Sunday, July 22, 2012

Auckland transport funding - a tale of competing visions

Earlier this year the Auckland Council put out a consultation document - amusingly called Getting Auckland Moving - on funding Auckland's assorted transport projects. It was a rather thin document and somewhat wet ("Auckland's roading system is congested"). Coming as it did in the middle of or shortly after submissions for the Auckland Plan, the Long Term Plan, the doggy policy consultation and the waste management plan, this important issue garnered a total of 161 submissions. Sadly, the Council's rush to push all this through has left it vulnerable to accusations of not adequately consulting relevant stakeholders, ie the region's residents.
The outcome of the consultation was (figures from the Herald) that 57% of submitters favoured tolls on new roads to pay for further projects, 48% preferred a regional fuel tax, and 43% a congestion charge on busy, existing roads.
In the meantime, to take some heat out of this perennially vexed issue the mayor has set up a Consensus Building Group (CBG) to try to agree on how to fill the funding gap. (The Council agenda item detailing the group and its rationale is here; Brian Rudman's comment is here.) Rudman is of the view that if a consensus can be found among the various competing interest then this will help persuade the government to support any options that require legislative change (we'll get back to you about this...). But experience from overseas suggests it's also a ruse to take the political heat off the mayor for any final decisions about how to milk ratepayers for more money. Heck, if the cyclists and AA can agree on something then it must be OK, right?
The CBG comprises representatives from the motoring lobby, the property lobby, the roadbuilding business lobby, tangata whenua and the non-motorised transport lobbies including Walk Auckland and Cycle Action Auckland. Also included is a representative from Child Poverty Action Group to attend to the interests of those likely to be least able to avoid additional charges, for instance low-paid workers living in areas with crud public transport and non-flexible work hours.
At one level this is certainly about plugging a multi-billion dollar funding gap, and perhaps part of the discussion should be what exactly we're funding and why. Cycling and walking projects still get peanuts relatively speaking, and if the Auckland Council takes its stated commitment to sustainability and tackling climate change seriously, it seems reasonable to suggest that roading projects should be shunted down the list after public and active transport projects.
The prioritisation of different transport modes has not really been addressed and there remains the mystery of how the east-west link between State Highway 20 Onehunga and State Highway 1 got polevaulted to number two on the transport list in the Auckland Plan. In essence, there needs to be a discussion about competing visions: this (Los Angeles):












Or this (rush hour in Copenhagen):












But there is a more subtle battle being waged here, one that is largely passing under the radar of most ratepayers, and that is the battle over who gets to finance and build roads and infrastructure, and who subsequently lays claim to the cash flow arising from charges and tolls. These projects are the public-private partnerships being promoted by the National government, and are already being used to fund prisons and schools. PPPs are really taxpayer-backed cash cows for the private sector - the classic example of privatisation of profit and socialisation of risk. Auckland's business lobby - the one that represents big capital - has long urged councils to allow private funding of transport, particularly roading, projects. The  New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development while ostensibly about all things infrastructure is primarily about using public infrastructure as a private investment opportunity. In this, they have an ally in the National government which, for all its seeming lack of direction, is highly focused on privatising as much of the existing public sector as possible. (The neo-con tendencies of the Key government are the subject of another post.) 
So reaching a consensus is not just going to be about bikes vs cars, but about the very nature of transport project funding. Footpaths and cycleways don't make the private sector money. Tolled roads do.
A hint of this can be seen in the government's stubborn refusal to endorse any of the Council's preferred funding mechanisms. Rejection of the preferred options suggests the government would very much prefer to force the Auckland Council into bringing private investors on board for finance. Local Government Minister David Carter is on record as saying councils should make greater use of PPPs.
Meanwhile the media continues to ask vested interests for comment. In a Checkpoint interview Deloitte's infrastructure guru was asked about a regional fuel tax. Now the thing about outfits like Deloittes is that they aren't neutral commentators. They represent quite specific interests, namely companies seeking arbitrage investment opportunities. As might be expected, Deloittes are also a member of NZCID. So when asked about the merits of a fuel tax, the Deloittes chappie made some noise about it being conceptually simple but, nah a bit hard in practice. Nonsense. It would be like GST, which is easy to add on and collect. There might be border issues if a few people living in Drury go to Ramarama to get their petrol but most of us will just cough up or use less petrol. The point about firms like Deloittes is that they don't want big transport projects funded by ratepayers. They want to put up the finance and lay claim to the income stream to cover their investment many times over. You'd think they'd be a bit wary after some of the more disastrous Australian projects but apparently not.
There's a lot to go on this yet. In the meantime the CBG has its work cut out if it's to even agree on even basic principles.  
  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Great revolutionaries of our time

