant understanding of what that would require of Auckland’s public transportation system, and even less enthusiasm for making it happen.

Labour’s finance minister, Dr Michael Cullen, could have left Auckland with a modern, electrified, light-rail network. Egged on by his Treasury advisers, he chose instead to prevaricate and delay. His successor, Bill English, at least had the excuse of a global financial crisis – not to mention the disadvantage of a Transport Minister who never saw motorway plans he didn’t fall in love with at first sight.

And so, when we most needed it to succeed, Auckland’s rail network simply collapsed under the sort of numbers most modern cities move about every day of the week.

Visitors here for the World Cup from Western Europe and North America must have wondered what they’d struck. Gazing incredulously at last Friday’s hopeless snarl of decades-old, diesel-belching locomotives, and SRO carriages lacking effective air-conditioning, a working PA system, and the professional assistance of trained railway-guards; they must have asked themselves if they really were in a first-world city, in the 21st Century.

Nope – on both counts. In Auckland, if you’re looking for efficient public transport by rail, it’s always 1949.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 16 September 2011.


Anonymous said...

That caption's a bit unfair to Los Angeles: it's the densest city in the USA, as it has lots of fairly dense low-rise housing, and it has an excellent and well-used public transport system.

Anonymous said...

ahh - but those western European visitors would also have been bussed from the airport through leafy 1/4 section suburbs, and been amazed at the greenery, the large numbers of trees on almost every house lot. And having coming from their 5th floor apartment, may have marvelled at what we have.
But now Brown and co want a "compact" city - mostly so rail looks effective. By all means improve rail - but don't destroy the kiwi lifestyle and character.

Anonymous said...

A few historical qualifiers to this are necessary. Firstly, the high density housing experiments ended pretty early in Auckland, specifically when Peter Fraser decided that single unit houses in the suburbs was the way to go for family life, none of this European influenced inner city flat living. Secondly, building the high density blocks meant taking the land under the Public Works Act, something inner city residents resisted to the bitter end, adding to the costs. The third was that the policy was justified by reference to slum clearance, but nobody wanted to re-house the slum dwellers, not in public housing anyway. The Auckland City Council's grand scheme for slum clearance was stymied in the 1950s, even though the government nominally supported local authority housing, because of the cost of clearance then construction.

Robert Winter said...

Quite right - a failure of successive leaderships - blame all round. But it can still be done. Every generation has the opportunity, and in every generation it is a question of political vision and drive versus the bean-counters and those that simply want to make a buck, regardless of the quality of the outcome.

Victor said...


The European visitors would have been looking for the grand (tram serviced) boulevards, spacious piazzas, verdant, ornamental parks and the handsome architecture of official buildings.

As it is, when they get to the city centre, they look confusedly around, fumble disbelievingly with their maps and ask passing strangers the way to the city centre.

Trust me! I know whereof I speak, having once been a European visitor.