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HARD NEWS 21/12/01 - Bringing Back the Birch

Approved: kiwifruit
Subject: HARD NEWS 21/12/01 - Bringing Back the Birch

HARD NEWS is first broadcast in Auckland on 95bFM around 9.30am on Fridays and replayed around 5.15pm Friday and 10am Sunday on The Culture Bunker. You can listen to 95bFM live on the Internet. Point your web browser to http://www.95bfm.co.nz. You will need an MP3 player. Currently New Zealand is 13 hours ahead of GMT.

HARD NEWS is also available in text form at http://www.scoop.co.nz. You can subscribe to the 95bFM Hard News mailing list at http://www.95bfm.com/hardnews.php. And MP3.net.nz has this bulletin at http://www.mp3.net.nz/mp3/view?item_id=3445

GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... well, I was going to wrap up the Hard News year with an artful survey of events. Some musings on war, art and politics, perhaps. But it's Christmas week and I'm shattered so I'll concentrate on what's really pissing me off.

The Mayor. The Council. And the Birch report on Auckland City Expenditure, which landed this week. Let me be blunt: This thing is a scam - a doctrinaire report from an irrelevant politician, commissioned without a mandate in response to a crisis that doesn't exist.

There is not a single fresh idea in this thing. Nor any heart, soul or understanding of Auckland. It is a death march through a string of tenuous economic assumptions that begins with a narrow definition of public good - one that doesn't necessarily include fripperies like public parks and libraries.

We might as well begin with the one exception: Auckland City's shareholding in Auckland International Airport Limited. I agree: sell it. The $412 million in cash tied up in the airport offers us no control over the business; not even a director on the board. Every other Auckland council bar Manukau has bailed out already and, frankly, there are better uses for the money. Retire debt, build new assets - such as that downtown stadium - where Aucklanders can use them. Trouble is, Changi Airport Enterprises sold its seven per cent chunk this week, so that $400 million price may be elusive.

Retiring debt would help curb projected city rate rises; calculated in the report as three or four per cent a year over the next three years. But this is not a crisis.

Rates roses ahead of inflation over the last four years too - but this was almost entirely due to new government regulations which obliged councils to fully fund depreciation. Even with those obligations, the Fletcher City Vision council has done much better than the CitRat councils of the early 90s in controlling expenditure. Got that? The centre-left council was more efficient than the Tory one.

There are other ironies within. Sir William Birch demands cuts in the council's communications budget. This will be applauded by the very council faction that inflated the communications budget in the first place, back when it used City Scene as a regular glossy pamphlet for the original Britomart project. Indeed, the overall saving sought by Birch - around $25 million - is eerily close to the amount of money the last CitRat council flushed down the toilet in pursuit of that project.

When it comes to pensioner housing, I'm not sure if Birch's statements are ironic, or just plain offensive. Although some pensioner housing has been offered by the council for decades, the 1600 flats it lets are, we learn, a "substitute" for central government offerings.

There's no sense in the council offering income-related rental housing for the needy, Birch claims, because central government does that. Well, yes. BUT ONLY BECAUSE BILL BIRCH'S PARTY IS NO LONGER IN GOVERNMENT. Birch recommends rent rises - which you will fund, taxpayers, via the accommodation supplement and the sale of the apartments as their occupants die. He doesn't suggest what safe harbour might be available to our old people after that.

Then there's the inorganic. Disposal of household waste is "essentially a private activity", says the report, and therefore, Birch recommends that inorganic waste collections be scrapped, so to speak.

The fact that Aucklanders clearly want and use such a public service - or that best of the tat is profitably recycled by private enterprise - is of course, of no account. Vermin also gather in all those old couches and discarded tellies, and in those unmown grass verges, but, hey, Bill Birch doesn't have to live here, does he?

Pressing further into this collection of nasty little cuts to the things that make Auckland a decent place to live, we reach the statement that "the provision of arts, culture and recreation is not a public good".

Thus, if Birch's recommendations are accepted, the Music in Parks programme, which already runs on a shoestring, and reaches hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders every summer, will have its budget cut by 20 per cent. Libraries will be leaned on "to ensure that they are providing a high quality service at least cost." This not only insulting to the dedicated people who run Auckland libraries on very slight budgets, it is self-defeating and contradictory.

Furthermore, community development activities - sponsorships, partnerships and subsidies - will be "reviewed". Council will contribute nothing to Mainstreet programmes; probably half of the 10 Citizens' Advice Bureax in the city will be closed.

The organic waste voucher system will be scrapped, along with the council's innovative chemical-free weed control programme. Funding for small local projects via community boards will be slashed and community boards themselves will be "reviewed to achieve cost savings".

Community halls will be sold or have their rents raised. Rates and wastewater remissions to sports and community groups will be slashed. All that, plus sales of council carparks and a few other things, will halve the rates increase, making a total difference, to my household, of between $20 and $30 a year.

This is, as I noted, if the council decides to apply the recommendations. You can expect The Edge to be regarded kindly, given the chummy relationship between its management and some CitRat councillors.

But it doesn't stop there. Brandishing the report, Banks and his band of idiots have broken the hard-won regional consensus over public transport.

Birch says that the regional plan places "excessive emphasis on mass passenger transport when most people prefer to travel by car". Most people of course prefer to travel by car because Auckland's public transport is so bad. TranzRail stations are dangerous eyesores, actual trains are a rarity and buses get caught in the same jams as everyone else.

Birch also endorses the PPP, or public-private-partnership model for roads, Metrowater and Watercare. This sort of thing is very trendy at moment, but its results are distinctly mixed. Take a look down the motorway to Papakura's experience with United Water and ponder on whether that's what you really want.

Despite what Banks says, most of this wasn't put before local voters; yet most of it could be done before they get a real chance to do something about it.

I have seen an open letter from City Vision's Lindsay Rea that nails tMaire Leadbetter, the Greens and the Water Pressure Group for breaking an accord in Eden-Albert, standing multiple candidates, and splitting what should have been a comfortable centre-left vote - giving Banks and the CitRats their majority.

I wouldn't know. But I do know that this kind of thing must never happen again. I want to see a really good mayoral candidate next time round - and no, not Matt McCarten looking for a job, and not, thanks for the vote of confidence to those people who've suggested it, me either.

There's a project. But hey, it's Christmas, gateway to the New Zealand summer and once we're into that nothing can be too far wrong for a few precious weeks. Principally off the sheep's back, the country is in good shape; the current account deficit is the lowest in a decade. Our cultural life - with The Lord of the Rings opening to rave reviews - is strong. The government's inclination to arrogance in lawmaking, I could do without, but you can't have everything.

Yet you can, and do, have the b. In the Metro mag of January this year, I wrote an essay called 'Funky Seaside Village'. It was about Auckland and it contained the following phrase: "if I am any kind of Aucklander, it is a bFM listener." And so, I guess, are you - which makes you okay by me. Live well, be safe and be kind to others, and I'll see you at the Big Day Out - G'bye!

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