Lenin: "the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured."













Che Guevara: "There is a great difference between free-enterprise development and revolutionary development. In one of them, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a fortunate few, the friends of the government, the best wheeler-dealers. In the other, wealth is the people’s patrimony."















Tariana Turia: "[insert slogan here]"
 

Friday, July 20, 2012

What is an appropriate punishment for animal cruelty?

Today, the two men who were found guilty of killing 33 dogs on someone else's property in north Auckland were sentenced. Let's get this straight: two men walked on to someone's private property and killed, in "a spree of cruel destruction", 33 animals for no other reason than one of the men thought one or more of the dogs had mauled his fox terrier.
So what do these two idiots get for this breach of property rights (where's ACT when you need them?) and wonton cruelty? Tony Campbell, the main perpetrator, got 6 months home detention and was ordered to pay $4,700 reparation; Russell Mendoza, the guy who went along for the ride, got 6 months community detention, was also ordered to pay $4,700 reparation and do 300 hours community work at the SPCA. 
Excuse me? Those guys, particularly Campbell, should have got jail time. What this says is that if you walk onto someone else's property and murder their animals, you'll get a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket. Spider, of course, has a definite view on this...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Help save legal services for the disabled

It's probably fair to say that disabled people in low-decile neighbourhoods are not living off the fat of the land. Chances are they are reliant on benefit income ($204.96 per week for a SB if recipients are single and aged 25 and over, $256.19 for an IB if recipients are single and aged 18 and over. The higher payment for the IB recognises that people on an IB are there for the long haul or are supposed to quietly die sometime soon). These princely sums are supplemented by various disability allowances and presumably an Accommodation Supplement, and - if recipients have the patience to fill out the application form - a Community Services Card. In any event, there's not much to go around once the rent, food and medicines are paid for. Not much for, say, legal fees if things go pear shaped.
As part of its review of community law centres, the government has announced it intends to withdraw funding for the Mangere Disability Law Centre. Not the Remuera or Khandallah Disability Law Centre, but the specialist disabled legal service in one of the poorest urban areas in the country. 
The law centre is obviously alarmed about this, and so are we. Spider and I did some investigation and came up with the following info:
  • About 30-50% of clients are Maori or Pasifika, reflecting the relative economic disadvantage of those groups, and their greater likelihood of being injured or disabled;
  • Nearly all are beneficiaries. Not surprising - whatever the Minister might say about the ennobling properties of work, the Disabled Persons Assembly will tell anyone who will listen that the biggest barrier to work for disabled people is employer discrimination, so this leaves people few options. Further reducing the likelihood of this particular group being in work is the woeful state of public transport in Mangere and its surrounding areas;
  • Most clients are living in Housing New Zealand accommodation, boarding houses or (and I hope you're paying attention, Phil Heatley), cars; 
  • Reasons for needing legal services include employment discrimination, especially redundancy when employers lay disabled people off, advocacy assistance for dealing with Housing New Zealand, WINZ and ACC, and dealing with dodgy guardians, for example guardians who financially exploit them.
In other words, these are people on low incomes with very few options. They need a specialist law service that operates in their community because they can't jump into the Lexus and drive to the next suburb.
If you  think that in a representative democracy justice should be open to all, please help to save the Disability Law Centre. You can:
  • send an email to info@adl.org.nz and ask them to put your name on an open letter to Judith Collins;
  • attend the public meeting Monday 30th July, 1-3 pm at Western Springs Community Garden Hall, 956 Great North Road;
  •  email Judith Collins (j.collins@ministers.govt.nz) or Tariana Turia (t.turia@ministers.govt.nz) directly;
  • lobby your local MP (especially if s/he is a Tory), your local board or Councillor.
Then there's the usual letter to the editor stuff and having a whinge on talkback. The Ministry of Justice has said it will stop consulting with the community law centres on 1 August so time is short. 
Whatever Ms Collins is hoping, the disabled poor will not just FOAD. Nor should they.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Antique velvet

