A Tale of Two Cities

Auckland’s Supercity reforms have a lot in common with urban reforms being carried out in Paris

by Virginie Ribadeau Dumas

Auckland’s local body elections this month will mark a turning point in the administration of New Zealand’s major city. This Spring, just as Auckland’s status is changing, another international city – Paris – will experience a lesser but similar evolution.

Despite the disparities in size, culture and age between these two cities, the issues raised by their respective reforms seem remarkably similar. Even the names – “Supercity” in Auckland, the “Greater City” in Paris – are much the same. While the administrative changes are being promoted as favorable to economic development, they are less auspicious for local democracy. Is the reform of local governance in these instances creating corporate cities, rather than democratic ones?

Until this month’s local body elections ring in the changes, the Auckland region has had seven city or district authorities, plus one regional authority. From November 1, those eight councils will be melded into a single entity called the Auckland Council – aka Supercity – and below it, 21 elected local boards. This “super council” will be governed by a mayor and 20 councilors elected from 13 wards from Franklin in the south to Rodney in the north. It will be the largest council in Australasia, with a $3 billion annual budget, $29 billion of assets and about 6,000 staff.

The motto for this highly controversial reform is “Make Auckland Greater”. On the other side of the world, Paris has pursued a similar objective. On June 9 this year, and after years of controversies and debate, the reform of the French metropolis was finally adopted, under the name “Grand Paris” – or “Greater Paris” in English.

The reforms proposed will involve a major change for a city that stands apart from other international metropolis, or even from other French cities. Unlike the situation in most of France’s major urban areas, there is no inter-communal entity in the Paris urban area, no inter-communal council able to address the problems of the region’s dense urban core as a whole.

Paris’ alienation of its own suburbs is a major problem today. Hence this reform project, proceeding under the supervision of the French state, the City of Paris, the Regional Authority of the Île-de-France and the Île de France Mayoral Association, working together to build a more efficient metropolitan structure to cover the city of Paris and some of the suburbs.

In the case of Paris – in addition to the absence of a regional perspective – the city suffers from an accumulation of intricate administrative layers. The administrative limits of Paris haven’t really changed since 1860. It has not evolved politically at a pace to match its real demographic growth. As a consequence, administrative layers have tended to pile up. Paris is both a ‘commune’, -the French city administrative level – and a ‘département’, the higher administrative level. Above these layers, the ‘région’ administration which encompasses Paris and 6 other ‘départements’ gathers both urban and rural areas around Paris.

Despite its dual existence as ‘commune’ and as ‘département’, Paris has a single council to govern both. The Council of Paris – with 165 members – presided over by the Mayor of Paris ( currently, Bertrand Delanoë) meets either as a ‘communes’ council (conseil municipal) or as a ‘département’ council (conseil général) depending on the issue to be debated.

Paris is then further divided in 20 ‘arrondissements’, under the authority of the Council of Paris, Each of ‘arrondissements’ has a directly elected council (conseil d’arrondissement), which, in turn, elects an ‘arrondissement’ mayor. A selection of members from each ‘arrondissement’ council forms the Council of Paris, which, in turn, elects the mayor of Paris.

However, the issue of this multiplication of administrative ramifications will not be addressed by the Greater Paris reform – mainly because the idea of a wholesale change of institutions proved to be somewhat taboo to the major authorities within the urban area.

The resistance of the local administrators at each level has been enhanced by political rivalry, since the left-wing opposition party holds a majority position in most of Paris’ elected boards while the reform is being promoted by the right-wing government. This rivalry got the better of the institutional reform, and the wider issue ( ie of changing the administrative structure) was more or less removed from the discussions around Greater Paris.

The consequences of this timidity – one grounded in decades of mutual suspicion – are likely to be unfortunate for the development of Paris. Since each town surrounding Paris is administratively and fiscally independent, there is no council treating the problems on a broader scale. The “région” administrative layer is simply too large, since more than 80% of the area ruled by the regional council is rural.

