Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Auckland Racket

Roads to Real-Estate: Auckland always has been, and remains, a racket.

AUCKLAND has always been, and looks set to remain – a racket. At its heart lie two crucial elements: land, and the transportation networks that inflate its value. To be a true Aucklander one must have a proper understanding of this all-important relationship: real estate = roads, roads = real estate.

The man who first demonstrated the centrality of this relationship was Auckland’s most notorious merchant adventurer, Thomas Russell. It was Russell and his political cronies who, in the early 1860s, persuaded Governor George Grey to build the Great South Road – a feat of military engineering which not only made war with the Maori King Movement inevitable, but also (and this, of course, was its true purpose) transformed Auckland, and the lush plains of the Waikato, into a happy hunting ground for property speculators and developers.

Auckland, as a viable commercial centre, owes its existence to the war made possible by Mr Russell’s Road, and to all the other roads the speculators and developers who came to dominate the city’s ruling class have, for nearly 150 years, persuaded the rest of New Zealand to build for them.

It’s been a constant struggle – to secure this public subsidisation of private greed – and at the forefront of the public fightback has been the Auckland Racket’s perennial rival: the state-owned railways.

Railways and the State have enjoyed a long and mutually rewarding historical relationship in New Zealand. Not only did they knit a geographically chellenging nation together, but they also provided successive governments with a cheap and effective model of urban and rural development.

Though costly to construct, New Zealand’s railway network largely paid for itself by opening up vast swathes of the countryside to settlement. The Crown, as New Zealand’s primary title-holder, was able to recoup the capital required to lay the track and acquire the locomotives and rolling-stock by selling-off the land the railway passed through. As a means of building a nation it had only one significant drawback: it severely restricted the profit-making opportunities for private speculators.

It was the internal combustion engine that rescued the Auckland racket – but only in the nick of time.

Had the rail-based plan for its post-war development been carried out, Auckland would’ve been a very different city. Drawn up by the Ministry of Works between 1946 and 1949 – the final term of the First Labour Government – the plan called for a much more compact city than the sprawling conurbation we know today. Following the Hutt Valley model, public housing would’ve been clustered around the stations of an electrified commuter rail network linking all the communities of the isthmus. The main arterial roads would have gone ‘round, rather than through, the MoW’s Auckland.

It was the election of the First National Government that saved the Auckland Racket from Labour’s social architects and the MoW’s civil engineers. By the mid-1950s, National in Wellington, working hand-in-glove with its local-government surrogate, Citizens & Ratepayers, had hauled Auckland’s future out of its electric railway unit and thrown it onto the back seat of the property developers’ Bentley. Auckland became a loose collection of taxpayer-subsidised (but privately constructed) dormitory suburbs, held together by taxpayer-funded (but privately exploited) motorways.

Instead of becoming the southern hemisphere’s Copenhagen, Auckland became a cut-price Los Angeles.

And that’s the way the people who run the Auckland Racket would like to keep it. Sixty years after Labour’s plan was ditched, the NZ Herald is still trumpeting the virtues of the automobile and the motorway, and belittling the advocates of rail.

In an editorial headed "ARC’s ‘green’ transport plan ignores reality", the paper blithely declares: "Auckland is not and never will be a ‘compact and contained urban form’. Its environment and terrain invite sprawl. The regional plan has been trying for 10 years to contain coastal ribbon development and force population growth into higher density concentrations near railway stations.

"Aucklanders have resisted for good reason. They have come to the region for its coastlines and climate. Planners of land use and transport need to work with the demonstrable demand, not against it."

No prizes for guessing exactly who will be constructing all that "coastal ribbon development" – the very same people responsible for generating all that "demonstrable demand".

Seldom has the Auckland Racket’s ingrained hostility towards any and all forms of democratic urban planning been so overtly displayed. The Herald’s leader-writer openly celebrates the pending elimination of the Auckland Regional Council and its replacement by the new Auckland "SuperCity": "… Auckland’s transport will then be managed by an ad hoc authority representing the Government as well as the Auckland Council."

In other words, the very same arrangement that characterised the region’s development in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. When the Auckland Racket’s political friends in Wellington repeatedly forced the long-suffering New Zealand taxpayer to fund the construction of a succession of multi-million dollar motorways, linking together an ever-growing number of multi-million dollar subdivisions, erected by the Queen City’s indomitable clique of multi-millionaire property speculators and developers.

Opponents of the new Auckland SuperCity have characterised it as a thinly disguised mechanism for privatising what remains of the region’s publicly-owned assets. No doubt there are those among the new structure’s boosters who drool at the prospect, but privatisation may not, in the end, turn out to be their principal objective.

One has only to consider the fiasco over the Cabinet’s attempt to split the Rodney District Council in half, to see the Auckland Racket’s extraordinary political influence at work.

First get a new road built from Albany to Puhoi – thereby opening up the northern "coastal ribbon" that’s in such "demonstrable demand". Then, re-design the entire political architecture of the Auckland region so that you and your mates can get their hands on the aforesaid real-estate without having to clamber over all those pesky democratic hurdles.

It’s just possible, however, that the Auckland Racket has over-reached itself. Have none of the people behind the SuperCity scheme ever paused to ask themselves: "What if we fail to win control of the new council?" Like the Great South Road, Auckland’s new constitutional framework is designed to facilitate plunder, but, when you think about it, Mr Russell’s Road could just have easily brought the Waikato Maori into the city, as kept them out.

The Auckland Racket simply must win next year’s election – it can’t afford to lose.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 1 October 2009. 