A pile of fabric fell into my greedy hands some time ago and in amongst it were two pieces of very old, patterned velvet. I've been working with fabric for 35 years and have never seen anything like it and doubt that I will again.
One piece had a cream background and the other a black background. They were small pieces, just big enough to make a jacket with no pockets or collars or any of that other jacket stuff. Still, a plain design means the fabric gets to be the star of the show, as it should.
Here's the cream version. Happy birthday, Mum!


















 And here's the black (and in my view, far superior) version. Happy birthday, me. And big thanks to Claire for the fabric.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The private sector solution

In the course of recent discussions with the Auckland Council, the question arose as to what the 'private sector solution' to Auckland's housing crisis might be. (If you're Gerry Brownlee you're probably saying "what crisis?")
The question is a good one: the Council is not engaged in the provision of social housing, the government has stopped building houses except inasmuch as they can be financed by moving people from gentrifying suburbs to far less desirable ones; and the money allocated to third sector housing in the budget,  while welcome, will only build a very small proportion of the housing required.This leaves the private sector to fill a very large gap. So the question of what the private sector will do to fill that gap is highly relevant, especially given the cheerful orange blobs called 'housing' that have been drawn onto a map of South Auckland and are currently part of the Auckland Plan.
Those who have read Mike Davis' Planet of Slums, the work of Davis' intellectual forebear Frederick Engels, The Housing Problem, and some smaller, less glorious pieces of research by the Salvation Army and Child Poverty Action Group will be aware that the private sector does not provide housing solutions to the poor as the middle class might understand them. If it did, there would be no market failure, and no need for social housing. This is not to say the private sector doesn't provide, just that the solution might not be optimal for human health and wellbeing. In general what happens is that low-income people are marginalised into certain geographical areas and as intensification occurs, the available space is divided up into smaller and smaller bits, which is good news for landlords because the return per square foot increases. For people with low incomes, the absolute price of that 9sq metre room might be cheap, but the return per square metre for landlords is far above that of renting out a whole house.
In South Auckland that slicing and dicing of space takes several main forms. First, there's the caravans, then the use of lean-tos, sleepouts and sheds for accommodation (and we wonder why our kids have such high rates of respiratory disease), and the old favourite, intensification through overcrowding. For example, CPAG researchers are aware of three bedroom houses in South Auckland with one family per room, a strategy which minimises the amount of rent paid by each family.
My response to the private-sector-solution question was that given the lack of real investment in housing the result would be more caravans on more front yards. In retrospect, it is highly probable that I should have said something like "the Council will need to work with a range of stakeholders to achieve an optimum outcome that aligns with the aspirations set out in the Auckland Plan." But real people don't talk like that, plus it's meaningless (although the use of the verb 'work'  suggests something concrete will be achieved).
Anyway, this question has been bothering Spider and me. Is our private sector solution actually happening or just anecdote? So over the weekend, we packed up a pooh bag and dog bikkies and went for a walk.
This place is just up the road. What is shown is one caravan in a back yard less than two metres away from the adjacent caravan (the white blob on the left). Look at the top of the photo and there's the glimpse of a sleepout. There is another sleepout and another caravan squashed into this back yard. It's all hidden from view of the street by a 6' fence (the photo was taken through a gap in the fence). This set-up undoubtedly violates any number of council land-use by-laws but who's going to complain? The people who at least have some shelter from the rain, or the neighbours who know that if they ring the council they get ignored? No-one will complain, that's who. The rumour is those caravans get $150 per week.
    













