Capital at the Crossroads

An interview with Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown

by Sue Kedgley

Who would want to be mayor of Wellington? Clearly, not many people. At the moment no one else has put their hand up to stand against incumbent mayor Celia Wade-Brown, despite the efforts of a group of Wellingtonians – apparently spearheaded by Rex Nichols and Chris Parkin – to find a high profile candidate to contest the mayoralty.

When Wade-Brown first decided to stand for the mayoralty, she readily concedes she was only half-expecting to win and her narrow victory took most Wellingtonians (and the media) by surprise. At times, her mayoral term has been contentious. She has faced considerable criticism, including from some who say she’s not decisive enough, and that her Council has not achieved a lot.

Yet as she seeks re-election later this year, Wade-Brown defends her record vigorously, arguing that the financial climate and budgetary constraints have necessitated a period of consolidation in the Council, focussed on low-key ‘nuts and bolts’ issues such as fixing infrastructure and earthquake prone buildings, rather than high-flying projects. In her view, she offers Wellington ‘a different, collaborative leadership style that brings in everybody’s ideas, rather than a top-down, one-voice-for-the-region approach.’ At the local body elections in October, Wellingtonians will get to decide whether she is offering the kind of leadership they want. In early February, Werewolf contributor (and former Green Party MP) Sue Kedgley interviewed Wade-Brown on a range of issues relevant to that decision.

Kedgley : Kerry Prendergast had the support of the business community. Have you been able to generate support amongst the business community?

Wade-Brown : I’ve had strong support from some businesses such as Matakino Technology who invited me to launch their new offices recently, and are having a lot of success globally. They love the kind of Wellington that I –and my supporters– love—a compact city, with more walking and cycling and less reliance on one person, one car…

I meet regularly with the Chamber of Commerce and I have a good relationship with them. I have to say they represent a constituency that says the most important thing is to get more roads to the airport and extend the airport runway, and I’m not sure that’s the view of businesses as a whole in Wellington. I also have regular meetings with different businesses…from Weta Digital; all the companies that support film ; the social entrepreneurial businesses. There’s a lot of growth in those areas of business. And one thing I would strongly have in common with all businesses is the need to promote Wellington as [being] not only a central government town.

Some Councillors such as John Morrison seem implacably opposed to you. Do you think you’ve been effective in getting support across party lines?

All our elected Councillors believe they’re doing the best for Wellington, so what I’ve tried to do is to find their strengths and work with that. I wouldn’t put John Morrison near the transport portfolio. But just because we disagree in that area doesn’t mean he doesn’t do a lot for the sporting community and he’s been one of the real movers and shakers in getting Australian football to play their Anzac game here, for example. So my strategy is to find areas of their strengths and give them responsibility in those areas…

Do you expect to be contesting the mayoralty against Fran Wilde at the next election, and if not her, then who?

It’s been really interesting that no one else has yet committed to standing for the Mayoralty. It’s a democracy so I really hope we have a range of views and visions articulated during the election. But I must say that our smart capital vision that talks about people, jobs, a healthy environment and a smart digital approach is getting strong support. It’s got unanimous support across the Council, so maybe people do feel we are on the right track….

Do you find it surprising that seven months out from the next election, no other contender has yet thrown their hat into the ring –despite the efforts of Rex Nichols, Chris Parkin and other who have apparently formed a group to search for a candidate to stand against you?

Until the end of last year there were a number of people who would have assumed there would be a super-city in place before the next elections, and that would have put some people off because it would be a huge thing to have to campaign right across the region for the mayoralty. But with the last minute changes to the Local Government Act (that allow referendums to be initiated by local communities) it’s clear that the smallest part of the region could force a referendum by a 10% petition in their area. I think that change has thrown some of the right into a degree of disarray.

Why should Wellingtonians re-elect you?

I’ve been much closer to the average person and I’m out and about in the community a lot, and I think people feel they can ask me questions and make suggestions to me directly. I think people feel I’ve got a genuine community interest.

In terms of big projects I have advanced? Well, the financial situation has been quite challenging for any project over the past two and a half years, so we’ve focussed on prudent, low cost, less visible initiatives, such as improving neighbourhood connections, community gardens and so forth. The big investment we’ve made in this Council term has been on earthquake strengthening, whether it’s been strengthening our social housing stock, buildings that Council owns, our sea walls or tunnels. They’re not very exciting projects, but they’re absolutely essential.

