NZ response to Covid-19

Here are some of the ways New Zealand has responded to Covid-19 in the past few weeks.

  1. Early on, we banned travellers from China and Iran, but said travellers from South Korea and Italy could self-isolate. At the time, the reason given was that self-isolation basically stopped people from coming anyway. Self-isolation was later proved to be a tool with limited usefulness.
  2. We cancelled Pasifika but let WOMAD go ahead.
  3. We asked all travellers to self isolate. Six days later we stopped overseas citizens from landing, as too many were failing to self-isolate.
  4. We banned mass gatherings of over 500. We then stopped indoor gatherings of more than 100.
  5. We want to be able to contact trace people who attend bars, restaurants and cafes, so we have asked these businesses to set up registers, and also expect everyone to be truthful here.
  6. We asked over 70s to stay home, but our deputy prime minister immediately ignored this advice.
  7. We are saying we want to keep Covid-19 Out, and stamp it out – this implies not letting Covid-19 become part of the New Zealand landscape. We are also saying we want to flatten the curve, which seems to imply it’s already here, and the best we can do is mitigate it’s impact

Have all of these decisions and messaging been correct? 80% of my twitter feed seems to think so. I have no idea.

The Chamber of Commerce backed the wrong horse

I can’t help but wonder if the Chamber of Commerce is happy with the outcome of Wellington’s election. One of the things that was obvious is that whatever the outcome of the mayoral election, the council was always going to have a progressive majority. Foster’s policies are a bit of a mixed bag, but I’ve previously argued that for him to get anything done at all, he’ll have to focus more on his progressive policies.

Throughout the election it was pretty clear the Chamber really did not want Lester to win. John Milford was churning out the negative press releases and writing columns that made that pretty obvious. In effect they were backing Foster.

The question though is why? The Chamber’s stated local body policies are roading, an indoor arena, asset sales, an airport runway extension and business rates cuts. If those are your priorities, Foster is a worse choice.

Foster is directly opposed to a runway extension and an indoor arena. The chance of Foster managing to get business rate cuts or asset sales through this council are essentially zero.

Around roads and Let’s Get Wellington Moving, a vote for Foster was simply a vote for stasis rather than action. The idea that a mayor can easily change something which had majority funding from central government, plus the unanimous support of regional and city councils is a cartoonish misrepresentation, and I’m sure the Chamber understood that. Foster as mayor is simply more litigation, more delay, more politicking, rather than getting on and delivering 3.5 billion dollars in Crown transport investment, which does include roading.

Lester on the other hand was about the only mayoral candidate who supported a runway extension and an indoor arena. He had managed to get support for a large transport investment, with a roading component in it.

Head to head then, Lester was a far better mayoral candidate than Foster for the Chamber’s stated policies. So why did they campaign hard against Lester? Was it blind ideology? A mayor with a business background and the Labour tag almost hidden on his advertising was too much to bare? They couldn’t handle someone who had what in almost every other OECD country would be considered a rational approach to transport?

Whatever the reasons, the Chamber showed a remarkable lack of pragmatism. They have got a council which is unlikely to deliver any of their main priorities. The leadership of the Chamber of Commerce totally failed to see what a good outcome for their members was. If I paid them subs, I’d be pissed off. Given I don’t, I actually find it kind of amusing.

Landlord differential

This evening i just want to look quickly at the way council defines what kind of rate someone will pay. In short there are two kinds – residential rates and business rates. From what I understand, business ratepayers pay more than residential ratepayers, by quite a bit.

So far, so easy. Seems pretty straightforward right? Well yes, but I guess there is one category of ratepayer who could be considered either. That’s the residential landlord. Is a house someone owns for the purpose of renting a residential or business property? It’s clearly both. At the moment, for rating purposes it’s classified residential.

But could it also be classified business couldn’t it? I wouldn’t quibble with that as a definition. Is there a lawyer out there somewhere who knows? That classification would have quite a significant impact on the business model of landlords. There may be other options too, like charging a small differential on residential landlords

Reports of media death are not greatly exaggerated

One of the interesting things about running for mayor is that you get the opportunity to see how our media operates from a slightly more inside point of view. I’ll write separate posts about some specific media organisations, but today I want to focus on one common element. That’s the limited scope of media, and what that looks like up close.