Here's another caravan hidden in a back yard. A lot of what we might euphamistically describe as informal housing is hidden from public view. This is not surprising: not even the poor want to be seen as being that poor by their fellow citizens.














 Here's a splendid example of a conservatory converted to a bedroom.














While the Council planners are busily drawing coloured blobs to indicate where they hope intensification will occur, this is largely as directed and formal as it gets. It's another example of the divide and make more money rule. Because so much of this subdivision is unplanned and unregulated, much of it ends up being a complete dog's breakfast. 
 
A special mention must go to South Auckland's boarding houses - 'flea-pits' according to a hand-scribbled note that appeared one day at the Otahuhu transport centre. Reflecting the shortage of accommodation, now matter how grotty, rooms in this boarding house were $100 per week in late 2011. That's a 20% rent increase in 6-7 months. Not bad.















All this is in the space of a short walk in a relatively nice part of South Auckland. There's dozens of others to be seen without having to leave the comfort of your car.
This is in Clover Park...














...and this, complete with outdoor furniture, sits behind a block of cinderblock flats in Otara.














There's a crisis, alright. The question is what the public sector is going to do about it?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When is a job loss a Bad Thing?

The government has announced it's decision to push out both the dates and levels at which New Zealand will face higher carbon costs under the country’s emissions trading scheme. 
Heaven forbid we (as in New Zealand farmers) should have to make any sacrifices to bring the planet's inexorably rising CO2 levels under control. Indeed, with the government building motorways like it's 1959, the average person might never know we had a problem with fossil fuel by-products.
An item on Morning Report explained the government's position. According to Climate Change Minister and former trade negotiator Tim Groser, "Not one country in the world has put a carbon price on biological emissions and we are not going to be the first to do this until we see broader progress internationally." Those who remember New Zealand trade negotiators' insistence that New Zealand had to lead the world in setting up free trade agreements and dismantling protection for local industries will find this reluctance to be a good global citizen puzzling.
Even more puzzling was the PM's response. We can't have a fully functional ETS because we, um, might lose jobs: "Ultimately, if more pressure is put on businesses and those businesses close as a result of these policies then New Zealanders lose their jobs and we're not prepared to sacrifice jobs in a weak international environment when other countries are moving very slowly. I think  that New Zealand's doing it's bit, um, but we've never said we want to lead the world in this space and we certainly don't."
Let's get the easy stuff out of the way first. New Zealand is not "doing it's bit". On the contrary, it is a regular recipient of the Fossil of the Day award at climate change talks.
But what about the concern for jobs? Well, you wouldn't know it from the last week. 85 jobs have been lost in Auckland's Norman Ellison Carpets; 70 at Flotech in Manukau, and 100 at Summit Wool Spinners in Oamaru. Then there's the 174 meatworks jobs and the 17 furniture manufacturing jobs in the small Tauranga suburb of Greerton.
This is almost 300 jobs vanished in the space of a couple of weeks, in the case of Flotech and Norman Ellison, largely due to the high exchange rate. Why is it OK for these jobs to go, but not have any be lost as a result of imposing a charge on carbon? Are jobs lost because of the high exchange rate somehow different? 
Questioned about the exchange rate in parliament, the PM was like, meh, what can ya do, and came out with a bunch of economically illiterate spiel about keeping government spending down to keep the exchange rate down. The only reason current policy settings will force the exchange rate down is because running the economy into the ground will mean all those Japanese housewives finally see the writing on the wall and sell their NZ dollars. That won't make all those industries come back, though. It will just make us even more competitive with the Philippines as a place for rich Australians to set up call centres.
  