There’s also been a really good project to involve people in strengthening their own homes –again it’s a relatively frugal project but it’s one with potentially big benefits. Then there’s the pools initiative. Instead of building one grand ‘put-your-name-on-it’ pool, we’ve worked with half a dozen schools to make sure their languishing school pools can be upgraded and used by the community as well as schools. These are modest projects but they make a big difference. So I think if people want to continue with that approach of distributed access to resources and making sure all communities, of all ages, have a good life in the capital city then I’m certainly keen to offer myself up again.

There’s also a really different approach to transport prioritisation from the political arm of Council now. And we’ve had unanimous support for our strategic cycle-ways initiative. Passionate cyclists may not have seen as much expenditure on tarmac as they would like, but we are two thirds of the way through a shared cycle and walking way in Tawa and we’ve pushed the Great Harbour Way cycle way up to the number two priority in the region. That doesn’t mean we’ve fixed it yet but it’s on its way. And I have to say that I’ve brought a really different approach to transport issues at the Basin.

One of your main planks as Mayor was to bring light rail to Wellington. Yet some are predicting that the way the light rail study has been set up –excluding any light rail connection with the northern lines such as the Johnsonville line –that it is destined to fail. Do you agree?

I think the decision to put old style trains on the Johnsonville line has made it more difficult. I am surprised that the consultants threw out the possibility of a direct linkage to the northern rail lines, but I’m equally encouraged by the links to the south and the east which look like a fruitful direction for light rail to go…The reality is that whether its France, Sydney or the West Coast of America, more and more light rail systems are being built in cities that are our sort of size –in the 300.000 population range– because you don’t have to be a mega city to improve your public transport outcomes.

If the working group came out and rejected light rail (and supported bus lanes instead) would that not be seen as a major failure of your mayoralty?

I think you’ve got to look at the assumptions that have been built into the study and the fact that it’s a three-way study between NZTA, Greater Wellington Regional Council and the City Council, so we are only one third of the study. And I don’t think the current government or NZTA or Greater Wellington are enthusiastic proponents of light rail. But I’m sure that all the information that’s been gathered will be a basis for movement in the future. And even if the immediate result was improved bus lanes across the city and a clear corridor for public transport in Wellington, I think that would make the path of light rail smoother. The reality is that light rail was always going to be a long-term project. I wasn’t expecting to have tramlines laid within three years of being elected.

What’s your personal view of the flyover?

I have yet to find in real, physical life-rather than in an artists drawing-a fly over that I thought looked attractive. I think the landscape architects have probably done the best they can with their drawings, but I don’t think Wellington really deserves a flyover that would bring urban blight to that area of the city. Many cities are pulling down flyovers now, from Asia to Europe to North America. It was exciting to go to San Francisco and see their lovely waterfront after their flyover had been pulled down.

But the question is, if you don’t build a flyover, what do you do to make traffic flow more smoothly around the Basin, because there are certainly times when you’re coming from the Eastern suburbs into the city in a car, when there’s congestion. We’ve had suggestions from the architecture centre that the undergrounding of Memorial Park will reduce the cost of doing some ‘cut and cover’ work on the northern side of the Basin, and we’re also examining the proposition that, at least in the interim, you can reduce some of the blockages around the Basin Reserve without a flyover. Maybe it’s not a sensible place to have parking in the middle of a state highway there, for example.

Also, the undergrounding of Buckle Street has already removed quite a big pinch point at Tasman and Tory street. So there’s going to be some improvement there anyway, and that’s just looking at the traffic flows. There are other approaches too. We’ve suggested to Greater Wellington (who set the fares with a part subsidy from NZTA) that they should do some innovative “Early Bird” fares before 7.30 in the morning. Maybe there are some people who would start work a bit earlier and finish work earlier, and that would reduce the numbers of people using the Basin at peak time. That could apply to students too. Wellington High senior school starts at ten and it’s been great for the students. So there are an awful lot of ways, other than building a large piece of concrete infrastructure, that you can address the issue.

I’m going to be meeting with the NZTA board on 1 March with some information about our assessment of alternatives and we’ll see if they are open to some of our suggestions.

Do you find it galling that the New Zealand Transport Authority, not the Wellington Council, seems to be calling all the shots about a key transport issue such as the flyover—and doesn’t this undermine local democracy?

I think it needs to be a partnership because it is a state highway, not a local suburban cul de sac, and there is funding from taxpayers. So certainly they need to have some input, and they are part of the story. I just don’t think they should have the final word.

Were you offended by the New Zealand Transport Agency letter threatening the Council that would be serious implication for future transport investments in Wellington, if the Council opposed the flyover? Is there any way to interpret that letter other than an attempt to hold a gun to Council’s head?

