New super city? Auckland warning as Christchurch plans bright future

Video: NZ Herald 

Canterbury is set for a population explosion - but can councils cope? Kurt Bayer from The New Zealand Herald reports.

A sprawling post-quake Christchurch is projected to hit a population of 640,000 over the next two decades, but Auckland mayors, former and current, are divided over whether officials should push to become a Super City.

Christchurch city and its satellite towns are expected to grow by 150,000 people by 2048, according to latest Statistics NZ projections.

City planners say New Zealand's second biggest city is well-geared for the growth, and light-rail is being considered to cope with urban sprawl that is already connecting outlying suburbs with booming areas in neighbouring Selwyn and Waimakariri – two of the country's fastest growing districts. Selwyn alone is predicted to jump from its current 60,000 population to 100,000 by 2043 - and Waimakariri from 61,000 to 80,000.

However, some business leaders and politicians are concerned at a lack of spending and planning, with transport, housing, water infrastructure, and the ongoing debate of the delayed and controversial multi-use arena being serious issues looming on the city's horizon.

It has led to questions over whether becoming New Zealand's newest Super City could be the best approach to tackling the burst of growth, which will see tens of thousands of new homes built.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says the City of Sails has "benefited significantly" from becoming a Super City in 2010.

Before the move, which involved seven local councils and a regional council, there was "a high level of dysfunction", Goff says, with councils frequently unable to agree on regional priorities, planning and infrastructure investment.

"The establishment of a unified council enabled for the first time in Auckland a regional approach to housing, transport and environmental infrastructure," Goff says.

"It has also enabled the new Auckland Council to take advantage of efficiencies of scale and implement a successful regional planning structure with the creation of the Auckland Unitary Plan."

But former Auckland Mayor John Banks, who served for two terms from 2001-2004 and 2007-2010, warned Cantabrians to approach any amalgamation with extreme caution.

"They should be very cautious indeed," he says.

Canterbury is set for a population explosion - but can councils cope? Photo: George Heard
Canterbury is set for a population explosion - but can councils cope? Photo: George Heard
Banks claims that Auckland's Super City switch, while seeming a sound concept and philosophy, has been a "disaster", especially around accountability for elected officials.

"The practical reality of the Auckland version is that it just hasn't worked out," he says.

"That's mainly around the lack of accountability out to the poorer parts of the city – poorer meaning, parts of the city right out on the reaches which have had generations of under-investment in the super-structure for growth.

"The council here, since amalgamation, have substantially been toadies to the mayoral office line. What pushback there has been has always been in the minority and has not made a difference.

"Auckland is beginning to creak and sink under the mountainous debt load which defaults to not having the capacity to do the infrastructure development that we've left unattended for so long."

National's MP for the Waimakariri District Matt Doocey doesn't see any immediate need for amalgamation, but says it's "vitally important" that the respective councils work "more collaboratively on back-of-office services to ensure less duplication".

A Canterbury Mayoral Forum, comprising mayors of the 10 territorial authorities across the vast Canterbury region, from Waitaki to Hurunui, and including the regional council Environment Canterbury (ECan), has already been set-up to provide "one strong voice".

As part of its long-term vision, the forum has identified five priority issues: Three Waters, climate change, better freight transport, sustainable environmental management focusing on land use and freshwater management, and "shared economic prosperity".

While a proposal for light rail was ditched in the hurried post-quake rebuild blueprint, the feasibility of mass rapid transit (MRT), linking Rangiora in the north, and Rolleston in the southwest, is being investigated.

A business case is being looked at by the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures partners – Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, ECan, Christchurch City Council, and Waimakariri and Selwyn district councils.

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Leeann Watson says some councils across the region are more visionary and proactive than others.

She believes what's missing is a blueprint for an ambitious and progressive city "that details what we want Christchurch to become and be known for".

"Investing in major infrastructure projects tends to only happen when it is a clear and present problem," says Watson.

"We need to get better at identifying infrastructure requirements and building them before they are needed, as opposed to when they are needed."

But John Higgins, Christchurch City Council's head of planning and consents, believes they're on track to handle the population growth, with the planning system enabling development and investment "in areas where there is demand".

He cites the example of the southern suburb of Halswell, where infrastructure was plugged in to support housing overflow after the 2010-11 earthquakes.

"The benefits of growth are that more people are able to live, work and enjoy being in Greater Christchurch, and if we plan well and in a coordinated way – such as we are – we can do our best to ensure development is sustainable, encourages emissions' reduction and contributes to our climate resilience," says Higgins.

"Our key issue is to ensure that planning for the population growth, changing household density and addressing the challenges of climate change are undertaken in a coordinated way (locally and sub-regionally), so that investment decisions come on stream at the right time, in the right place and in the right way."

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