Everyone already knows this, but the media is basically absent from local body politics. The Dominion Post came to five meet the candidates events. RNZ and NZME attended one each. With such limited cover what ends up getting press is extremely ad-hoc. If you can put out a decent press release at a quiet time, it might get a tonne of coverage. If you can start up an angry Facebook group, you too will probably get coverage, as there will be a ready made spokesperson or decent quote to put in a story. Indeed, most wards gets caricatured as having one angry issue. Southern is the Island Bay cycleway, Eastern is Shelly Bay, and Northern is Johnsonville Mall. Meanwhile tonnes of other things going on across the city are ignored due to lack of journalists. I get that conflict is at the heart of every story, but it’s a shame that we lack the media resources to cover anything other than angry, change resistant people.

This media absence is felt more keenly below the mayoral level. It was notable to me that when the Dominion Post ranked councillors, they gave central councillors an average score of 8, and others an average score of less than 6. The reason for this is probably the obvious one: the journos who put those scores together spend far more time in the central city than they do anywhere else. Work done in other parts of the city is not even known about unless some group of angry ranters can get some attention, so there will be a negative bias before conscious rankings have even begun.

Because media is so weak, media organisations only focus on conflict. It feeds into this oppositional form of local body government where all that happens is that people oppose change. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially given the wider narrative seems to be that people would actually like to see some change in Wellington. No one’s to blame, but the ever shrinking media putting together cheap news is a potential handbrake on progress in Wellington.

Local body turnout

As most of you will be aware, I recently ran for Mayor. I didn’t win. The only conclusion I can come to is that the system must be broken. In all seriousness though, running for local body did make me think a lot more about the health of local body democracy, and I want to write about some of these issues. Today, it’s the turn of the uber issue, turnout (Warning to stats nerds: leans heavily on correlation implying causation).

In short, nobody votes and thats a huge problem. Wellington turnout was less than 40%, and only about 17 or 18% of people voted for the winner of the Mayoralty. In parts of the country with low turnout and different electoral systems, it’s likely that Mayors were elected with about 10% of people voting for them. This cannot be called democratic in any real sense of the word.

There are all the obvious things that have been touched on about who is most likely to vote – age is a big one. But I’m going to guess that the single thing that is most likely to indicate whether people vote is whether or not they own a home. In Wellington, turnout was over 40% higher in Wharangi-Western with it’s high percentage of homeowners, than it was in Pukehinau-Lambton with it’s high percentage of renters. Across the country smaller councils generally have higher turnout than larger councils. Again I am going to suggest that this is because city councils have higher numbers of people renting. Intuitively it makes sense. Directly paying a $3000 rates bill makes you care a whole lot more about what council does than your landlord paying a portion of your rent money to the council.

So we have a system with low turnout, and that turnout probably being dominated by homeowners. There are all sorts of downstream implications of this, but today’s just about noting that at local body level, government is decided by property owners. In effect it’s like going back 200 years to the Uk when you had to own land to vote. It’s bleak, and only drastic change will give councils the appropriate power and representation. I’ll get into what some of those changes might be later on, but today was just about identifying the problem.

Hanging out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride – an ode to cars.

Some of my best memories involve vehicles. Road tripping around Northland, discovering that almost-foreign subtropic. A massive delivery man nearly flattening me with a chest of drawers, while my mate engaged in casual chit-chat. Having a taxivan driver absolutely crank “Killing In The Name Of” while 8 of us sung along driving between parties as teenagers. Road trips, deliveries, and partying in the country side. These are some of the core role of cars in and around Wellington.

But for some reason we’ve massively extended the role of cars. Kids can’t cycle home, they need to be picked up. People drive to work at the drop of a hat. In some of our newer suburbs people feel they have to jump into a mobile to pick up a pint of milk. It’s not like anyone enjoys this. No one ever says: “man I still remember that Tuesday morning commute, it was so great.” School gate pickups are the absolute opposite of fun, as kids and parents play frogger with other traffic.

