Revolution's in the air - bring back the night cart

Now, when the city is faced with rate increases . . . the people of Dunedin have . . . to rethink their position to proceed with the scheme - even if it does mean compromising any undertakings previously given."

In 1985, the natives, and this newspaper, were revolting. The costs of a proposed and apparently ratified water and sewerage scheme for Broad Bay and Portobello had doubled. Many citizens, the Otago Daily Times surmised, deeply resented the scheme.

There was talk of reintroducing night carts, or of resettling Broad Bay and Portobello residents to new housing "within the Dunedin boundaries where expensive facilities are already provided".

"Even if it costs half of the $7 million to subsidise the resettlement of those seriously affected, the capital cost to the city would be heavily cut, not to mention the savings to be made in not having to face the annual servicing costs for distant and far-flung urban services designed for a handful of people in what should have remained a semi-rural settlement," the paper said.

"We strongly suggest to the city council that it holds a ratepayers' poll on the issue."

Fortunately, the council persisted with its mandated decision, Broad Bay and Portobello did not have to resort to night carts, and the "distant" Peninsula has progressed - not least as the jewel in Dunedin's tourism crown.

This intriguing piece of social history tickled me not just because, as a happily flushing Broad Bay resident, I am a beneficiary of the council's wisdom, but also because it neatly illustrates one of two points about proposed council capital works.

The first of these is that spending ratepayer money is always contentious. The second is that the call to a ratepayer poll, almost inevitably preceded by an orchestrated campaign, is commonplace. Third, such a campaign is usually accompanied by dubious argument masquerading as plausibility (nights carts in 1985? - with respect to my esteemed predecessors - come on!). Fourth, civic projects - even those designed as public amenities or general infrastructure improvement - can have unforeseen benefits.

The campaign against the stadium has gathered many sincere and concerned citizens who have sought answers and reassurances that civic leaders have, until very recently, been slow to provide. This failure has left a vacuum-like echo chamber in which the voices of opponents have been amplified - many of them hearing only their own howls of protest and dissent.

Under such circumstances the possibility of mistaking the passion and volume of the few for the will of the many is certainly seductive.

That the issue dominated the last local body elections and that those who stood on a platform of opposition to the stadium were roundly defeated is now history.

Yes, some facets of the project have altered - but whether this warrants the zeal with which opponents who have constructed their own mythology around the cause is at least questionable.

One strand of this is that the proposed stadium is being built primarily for rugby interests - when in fact the council decided expressly against a hugely expensive revamping of Carisbrook precisely because it did not want to commit public funds to a single interest group.

Another is the subtle suggestion that the project is a private business enterprise rather than a public amenity and should be measured accordingly - with a concerted disregard for social/cultural/educational values.

Then there is the idea put about that the campaign to stop the stadium rises valiantly alongside that historic stand of yesteryear - against a smelter at Aramoana. The similarities begin and end with the word "campaign".

Another is the snide insinuation there is a conspiracy of private interests involved.

Then there's the curious notion that a proposed rates revolt against the stadium is inherently virtuous: perhaps it would be, if one were to be consistent and remove the library, the Otago Museum, the Settlers' Museum, the Art Gallery, the Town Hall, and all our parks from the purview of public money.

Not to mention the sewerage and water improvement schemes which continue to soak up a large proportions of Dunedin's nationally-moderate rates demands.

But perhaps we should be revolting against those, too. Bring back the night cart! Now there's an idea.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times. The Smoko column is an expression of his personal observations.


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