In that sense, the Paris reforms are less ambitious than the ones being enacted in Auckland.

Putting these local variations to one side, there is a common theme to these two versions of metropolis reform -: namely, the claimed need for both cities to modify their governance in order to adapt to their globalised environment.

Over the course of the last century and a half, urbanization and globalisation have disrupted traditional patterns of urban – and more recently regional – growth. This had had major consequences for the core city at the magnetic centre of these shifts in population, and resources. In his article ‘The new social morphology of cities’, written for the UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme, Pr. Guido Martinotti analyses this phenomena:. “We have the growth and diffusion of large urban entities competing with each other across national borders, and increasingly playing independent roles in the globalisation processes”,

This process of global competition transcends local, regional and even national boundaries. “This is the level at which we find most of the dynamics due to the globalisation of economies which amplifies considerably the indifference of localisation choices by organisations and individuals, and forces cities to compete directly across national borders.” Concluding his article, Martinotti remarks : “New urbanisms will require new forms of governance. The problem will be to design urban democratic governance in these new urban spaces. New forms of local democratic governance must now be considered with new perspectives and transnational issues”, he insists.

The need for a new administrative structure – especially designed for the globalised metropolis – and the concern for a more efficient metropolitan structure, lie at the core of the reforms that Auckland and Paris are currently implementing. In Auckland, the process has been promoted via the language of ‘efficiency’ with the large number of existing councils – and the lack of strong regional government – being blamed for hindering the city’s progress. Supercity advocates have called for a form of stronger regional government, and for amalgamation under one local authority.

As in Paris, there has been a stark polarization in public attitudes towards the process of reform. For every voter in Auckland who supports a reform process geared to the alleged needs of globalization, as many or more people regard the globalization process with suspicion, as one where the benefits are likely to be captured by private sector companies seeking profit opportunities. Such voters tend to want to retain the current local government structures – warts and all – as a shield against a globalization process that they regard as likely to entail higher ‘user pays’ charges for the delivery of a reduced range of services.

The Auckland City Council submission to the Royal Commission mapping out the future governance of the metropolitan region began by acknowledging the need for change :

The region’s governance system […] is increasingly failing to deliver what the people of the region want and need. At times, the governance structures and decision-making processes are cumbersome, unnecessarily fragmented and contribute to public dissatisfaction.

The same concerns exist in the French capital. The metropolitan area of Paris is predicted to gain 1,250,000 inhabitants within the next thirty years. The city is aware of the need to improve the efficiency of its organisation. Regardless, governance reform has proved to be a taboo subject in a Parisian urban area in which administrative layers have been allowed to simply pile up for decades. Consequently, the reforms focus instead merely on urban planning, and have abandoned the project to unify the region under a single administration. Instead, the reforms set out – according to the description provided by the government on its website – towards “Organising the area in order to encourage innovation, creation, research, all vectors for growth and employment in today’s economy.”

An efficient administration allegedly serves a higher purpose – such as economic development, for example. In addition, it serves to promote the city’s ranking in the global competition between major cities for employment, and for investment. Increasingly, cities and urban regions are competing across national borders with other similar urban centres for attention, investment, visitors, shoppers, talent, events, and the like. The result is that the drive for reform has ended up being promoted via a new ideology of global competition between cities, best illustrated by the multiplication of ranking indices such as Mercer’s Best Cities in the World. Simon Anholt, the guru of nation branding, calls the competition “city branding.”

And so, beyond the quest for efficiency at local or national level – or perhaps in tandem with it – reform in both Auckland and Paris has been touted as a means to promote their ranking among other international cities. Auckland Council’s submission says as much; “The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance is a fantastic opportunity to help make the Auckland region a successful world-class city- region”. That’s also how Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide has summarised Auckland’s new administration : as being more effective, as more accountable and as providing “world class services”.