Job hunting

Having finally gotten over a lengthy health hiccup, the time has come for Yours Truly to pound the streets looking for that increasingly rare beast, the full-time job in Auckland (see this post).
As regular readers of this blog (both of them) know, I like to trawl through data and draw graphs and other economics stuff. So an application for a couple of jobs I could pretty much do standing on my head were duly sent off to the Auckland Council. 
A couple of people on our local board were happy about this ("we need someone who understands these [low-income] communities in the Council) as were some peripheral Council staff who currently contact me for advice in my day job role.
But it was not to be. While you might think that an organisation that comes out with stuff like this:
It will require the structure of Auckland’s economy to shift from being import-led to export driven, the emergence of “new economy” sectors complemented by long term sustainable growth in our internationally competitive sectors (marine, tourism, food and beverage, high tech, screen and creative, finance, and tertiary education and training) and significant improvements in our labour and capital productivity through growth in skills and labour market participation, innovation and access to capital... 
 ...could use a hand, others disagreed.
So we were left pondering, if experience and the ability to write readable prose is not the issue, what is? And we were left with the impression that what we are in fact dealing with is risk aversion. Of course, faced with someone with differently-abled hair and a fetish for alternative modes of transport, they may well have a point.  I'm cunning, though. Next time I'll leave the broom outside.
  

CBD rail loop

We're very excited about the newly released map of Auckland's proposed CBD rail loop - much more excited than the government is about funding it. Here's a link to have a look yourselves.
According to the Mayor, the rail loop will "unleash the potential of the entire suburban rail network..." I hope so. Despite the promise of the draft Auckland Plan, Auckland Unleashed, (now the signed off ready-to-go Auckland Plan), it's hard to see much being unleashed in Auckland except for the odd stray dog that wanders past our place.
It won't just be rail commuters that benefit from the new link. If Auckland Transport gets this right, it should also improve getting around the city for cyclists and pedestrians (note to train people: please make the new carriage design has the the ramps for wheelchairs and scooters next to the carriage door), and contribute to the Council's desire to house more people in the central city as the new corridor becomes a desirable place to live. That's assuming the Council doesn't just wave through more crappy developments of the type prevailing on East Germany on Hobson, or the bottom of Customs St.
But back to the funding: the government has not commited to funding any part of the rail link to date. Once upon a time the funding would have come from the contestable national land transport fund, but as Minister of Transport, Stephen Joyce put a stop to the NLTF funding of metro rail projects so as to spend more on his pet Roads of National Significance. Either the funding needs to come from the NLTF again, or Treasury needs to stop subsidising big polluters and fund some public transport. And if the funding isn't forthcoming by late 2013, this needs to be an election issue.
   

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Not fair

The Guardian has Simon Hoggart, a genuine political reporter who writes funny articles like this. We get crap like this from the sycophantic John Armstrong.
When Armstrong comes out with something like "As Cameron said, trying to demand a larger fund, but sounding more like the editor of the Sun...", Spider and I will send him a chocolate bar. In the meantime, the uncritical parroting of the PM's position, thus: "As usual, the left has underestimated Key. As he says, his Government is going boldly where no government has gone before..." means that chocolate is some months off.
 PS Don't feed your dog chocolate. It's really toxic to them.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

World's stupidest bus shelter

I suppose the residents of South Auckland should be grateful they even get bus shelters - there are kilometers of arterial routes in South Auckland where there are no bus shelters for the punters at all. Cold and wet whilst waiting for the bus? Suck it up, people, or move to a better part of town.
But is there any excuse for the bus shelter opposite Otahuhu College?
This is the road side. You'll notice there is no opening onto the side one would normally expect to enter the bus. In fact the seats are on that kerb side so not only does one not have what the interior designers call flow between the shelter and the bus, if you're sitting on the seat (maybe you're elderly or looking after small children), then you'll get a crick in your neck peering over your left shoulder looking out for the approaching bus.







As seen here: 

 
...the bus shelter exit is onto the footpath facing away from the kerb. If you want to check out the bus timetable, it's on the grass verge so in winter (and sometimes in summer) checking the timetable will entail standing in the mud.
In case you're wondering, real-time bus displays are extremely rare on South Auckland bus routes, and with spending priorities being what they are, don't expect a whole bunch any time soon.
The Mayor is on record as saying he wants to increase South Aucklander's use of buses. He could do worse than starting to upgrade the really simple stuff.