Chris Diack said...

I know a regular column must sometimes be more sausage factory than magnum opus but geeze talk about a work of fiction.

“Auckland, as a viable commercial centre, owes its existence to the war made possible by Mr Russell’s Road”

Historically unsupported by the evidence. Auckland was a place of commerce built on trade before the Gt South Road and the Land Wars. Maori were exporting to Sydney via Onehunga prior to the Lands War. Arguably it was a place of (commerce barter and exchange) in pre European history. War is only ever good for business for some, peace is better for business for more.

“It’s been a constant struggle – to secure this public subsidisation of private greed – and at the forefront of the public fightback has been the Auckland Racket’s perennial rival: the state-owned railways.”

The left would have us that roads are public good i.e. non payers cannot be excluded therefore the government (central and local provides them) Don’t car owners pay income taxes, exercise taxes and rates towards the cost of roads? And of course railways generally (and urban transport on rail) have never been subsidised have they? Doesn’t Auckland pay a lot of taxes?

There is no economic analysis anywhere in the world that shows urban rail transport is cheaper or more efficient than cars. What is it with the left and the trains? Why are they fixated on the mode and not the maximum personal mobility?

“Auckland is not and never will be a ‘compact and contained urban form”

First the Herald simply states the obvious. Second smart growth was imposed by a C&R Chairman led ARC. Third, smart growth actually makes more money for property developers because it eliminates private open space – the battery farm is more profitable than the free range. Fourth, smart growth must ration the supply of land thereby pushing up the price. This favours bigger developers and bigger land speculators.

My how fashions change; the old enemy the slum landlord is now the friend of the proletariat.

Hmmm and look that the 1st Labour Government’s ideal urban form – did they build five story apartment blocks with no private open space. How did those class traitors and sell outs regard compact urban form?

mickysavage said...

Excellent post Chris and a succinct drawing together of a number of conspiracy theories that I have heard recently which regrettably all ring true.

You did not mention the "road of significance" that is proposed to be built from Puhoi to Wellsford, two lane and a cost of $2billion. For about the same we could build the Queen Street rail tunnel and double the number of train passengers that can travel into downtown. One will allow Aucklanders to get to their christmas destination quicker and allow coastal development, the other will support the compact city ideal and give a great boost to the rail system. Guess which one has the support of the current Government?

The proposal to carve Rodney in half only made sense to those who do not believe that a compact urban form reduces the need to drive and burn petroleum and those who believe that their particular piece of land should be at the end of a highway so that their personal wealth would be increased. I would love to see the names of those who privately lobbied for Rodney to be carved in half and to investigate their land holdings.

And Chris Diack has been trotted out to try and blur and derail your comments. You should regard this as a compliment.

He suggests that the car is the ultimate in transportation and trains are a poor second. Can he explain why trains are so popular in New York and London and Shanghai and Tokyo and ...

According to him the rail tracks should have been torn up decades ago.

His theory is interesting. Because the first Labour Government did not forsee the importance of Urban Form in 60 years time us lefties should disregard it now.

Is he being serious?

Libertyscott said...

The "new" road from Albany to Puhoi was built under two governments. Albany to Orewa under the Nats (opened 1999) was justified primarily because of the appalling fatality rate on the old highway. Orewa to Puhoi by Labour primarily because of the effect heavy traffic had on splitting Orewa from the coast. Both were high value projects in their own right.

I'm guessing you've also ignored the Waikato Expressway in the opposite direction, that since the early 1990s has gone from the Bombays to south of Mercer, with a segment north of Huntly, and the Nats promising to plug the gap so it runs all the way from Huntly north to Auckland (again given the accident rate it isn't hard to justify). Auckland can happily sprawl both ways.

Mickysavage: I'm curious that those on the left decrying the planned motorway north of Puhoi (which I am sceptical about on pure economic grounds) as being a holiday highway, yet Northland politicians regard it as critical to connect that region to the rest of the country. It's so Auckland-centric to think that it's about Aucklanders going north, not goods and people coming south.

Of course rail is popular in New York, London etc because enormous cities with high urban density can never have enough road space for much private motoring, and the cities grew with such systems in place decades ago. Outside the centre of those cities though, cars are very important, just most NZers don't go far from Manhattan or the West End to realise it.

Chris Harris said...

"What is it with the left and trains" asks Chris Diack. Why not just focus on personal mobility? A very good question. The answer is that when you have got somewhere, will that somewhere be worth getting to? If it is filled up with cars, it will not be, at least not outdoors. For more on this see "Transport and Quality of Life" on . In New Zealand, especially since Rogernomics, our political and business elites tend to see only the private space inside buildings as having any value as a destination, and the public space between to be filled up with cars by default. As a letter to today's (2 October 2009) Herald has it, there is a "diseased culture" on transport in New Zealand. This is really a symptom of a wider blindness to the civic realm, a diseased culture full stop. That opposition to the neglect of public transport has become a left wing cause is a symptom of this diseased culture. That is to say, "of course" the left will stick up for the commons--they always do--but what has become of elite-level support for the civic realm? All those wonderful buildings and plazas in Europe, which are now serviced by trams so as to keep the cars out, were created by the aristocratic and wealthy merchant classes. Our elite, which to a large extent sets the cultural tone, has simply abdicated on this issue and so civics have become a left wing cause by default. It's pretty dismal.

Anonymous said...

The proliferation of motor assemby plants in this country in the fifties may well have helped promote the construction of motorways.

Anonymous said...

oil won't last forever, and one way or another change will be forced on us, whether we like it or not.