On the other side of the globe, French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, said much the same thing when officially opening debate on the Greater Paris reform in 2009 :

Paris is a world-city and a world-economy. It is not only the capital of France. It is also the rival of London, New York, Tokyo of Shanghai. It belongs to the world network of trade and communication. It is entitled to a first rank role within the world civilization and economy. But it can loose its rank if we are not cautious enough…To preserve its rank, we need to plan on a more prospective and a more ambitious way.”

In this rush to embrace business oriented development, policy makers in both countries appear to have lost sight of a local democracy that is of far more concern to the bulk of their citizens. In Auckland’s Super City as well as in Greater Paris, arbitrary reform decisions were made by the central state, supposedly in the national interest. As a consequence, the people directly affected by such decisions – the inhabitants of Auckland and Paris – didn’t really have a say in either of the reforms.

In Paris, the situation was even worse since the question of the new institutions – which were highly controversial in the French metropolitan area – had not yet been discussed, and the proposals made by the central state had not been fully unveiled. The arbitrary manner in which the reforms have been promoted – and the language employed – have done nothing to dispel public anxiety and suspicion. In that respect, it may suffice to consider only the comment made by Rodney Hide as the Supercity Bill passed in Parliament on June 4: “One council, one mayor, one vision for Auckland by November 1st 2010 – a single vision under a single leader.” Such a vision seems remote from any definition of democracy in which debate and negotiation is held to play an important role.

From the outset, this issue of democracy has been central in the criticisms levelled at the Auckland reforms. Critics have argued that there was little space for “local” democracy in the new setup for Auckland. The proposed “local boards” advertised by the government as being the “face” of local government – in the sense of them being responsible for issues relevant to their communities – will actually have little power, and no funding or staff of their own. Moreover, their role and functions have not yet been clearly defined. Ultimately, these will be identified in the Council’s long-term and annual plans – but such plans as well, will vary in scope depending on the revenue available at the time, to fund them.

When considering localised democracy in Auckland – ie, the community boards – it may be useful to draw a comparison with Paris’ ‘arrondissements’. Even though the ‘arrondissements’ are not entrusted with many powers by the Council of Paris, they do have 35 years of operation as component parts of a super-city entrusted with the role of maintaining community identity within parts of the whole.

Like Auckland’s Local Boards the ‘arrondissements’ do not have many powers, being mostly restricted to an advisory role. Nevertheless, they are still indispensable for Paris administration as they manage several of the basic civic functions. ‘Arrondissement’ boards maintain vital records (such as birth, death and wedding records, as well as ID issuance). They also manage the local community facilities (child care centres and public nurseries, sport centres and stadiums, local parks, etc.) and secure the authorisations from the municipal council before the building of new facilities. In sum, they represent an intermediary link between the central administration of Paris, and its citizens.

The ‘arrondissement’ council can submit written questions to the mayor of the commune on any matter regarding the ‘arrondissement’. It can also ask the municipal council to debate any matter regarding the ‘arrondissement’.

The ‘arrondissement’ council also stands as an intermediary in its advisory role. It is asked for advice by the city council in any project whose completion will take place on the territory of the ‘arrondissement’ – even though the Council of Paris has no obligation to take the advice that it receives.

In particular, the ‘arrondissement’ council gives an opinion on matters regarding local non-profit associations and on modifications of local zoning. ‘Arrondissements’ also have a say in social housing: dwellings part of social housing (council flats) which are located on the territory of the ‘arrondissement’ are partly allocated by the ‘arrondissement’ mayor (half of the social dwellings), while the other half is allocated by the mayor of the commune. Finally, and as with Auckland’s legislation, the city council and the Mayor can delegate certain powers to the ‘arrondissement’ councils and mayors.