And that’s just the low level irritation. More New Zealanders have died in car accidents in the last 30 odd years than in all of World War 2. Every year thousands are injured. While the rest of our carbon emission are flat, cars are spewing out more and more Co2. Wellington is built around cars, and is a less social space than similar sized cities in many other parts of the globe. There are excellent uses for cars, but we have massively overextended what they do and it’s hard to know what the benefits are.

Maybe the greatest irony is that all the driving doesn’t get anyone anywhere faster. Build a road in Wellington, and it fills up and creates a bottleneck somewhere else. If we had high quality transport options, everyone including drivers would move faster. The city would be safer, we’d have better public spaces, and we would emit less carbon. Let’s save the cars for getting to beautiful remote beaches and for party taxis.

Bustastrophe

There’s been alot of anger about Bustastrophe, the multi-faceted meltdown of Wellington’s public transport. While the anger has focussed on the last ten months of change, the last ten years have seen Wellington’s public transport dead in the water. Indeed the graph above shows Auckland’s growth rate vastly outstripping ours. Wellington has added 2 trips per capita in these ten years, whereas Auckland has added 20 trips per capita. Auckland will soon have more trips per capita than us. I always thought Wellington prided itself on having the best city lifestyle of anywhere in New Zealand, but when it comes to transport at least, that will soon no longer be true.

So while Bustastrophe has been the catalyst for Wellingtonians public transport rage, it has more shown up a prolonged period of underperformance and underinvestment as much as anything else. This underinvestment led directly to Bustastrophe, as many of the things that would have led to increased patronage were not done before the new network implementation. These include integrated ticketing – using your snapper card on all public transport, trains running on 15 minute frequencies, and some frequent cross-town buses. It’s worth noting that with Auckland’s much more successful network redesign, these things were mostly rolled out. Auckland has had integrated ticketing for years, has at least one frequent train line, and has cross-town frequent buses.

For mine, we can complain about Bustastrophe as much as we like, but to keep Wellington as New Zealand’s best city, we need to invest more in public transport. Otherwise we will continue to stagnate. Wellingtonians make ten car trips for every bus or train trip. With more investment, many of these trips could be on public transport instead. To decongest and decarbonise we need to invest in our public transport properly, instead of just hoping underpaid bus drivers will somehow save us.

NB: The graph is from Greater Auckland. Also this post has left poor pay and conditions for drivers out. Because that is deserving of a whole separate post

Wellington’s climate change emergency

I recently wrote about Nelson council passing a climate change emergency and today Wellington follows suit. I don’t feel particularly hopeful about this, as action rather than proclamations are what count. After all we’re approaching the thirtieth anniversary of the Kyoto protocol and have gone so far backwards it’s hard to fathom. Climate change has been a reality my entire adult life, and we have made things worse during that time. My positions are inspired by things I have seen work in other cities and towns, whether that’s cycling Amsterdam, living in an apartment in Korea, or riding public transport in most cities around the world. While not directly inspired by climate change, almost every thing I discuss would reduce Wellington’s per capita carbon emissions.

Anyhow, here are the things Wellington can and should do, which would have a direct impact on reducing carbon emissions.

  1. Allow people to build apartments and townhouses as outlined here. Immediately stop all green fields suburban development. Car reliant large houses in the suburbs have much more impact on the climate than apartments near public transport and amenities.
  2. Charge people for using roads. This would include both parking and congestion charging. Congestion charging would involve charging people who drive into Wellington CBD during peak hours
  3. Our public transport system needs to be so much better, and should include light rail to the airport. This should occur far before the 2030s as it is currently scheduled for. We should have many more frequent buses. The bus priority lanes outlined in Let’s Get Wellington Moving should be built well before late 2020s which they are mostly scheduled for.
  4. Let’s have a network of cycleways. Again, the CBD work outlined in Let’s Get Wellington Moving needs to occur as soon as possible. Personally, I’d also like to see the Newtown Connections built ASAP and a connection from Courtenay place to the Basin Reserve. Would love to know what the other cycling priorities are.
  5. Cancel the airport runway extension.

To make Wellington the best it can be, we need frequent public transport, safe cycling networks, affordable well-located housing, and cities that are built around people, not cars. All of these things make for great, liveable cities. They happen to be far better for the climate than what we currently have, and what many of our councillors tacitly support. Declaring a climate change emergency while supporting policies that do untold damage to the climate is a hypocritical election year gimmick and should be called out as such. Our mayor and our councillors need to be held to account on their rhetoric.

