Le Cahier Bleu

A year to remember, or forget

Le 21 Décembre 2020 - Tags: opinion, scoop

2020. A year to remember, or forget? At an individual level, and as a city, how have we fared through this unprecedented period? Have we learned from it and have we taken actions to correct our course?

Are we more confident than we were a year ago, that Wellington is the city of our aspirations, led by an inspiring City Council with our interests at heart? Has the Council led by example and made this city better to live in? Are we happier than a year ago to live here in Wellington?

Sadly, and in all honesty, it would be difficult to answer these questions with a straight, warmhearted yes. From the unexpected to the policies on the agenda, the Council has demonstrated a lack of cohesion and laid bare dissensions between councillors and with the people who voted them in. Let’s have a quick retrospective.

The year started badly. Wastewater pipes cracked at the seams and began to release sewage in the streets and into the harbour. While it would be unfair to blame the failure on the current Council, it was a clear demonstration of a dysfunctional institution resulting in a situation going out of control. Now Wellington, like many other cities in New Zealand, is facing steep bills to bring the water network back to a satisfactory operational level. In managing the immediate crisis, however, the Council showed a degree of leadership. While it took several months to address the biggest issues, in hindsight it made the right moves to fix them … but the breaks are continuing.

When lockdown happened, the city discovered a new way of working, with huge opportunities: with remote working, congestion could be swiftly reduced, and even the need for another tunnel could perhaps be removed. As traffic numbers plummeted, so did transport emissions (which amount for 53% of the city’s emissions). With a CBD freed from office workers, some credible options to swiftly address the housing crisis started to appear: offices could be converted to residential apartments, further reducing emissions caused by construction work. With central buildings filled with new apartments, CBD businesses would have a new profile of patrons. And finally, this flexibility had a direct impact on the wellbeing of suburban communities, with quieter and friendlier neighbourhoods. Less traffic, more people walking and greeting each other.

One would have thought the City Council would have embraced this bold vision, and even pushed it further. Instead, it did the opposite, encouraging droves of cars to come back in the CBD as soon as the lockdown was lifted.

Doing so, it went against its own recommendation in its “First to Zero implementation plan”, a document laying out all the actions the city (and the city council) should be undertaking to reduce its emissions by 43% by 2030. This document, supposed to take Wellington on the journey to face the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, is listing 28 actions which, combined, can only achieve a third of this target.

The lockdown should have prompted a sharp reaction at every level of society but the City Council missed this opportunity. Worse, it was a democratic failure, as 92% of people living in the city wanted the Council to act on climate change.

This wasn’t the only democratic let-down this year. In 2019, the city elected a Mayor furiously opposed to the development plans for Shelly Bay and nine Councillors who indicated that if elected, they would vote against it. This gave a clear mandate to the Council to oppose Ian Cassel’s development. But in the end, councillors decided that they knew better than the voters, and they voted to approve the sale of land required for the development, which is more massive than the convention centre and the central library combined. The vote laid bare a divorce between the Councillors, the Mayor, and the city.

Sadly, the division has not only been structural to the Council but also a tool from some Councillors throughout the forever long consultation on the Draft Spatial Plan.

As accurately captured by James Fraser, anyone who dared to suggest there were several ways to address the housing crisis was labelled as an “… over-privileged Nimbys defending cold mouldy shacks”. James said this was offensive and divisive, and he was right: many people who wanted to step up and offer alternatives were discouraged, ironically by Councillors in charge of promoting engagement. While the plan must deliver more housing with affordable, nice to live in, and sustainable options, it must do so by respecting what makes Wellington so special today. If one transformation required a wide consensus, it had to be this one, and the passionate opposition heralded tenser debates for next year.

Finally, the City Council’s incestuous support of the Airport is proving once again to be disastrous. In a bid oblivious to climate change, against the need for green spaces, and against the need for space that could be used for new housing, the Airport continues pushing its expansion plan, and there was no one at the Council who could even bother to comment. Consultation has been organised over the Christmas holidays, a time when concerned people won’t be around. Pushed by the Airport, and wounded by Shelly Bay, the Eastern Suburbs are struggling to believe the Council is working on their behalf.

It’s difficult, with these three defining Council deliverables – the Draft Spatial Plan, Shelly Bay and “First to zero” implementation plan – to find reasons to credit the Council with positive outcomes.

However, one must admire the decision on the Central Library, providing a way forward for this iconic, much-loved, and much-used building. Another good decision, for those interested in a more livable city, has been the 30kmh speed limit, one of the easiest (and first) deliverables of LGWM. There was also some progress on cycle lanes. But who remembers that the local election of 2019 was centred on transport? One would have expected significant progress in this area, not just lukewarm advancements already in the pre-election pipelines. Finally, the Council said it was keen for discussions with the Airport to reduce noise pollution by adjusting flight paths (but it remains to be seen how far it will be prepared to take this discussion).

So as the year comes to a close, we are still hoping for a clear, coherent vision that will keep Wellington fantastic while encouraging the necessary transformations to take part in climate mitigation, address transport woes and the housing crisis. Is Wellington in a better position in December than it was in January? Sadly, it does not feel like it.

- Benoit -