The conclusion of the conversation has been that we’ll be meeting the board on 1st March, so I think it’s more useful to focus on where we’ve got to, and that may be partly because I didn’t over-react to the initial letter they sent. So now we’ve got the opportunity to meet with the Board and show them our proposals.

Do you seriously believe there’s still a chance of stopping the flyover, or is it really a fait accompli?

I think the people of Wellington will be very interested to see what alternative traffic solutions there may be to the fly-over, and at some point it will be up to the people of Wellington, through the submission process and through the next elections, to say what they would prefer.

Who on Council led the drive to headhunt and recruit Kevin Lavery to replace Garry Poole as the chief executive?

Our Council voted to advertise the position, and we had a number of the advertising agencies pitching to us… We weren’t by any means looking overseas, but we were open to overseas applicants.

Why do you think Kevin Lavery won the day?

Well, different people will have different reasons, but the important thing is that we’ve made the decision and the applicant who was successful has worked for both a Labour-controlled council and a Tory-controlled Council. Sometimes what has been ascribed as his position has been very much him executing the will of council, and let’s not forget that the Chief Executive is an employee of a Council and it’s the Council who should call the shots.

Did you vote for him?

The votes on whether we should advertise and who we should select were taken in public excluded, and I would like to keep it confidential.

Mr Lavery has a background in privatising and outsourcing local government services such as IT, and put up proposals to partially privatise libraries in Cornwall. Can we expect moves to privatise or outsource some Council services – or even Wellington’s libraries – in the next Council term?

I don’t believe this Council would want to privatise libraries and that’s where the decision lies –with Council. It should also be noted that his Council managed to maintain their frontline services despite the fact that the British government cut funding to local Council’s by almost 30%. We’re not in that situation here. We’re trying to keep our rate increases closer to the CPI, and we’re not facing a 30% reduction in our revenue, so it’s a very different context.

There’s some confusion over where the Council stands on local body amalgamation. At one stage you were reported as being strongly opposed to it. But a few months later it was reported that the Council was in favour of a supercity. What is the Council’s position and where do you stand personally on the issue?

First of all, Council as a whole has not voted on a preference on amalgamation. Our general view has been to go out and consult the public, and we did that on where the boundaries should go. In September we asked our officers to go away and produce some more information on how different options could work, the financial implications and so forth, and since then we’ve seen the final government legislation which is somewhat different from what people were expecting.

Personally I’m still really sceptical, and I think the public are sceptical about how one Council from Miramar to Masterton could be close to the people. Auckland has a bigger population but physically the Wellington region is about twice the size, geographically, of Auckland. And geography does matter. So the options are one Council on the other side of the Rimutukas, or may be 3 or 4 councils in the region. And then there are some real issues about whether we have one or two tiers of local government. In previous Councils we have co-existed reasonably successfully with the Regional Council but I think there are a number of areas of overlap between us…At the moment the Regional Council is conducting a bus review and even though the Regional Council has kept us in the loop, it’s been quite difficult. I think it would be simpler if it was dealt with by one decision-making body.

Is there much grass roots support for local body amalgamation, or is it being driven by a reasonably small group of people, headed by Fran Wilde?

When I’ve talked to people out in the suburbs, there’s been a preference for maintaining the current boundaries but working more closely together with other Councils.

Do you accept the argument that a super city would be better able to drive the economy forward?

I don’t think it has a great deal to do with whether you are one city or one region. I think one naturally works with the central government of the day on the areas where one agrees, and advocates for the community; and agrees to differ in some other areas. I mean having Len Brown as the mayor for the whole of Auckland doesn’t seem to have made the inner city rail loop happen.

One of the main arguments that’s put forward for amalgamation is that it would give Wellington more influence with government..Do you have ready access to government Ministers? Or does the government shut you out because you’re not a right-leaning mayor?

Yes we do. As Mayor of Wellington there are so many opportunities to meet government ministers. The Metro mayors have regular meeting with a range of Ministers, and one of the particular issues we are discussing at the moment is a regional affordable housing strategy. That was started by the Wellington Council of Social Services coming to meet with us and saying, can we work together on this issue regionally? And of course we can. Working collaboratively, and putting together groups when you need to on certain issues, is a much more modern and collaborative approach than saying one size fits all. And anyway there isn’t one voice for Wellington. There are Maori voices, there are new migrant voices, there are big business voices, small business voices. So I think it’s a little arrogant to say there’s one voice for Wellington.