If you zone it they will come

Yesterday I explored some of the issues around the council greatly increasing the costs of building houses in Wellington. The rules themselves are almost impossible to understand, a point the council concedes in Kafkaesque fashion where the first chapter of the guide to the district plan is an overview to using the guide! It’s a Russian doll of nonsense, which is too complex for professionals, let alone laymen to understand. In many places, the rules force people into building car parks, make it difficult for people to build small homes, and coerce people into mowing lawns. These rules add huge amounts to the cost of new buildings. They do nothing to provide Wellington with the smaller, affordable homes close to public transport and amenities that so many of us want and need.

I’d like to suggest a basic rewrite of the rules, to resemble something along these lines. Happy for input here!

  1. Residential zone – The minimum zoning to be to be set to a height of three stories, with one dwelling per 50sqm of section allowed by right. This would mean that all across Wellington, beautiful social homes like Berhampore’s Centennial flats or more expensive place like Mt Victorias Zavos Corner could be built without having to get special consent.
  2. Transit zone – within 400 metres of any transit station – apartments and terraced housing up to 6 stories allowed. This would be along the Johnsonville line, and the planned Railway station to Wellington airport transit line. The art deco apartment buildings of Mt Victoria and the modernist apartments of the city side of Brooklyn are the inspiration for a zone like this.
  3. Cliff zone – Any section that backs on to a steep hill can build to the height of that hill. this is how Oriental Bay, one of our most vibrant suburbs is zoned, and I suggest that this be rolled out cliffside throughout the city.
  4. CBD zone – No change to the cbd – new homes seem to be able to built here easily enough.

There’d be other changes too. there’d be no minimum parking requirements, less requirement for outdoor space in most suburbs, and mostly we’d allow low level commercial opportunities on the ground floor. The mix of housing options and amenities enjoyed by our residents of Thorndon, Newtown and Mt Victoria would be available throughout the city. We’d end up with more affordable homes and greater choice in our neighbourhoods. They’d be more walkable, and have better amenities and more viable public transport. Sound good?

What’s wrong with building houses in Wellington

Showing up late for a working bee, mainly for the takeaways and beer, I managed to make my semi annual appearance on TV late last year.  It was for Grand Designs and the house build of some friends of mine. Full credit to them for getting it over the line, from what I’ve seen and heard of building a place, it seems like a total mission. And there seems to be some pretty good reasons why  – it’s a motherflippin’ house full of concrete and rebar and wood and paint and hundreds of different building materials, that you have to stick together in the right order and in the right way.

But then, there’s a whole lot of reasons why building a new home is hard, that have nothing to do with the physical effort. A ludicrously large number of these are to do with council provisions, many of which make no objective sense, and which make our city a worse place. Thanks to Wellington’s District Plan, in most parts of the city you have to have a car park, can’t build over 2 stories, and have to buy a large section and put only one home on it, which can usually only use 20 or 30% of the large section you have been made to buy. Going outside of these restrictions will add time and cost to your build, and you might get turned down.

The craziest thing about these rules is that Wellington’s most enjoyable neighborhoods were built before they existed.  Aro Valley, Thorndon, Mt Vic and Newtown are filled with cottages on tiny sections with no car pars. There’s also plenty of gorgeous apartment buildings, whether it’s the laid back art-deco above Shalimar, or the Mt Vic Monastery, which is really just an old school version of affordable housing right? And in all of these suburbs there’s high rise living. In Oriental Bay, the rules are very relaxed, you can build up to 34 metres, and don’t have to leave almost your entire section as grass or concrete like you do in Newlands or most parts of the city. These older suburbs have great amenities, plenty of people, cafes and good shopping.

But for some reason, the mixed housing model of our older suburbs has been abandoned and replaced with a conservative, car centric approach to neighbourhood building. There’s plenty of things wrong with this approach, but the worst thing about it is that it makes houses so much more expensive than they need to be. Forcing people into large sections with one or more carparks and no more than one home adds tens, if not hundreds of thousand of dollars onto the cost of a new home.  This is total bullshit, and Wellington can do better.