Overall, the key difference between the Parisian ‘Arondissements’ and Auckland’s ‘Local Boards’ is the absence oof a formal link in Auckland between the boards and the Supercity administration. In Paris, each of the ‘arrondissement’ councils is directly elected by the inhabitants, and they send a selection of members – depending of the size of the arrondissement – to sit at the council for the Council of Paris . The number of councillors elected to the Council of Paris ranges from 3 for the smallest ‘arrondissement’, to 17 for the biggest and the total Council of Paris amounts to 163. Those members then elect the mayor of Paris, among themselves.

The local boards in Auckland however will not function on such a representative basis. They have no representative link with the Council. In the end, local boards will have no say in the services that are delivered by the Council, or by the CCOs – according to Auckland MP Phil Twyford, the Labour Party representative at the Auckland Governance Legislation Committee.

As Twyford puts it, this model of local government is a “very weak form of subsidiarity”. Indeed, there is little left for the local boards to manage, he explains, given that 75% of the city’s assets will be corporatised. Moreover the City Council – while nominally asked to delegate power – can bypass this arrangement by arguing that the decision would be better made on a regional basis. Unlike Paris, there is not even an obligation to consult with local boards on matters concerning them – although you might expect it would be politically advisable for the council to do so.

This weak form of subsidiarity – along with a low level of representation, whereby Aucklanders will have at a council level only one councillor per 70,000 people – poses obvious challenges for the people who will be expected to serve on the local community boards. Essentially, the forces of globalisation may well be seeking to impose a mono-centric model of urban development for Auckland, one which the city’s various communities are trying to push back hard against. Like most cities around the world, Auckland is actually becoming more multi-nodal, while its civic leaders seek to make it mono-centric. One size, and one structure however, does not necessarily fit all.

In sum, the corporate evasion of democracy has been a common theme in Auckland and in Paris. While Auckland’s local boards (once constituted) will doubtless become the foci of democratic activism, at present the front line in the debate over democracy has become the issue of Council-controlled organizations (CCOs).

As set out in the Bill establishing the future Auckland Council, major functions (such as transport, water services and Auckland waterfront development) are to be devolved into CCOs ruled by unelected boards, operating at arm’s length from Council. This separation – as argued by backers of the move – had become necessary due to “local politicians [having] failed to deliver the results expected of them.”

The Government’s plans to outsource the majority of Council’s functions has been widely decried, given that the seven Government appointed CCOs will control some 75 per cent of Auckland’s assets. One submitter to the Government’s third and final piece of Super City legislation, lawyer Douglas Allan, remarked that the bill: “creates a corporate city, rather than a democratic city”.

Again, this criticism does not apply only to Auckland. Despite its deeply-rooted culture of public services, France too has chosen to outsource some of its urban services, and not others. In one key respect, the two cities are completely diverging in the way they have chosen to provide at least one key resource – namely, water. While Auckland has just chosen to outsource the management and delivery of water services for the next 35 years to the private sector, Paris has just done the exact opposite this year. It has chosen to take control of water services from the private sector and put it back under public control – on the grounds that public provision is more efficient, less costly and will ensure a higher level of water quality than the private sector has proved itself capable of delivering.

Much else is very similar. Not only is Greater Paris equipped by its own form of CCOs – the SEMs (dual economy organization, in between public and private sector, New Zealand would call them PPPs) – but the agency in charge of the implementation of the reform in the transport domain, the Greater Paris Society, will be controlled by an unelected board. This organisation (to which members are appointed by the government) has exorbitant powers.

By their nature, those organizations – Auckland’s CCOs or Paris’ SEMs – are designed to take control away from meddling politicians and the prying public alike, to get things done. And so according to the theory of these urban reforms, transport – the number one issue facing both cities – should be left to the unelected boards.

The demolition of the popular Kingdon St railway station in Newmarket over the Christmas holidays exemplified the lack of local democracy here in Auckland. Mike Lee, who theoretically is in charge of public transport services as chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, found himself powerless to intervene in the CCOs decision and to prevent demolition of the station. Together, the ARC’s “council-controlled organisation” – ie, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority(ARTA) – and Kiwi Rail decided to demolish the temporary railway station before the opening of Newmarket’s grand new $35 million station, without political input.