Will the huge costs of earthquake strengthening in Wellington – and escalating insurance costs – see businesses exiting the city, and the loss of many of our heritage buildings?

To start with we’ve been really proactive in doing earthquake assessments. We’ve got the initial evaluation process going on pre-1976 buildings because we’re always aware of the threat of earthquakes in Wellington. We have assessed 3694 buildings. Out of those 597—less than a quarter—are listed as earthquake prone, or less than 33% of strength, and we have 1143 still to be assessed….

Obviously that’s quite a number that are earthquake prone, but only some of those are heritage buildings…The tricky areas are some of the big commercial buildings and heritage buildings. I’ve been encouraged how many large commercial buildings have been strengthened –the Majestic building, the World Trade Centre, BP House, the Huddark Part building…But there will be real questions about whether some heritage buildings should be strengthened or not. It will depend on the cost and whether strengthening would destroy their heritage value.

Cuba Street is a little bit different –the buildings aren’t so big and it’s a heritage area…So we are working with Victoria University School of Architecture to look at whether pinning some of the buildings together might be a way of reducing the cost to individual owners of individual earthquake strengthening. I haven’t seen the recommendations yet but its absolutely important that we keep our sense of place and Cuba Street must be the funkiest place to go shopping in the whole region.

We’ve also strengthened our own buildings and that’s a huge investment. The Embassy Theatre, the Art Gallery, the Johnsonville library, the Begonia house have been done and now we’re going to do the town hall, and the Band rotunda and so forth. The number of people using a building and its function will determine its priority. But it does create jobs –it may create more jobs to refurbish a heritage building than it does to build a new building so we shouldn’t ignore its impact on the economy.

Why does the Council allow so much glass to be used in such an earthquake prone city?

The art gallery in Christchurch which is made of glass and ended up being the welfare centre is a hugely encouraging example. If glass is used it has to meet quite strict building standards that ensure it will stay on and wont shatter.

There’s a feeling that the Wellington’s economy is stagnating. What is the Council doing to help kick start the local economy? Are these initiatives enough?

Well, we’ve got a number of areas where we are working on an economic strategy. One is that we have earmarked some funding to encourage long-haul flights from Asia to come to Wellington. It would make quite a significant difference if people could fly here directly instead of coming through Sydney or Auckland or Christchurch. We’re pushing for that and we’ve been shown a model that will work before any runway extensions need to be built. Another strand is the digital economy. There’s a huge number of socially positive and also very successful companies in Wellington like Zeus, {which] is selling its financial accounting software to a huge number of small businesses around the world. There are lots of design businesses that are doing really well…There are certainly some challenges about business head offices. They like to be closer to their bigger customer base that is increasingly not just Auckland, but Melbourne or Sydney. But we do have some real advantages to being the first country in the world that’s awake. Despite being in a digital world, real time advantages matter so I think our focus on digital is correct.

Are these initiatives enough?

I think we need to sing about our successes. Central government job cuts have really shaken confidence and a lot of…spending in the city. Its not so much that the cuts are huge but even a 10% cut can frighten 50% of employees, so they don’t spend on going to the theatre or going out to dinner or buying new clothes. So it does have a flow on effect. Our main counter to this is to promote the city, and encourage people to move to Wellington –either to study here, or create a business here. We’ve done some research work on Destination Wellington, which is a joint project with our tourism wing. We’re very good at promoting Wellington as being the coolest little capital on earth and telling people why they should come to visit but we haven’t promoted it enough as a place to live –a place to come to study or set up a business, for example. We’ve got a talented workforce, its easy to get around, you can organise half a dozen different meetings in one day and it’s a great place to live. There’s all the different sporting facilities, all the sports you can do here, from mountain biking to sailing, and the lifestyle, the safety of the city—there are a whole lot of advantages. And we have the international arts festival, world-class ballet and so forth.

In your view, would a super city be better able to drive the economy forward?

I don’t think having one super city would make a magical difference. At the Wellington Regional strategy meetings we’ve had updates recently from the Regional Economic development agency Grow Wellington (which has a mandate to grow business in Wellington and support existing businesses to grow) as well as from each of the councils in the region about what they’re doing in the economic development area, and each of them is doing something additional to what the economic development agency is doing. All of them have their own particular focus on economic development, and I think that’s a good thing.

If you proved to be a one term Mayor, what would you most miss about the job?

What I enjoy the most is meeting such a diverse range of people from council housing tenants to people planting community gardens, to visiting businesses, diplomats to the incredibly artistic people who come to Wellington. I love the opportunity to make them feel welcome and at home here, and I intend to continue doing that for another three years.