Presentation to Finance and Performance Committee regarding Long Term Plan
On 10 March 2021, Viv Beck presented on behalf of Heart of the City to Auckland Council's Finance and Performance Committee regarding the Long Term Plan 2021 - 2031, prior to completion of our written submission on the plan.
Last April I alerted Councillors to the massive shock that was hitting the city centre with the simultaneous loss of all our customer sources. I said, “imagine the impact on a place built for lots of people without international tourists, with students e-learning, people working from home, business closures, job losses, vacant tenancies, nervousness with public transport and more vulnerable people on the street”.
I concluded by saying that survival of businesses in the city centre is vital and stressed the importance of Council working collaboratively with groups like ours to achieve a much stronger result than making decisions in isolation.
If that had happened in a way that was commensurate with the city centre’s role in the Auckland economy, we would be having a different conversation today. Heart of the City has not seen the support for our businesses that we would have expected given the magnitude of the issues and I’m going to outline what needs to change going forward with particular emphasis on the City Centre Targeted Rate and dealing with the impacts of long-term construction.
Firstly, I’d like to start with a few comments about the last year.
Impacted businesses, which employ people from all over the city, have lost half a billion dollars of consumer spending over that period plus all the costs associated with things like shutting down at short notice and the stress of worrying about what will happen to their livelihood, their staff and paying their suppliers – who also come from across the city.
On top of that, spending in the city centre was already trending down before covid, challenged by ongoing impacts from long-term, large-scale construction.
And while Heart of the City is optimistic about the city centre’s future and we support transformation, we are under no illusion about the severity of impact in the short to medium term. Many businesses are on a knife edge and two periods of Level 3 in quick succession (which each time brings up to 90% drop in spending) have exacerbated the situation for many. While subsidies help, they don’t cover the debts incurred – these issues are cumulative.
I'm not going to cover the importance of the central government response regarding vaccination, planning and borders today but one thing we asked Council last year was to take a lead in bringing its workforce back, because working from home is having the biggest impact after the loss of international spending. The response was slow at best.
Secondly, there are several things we have asked for repeatedly. I’m going to mention a few because this is relevant to City Centre Targeted Rate.
- Holistic and connected planning across the Council group to design and deliver the City Centre Master Plan. This is necessary to ensure place, movement and operational needs are met optimally. Too often, this balance has been missing and projects need rework which costs time and money. One recent example – a consultation went out for some changes to bus operations in and around Wellesley Street. Fortunately, we found out about them, realised that not only were they being handled separately from the Queen Street work, but they had a quick consultation period, businesses in the area were not aware of it and, the proposal was to remove loading for businesses. Can you imagine lugging 200kg kegs too far?
- Effective timing and sequencing of projects to ensure the city centre is attractive and accessible while it is being transformed.
- Scheduled works are cost-effective and efficient, with a “do it once, do it fast, do it right” approach. We receive constant feedback that people view Council projects to be expensive, slow and inefficient.
- New spaces must be maintained and looked after. For example, Te Komititanga – ongoing management, maintenance and activation is vital to success.
- Innovation in how the city operates, for example in servicing and loading to underpin aspirations for the place – businesses need to get stock.
City Centre Targeted Rate
Heart of the City is very supportive of this rate. However, while there are great examples where it has been used to bring positive and long-term benefits, and some has been allocated to support additional marketing in the last year, the issues outlined above must be addressed to ensure it is well utilised.
I am going to use Queen Street as an example. Some people seem to think this is about businesses complaining about wanting customers to park at their doorstep but this is not the essence of our issue. We just want change to be done well and we believe that ratepayer needs must be taken into account through effective engagement before key decisions are made. In the case of CCTR, 95% is paid by property owners and businesses and they should be listened to when something affects them and their livelihood, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis.
Many comments have been expressed, but the simplest way I can describe what has happened in Queen Street, is to relay a recent comment from a local business:
“Coming back from lockdown last year I was totally appalled to find the sticks and bollards. I support pedestrianisation but the timing couldn’t have been worse for our business. The worse thing is that after all this mess for all this time, I have no faith that it will actually be a great improvement.” That pretty much sums it up. So far we can see no great innovation, buses, bikes, fire engines and taxis will be slogging it out in the mid-section and more diesel buses will not help air quality.
This project has been confusing and frustrating because it hasn’t followed the true concept of successful co-design. Many, many hours have been wasted and much stress has been created unnecessarily. And while we can see how hard it is at times for Council staff to answer perfectly reasonable questions from businesses, they cannot be blamed for the state of this project. There has been no leadership from Auckland Council or Transport and at time when our city, our businesses and our people needed Council to step up, it didn’t.
The City Centre Targeted Rate is important for the ongoing transformation of the city centre and there must be change. Leadership has to come from the top and we are going to be challenging hard on behalf of our businesses. They deserve better and so does our city.
One of the major issues for our businesses with transformation has been the impact of the disruption. It has been a slog to get this acknowledged and CCTR was used to get a framework developed to help mitigate impacts in the absence of anything else.
However, large-scale, long term projects need a different approach. In the case of City Rail Link, there have been many hurdles to getting a fair outcome and we have gone straight to government this time, seeking support for businesses impacted by the C3 works.
Last year a cross party Select Committee supported our position that impacted businesses deserve support and that work must be done proactively regarding future large-scale, long-term projects. We are not at all satisfied with progress but I am hoping the new Transport Minister will put this wrong right very soon.
Accommodation Targeted Rate
Our submission will also include our strong views that the Accommodation Provided Targeted Rate must go and not reappear.
We believe in the importance of holding major events in our city, as well as marketing Auckland to the rest of New Zealand, Australia, and when the time is right to the rest of the world. These activities must continue, without being tied to this rate. We would like to see central government acknowledge the value that Auckland brings to the wider economy.
HOTC is supportive of investment to meet climate change goals. In particular, we support funding that will ensure all new buses procured from 1 July 2021 will only be electric or hydrogen.
Impacted businesses are facing cumulative impacts over a long period of time, and for some it goes well beyond COVID. They have been amazing through this time and while some are doing well, others are desperately trying to survive and keep their families fed and their staff employed.
All the public and private investment in the city centre, including public transport, is reliant on people. While we have confidence in the future of the city centre, the short to medium term issues are significant and we are looking for a major change in approach from Council. We want to see a more efficient organisation that utilises ratepayer funds well and one that cares not only about creating spaces for people, but also about the people who work hard, day in and day out to contribute to our city centre and economy.