Meanwhile in Paris, two high-speed transport service projects are under discussion. The so-called “Roller Coaster” – a project that the government favors – is intended to link together the most important financial/economic spots of Paris, but it controversially overlooks the most populated areas. A competing project championed by the opposition – and called the Arc Express – intends to improve the transport service offered to the metropolis inhabitants, linking together Paris’ various suburbs that have been so far been disregarded in Parisian transport planning. (Due to the star-shape of its transport network, one still has to pass through central Paris to go from one suburb to another.) Yet this project, considered not sufficiently business-oriented, has been swept aside by the government.

The Parisian approach to reforming or redesigning public transport is not all that different from the way Auckland is reconsidering its own public transport. For example, one of the most important projects under debate, the CBD Loop rail tunnel below the central business district, is being led by the ARTA (Auckland Regional Transport Authority), the Auckland transport CCO. Just like in the case of Paris, a non-elected board is designing the route of a project that could cost up to $1.5 billion. The route of this new railway was chosen out of three short-listed options identified by consultants acting on behalf of ARTA and KiwiRail.

Even mayoral candidate Len Brown, who strongly supports the project (click image left for map), disagrees with the way the decisions are being made. A CCO for transport is “inappropriate”, he says. According to him, this is “ a job that the new Auckland Council should do…considering the challenge that transport represents in Auckland.”

This coming Spring, Auckland Supercity and Greater Paris will both come into force. With these new institutions in place, it will finally be possible to judge on the basis of concrete evidence whether the reforms really are of benefit not only to growth and development, but also to the citizens of Auckland and Paris.

In the case of Paris, the far greater level of democracy may take the sting out of some of the corporate efficiency gains achieved through the use of unelected SEMs – at least, at a local level. If not, the failure to address the political institutions will create a platform for the decisions of the state controlled boards to be challenged. In Auckland, the local boards and the new council will need to devise clear ground rules on how the bodies are going to interact. The absence of formalised rules in this area at least allows for some flexibility to figure out problems as they go along – but the vast power imbalance would suggest that unless the new Supercity Council treads carefully, they may soon find themselves besieged by 20 angry activist organisations seeking direct access to responsibility and power.


1. Democracy by numbers
Auckland. 20 councillors at the Auckland Council in total = 1 councillor for 71,925 inhabitants i.e. 1 for 5% of the population
143 board members in total = 1 board member for 6 000 inhabitants i.e. approx. 1 for 0.4% of the population

Paris 163 councillors at the Council of Paris in total = 1 councillor (conseiller de Paris) to 12,811 inhabitants, i.e. 1 for 0.6% of the population
354 members of the ‘mairie d’arrondissements’ (Paris’ equivalent of local boards) in total = 1 board member (conseiller d’arrondissement) to 5,631 inhabitants, i.e. 1 for 0.25% of the population.

2. References and further reading :
– The new social morphology of cities – Guido MARTINOTTI, University of Milano for UNESCO
available on http://www.unesco.org/most/wien/guido.htm
Auckland Super city
– People and Place Building – Mapping out the future governance of the Auckland region, Submission from Auckland City Council to Royal Commission on Auckland Governance (22 April 2008)
available on http://www.aucklandcity.govt.nz/council/supercity/pdf/submission.pdf
– Council-controlled organisations of Auckland Council, Auckland Transition Agency, Discussion Document
available on http://www.discussiondocuments.co.nz/
– Local Boards of Auckland, Auckland Transition Agency, Discussion Document
available on http://www.discussiondocuments.co.nz/
– Idiot’s guide to the Super City on New Zealand Herald
main press articles
Greater Paris
– review of the Grand Paris reform on the Government official website
press articles:

3. Diagrams of French And NZ Local Government

French Local Government Structure

NZ Local Government Structure

Auckland Supercity Structure

Grande Paris Structure