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Dunne's Weekly: The Dysfunctional Wellington City Council Plumbs New Depths

As the city of Tauranga prepares to elect a new Mayor and Council after three and a half years being run by government-appointed Commissioners, the case for replacing the Wellington City Council with Commissioners strengthens.

The Wellington City Council has been dysfunctional for years, long before the current Mayor took office. However, the situation has worsened significantly during her tenure to the extent it is now almost impossible to see the current crop of Councillors being able to resolve the massive issues confronting the capital city.

The shocking state of Wellington’s water supply, with about 40% of the city’s water being wasted through leaking pipes, has led to derisory headlines around the country. Savage restrictions imposed on residents to conserve water over the summer period have only just been lifted this week, but the Council-controlled company, Wellington Water, which supposedly runs the system, is giving no guarantees things will be any better next summer. And the Council seems powerless to do anything about it.

Central Wellington is a maze of traffic cones as many inner-city streets are realigned to remove parking to allow for cycleways and bus lanes. This completely overlooks the reality that Wellington’s topography means most of the city’s streets are already narrower than elsewhere. Making them narrower still is neither practical, nor safe for either cyclists or motorists. But that inconvenient reality seems to matter little to the Council with its avowedly anti-car and pro-cycling and public transport approach.

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Even that is coming to grief. Large double decker buses rumble frequently empty through suburban streets. Commuter bus-stops are being removed in other parts of the city. The city’s much-maligned bus system, last reviewed in 2014, is simply not working and needs to be overhauled. Gridlock continues to choke access to the eastern suburbs and the airport because the Council cannot agree how to resolve it. Central government’s plan for a second road tunnel through Mount Victoria aroused little Council enthusiasm.

When the pandemic struck, and the public servants went home to work, many seemingly yet to return, Wellington’s already struggling CBD became a ghost town, leading to the closure of long-standing, well-regarded city businesses. The subsequent economic downturn, and more latterly the loss of around 4,500 public service jobs because of government funding cuts, are making the situation worse. Wellington faces severe long-term retrenchment in jobs and population.

But the Council clings to the increasingly absurd notion that the city’s population will increase by around 80,000 people over the next thirty years, with absolutely no indication of where the jobs will be for this additional population to fill. The Council’s new housing intensification strategy, based on non-consented approval of up to six storey high Stalinist style apartment blocks, in the inner city and alongside designated commuter routes to house this mythical population increase simply compounds the sense of unreality. Even more bizarrely, the Minister of Housing, who had previously appealed as a person of sound judgment and commonsense, has approved this nonsense.

The appalling way the Wellington City Council does things was highlighted this week at a Council meeting discussing the city’s long-term plan. A local community leader – allocated a mere five minutes to make his submission on an issue of concern to his community – had the temerity to complain that the Mayor had been working on her phone the entire time he was making his submission. In response, the Councillor chairing the meeting, rebuked him for criticising the Mayor, terminated his presentation, and adjourned the meeting until he left.

Not even the worst of student politicians, which the current ruling clique on the Council seem so reminiscent of, would behave in such an overbearing and childish way. Their pointless and petty behaviour, coupled with an arrogant and smug sense of their own authority, inspires no confidence at all in their ability to prudently manage a Council operating budget of nearly $820 million a year, and an annual capital budget of $566 million. And the Mayor’s seeming indifference to what is happening, simply adds insult to injury.

Increasingly, it seems wishful thinking to believe that the current Council and its leadership will ever be capable of waking up to reality and abandoning their personal hobbyhorses in the interests of making Wellington a functional capital city once more. Worse for the long term, the current shambles means there is no incentive for capable people to put their names forward for election to the Council in the future, so the downward spiral looks set to continue at ratepayers’ expense.

It is going to become more and more difficult for the Minister of Local Government to stand by and watch this train wreck steadily worsen. Ratepayers already face a 16.4% increase in rates this year, with no clear indication of any improvements in service delivery. Sooner or later the government will have to step in and appoint high-powered Commissioners to sort out the sad mess the capital city has become. For Wellington’s beleaguered residents, that day cannot come quickly enough.

In case you missed it, read my latest Newsroom column on www.newsroom.co.nz

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