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Opinion: The 'should Auckland go up or out' debate misses the real point - the city is already too big for the country anyway
By David Hargreaves
As everybody agonises about whether Auckland city should go “up or out” very few rational voices are even acknowledging a third option.
It can be a bit dangerous and misleading to go by what commentators to websites say, but there is a constant refrain among those commenting on the great debate about whether Auckland should spread or high-rise.
Aucklanders it seems DON’T WANT the city to grow in the future the way it has in the past, whether it be up, down, forwards, backwards, out, or sideways.
My colleague Gareth Vaughan in his excellent piece pointing out the likely high-rise future for Auckland schools made reference to this unspoken third option.
But it’s a fair bet that for the much-hyped meeting between Housing Minister Nick Smith and Auckland Mayor Len Brown the mysterious option three “contain Auckland’s population” will not have got a mention.
The thing is, everybody just assumes Auckland will grow at a faster rate to the rest of the country (as it has) and accept that fact.
At the moment Auckland has a population of 1.5 million, give or take a few, while the total population of the whole country is 4.46 million.
According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2011 Auckland made up about 34% of the population. Based on “medium” projections, Statistics New Zealand reckons the country will have a population of 5.19 million by 2031. Auckland will have 1.97 million, it is projected. This, if it transpires, will mean Auckland’s share of the total population will have risen to 38%.
That’s a very high proportion by international standards, though you would have to be careful in necessarily trying to suggest it would actually be the biggest proportion of population in the world for a country’s largest city. Just off the top of the head, you could think of Iceland’s Reykjavik, with a population of either 120,000 or 200,000 depending on whether you take in the surrounding region, versus a total population in Iceland of just 320,000.
But a lot of countries are not absolutely dominated by their largest city. London for example represents just 15% of the total population of England, or about 12.7% of the whole of the UK. Tokyo represents about 10% of Japan’s population, while the massive Shanghai (figures vary depending on where you get them from but let’s call its population 23 million) makes up only a little more than 1% of China’s population.
The point is, do we really want the economy of a country to be hugely dictated by one part of it? The expression all your eggs in one basket comes to mind. What if those Christchurch earthquakes had hit Auckland? Would New Zealand now have an economy at all?
But it is just accepted that Auckland will continue to grow faster than the rest of the country and the whole debate is how that growth is handled, rather than, would it be beneficial for OTHER parts of the country to grow more quickly? Can we actually check the Auckland population growth?
Move the migrants
Doing so might not be quite as simple as some suggest. For example it has been suggested that migrants to this country be “encouraged” to go somewhere other than Auckland. There has got to be some merit in that, without wanting to come across as overly prescriptive.
But, to go back to Statistics New Zealand’s projections again, it is believed that two-thirds of that Auckland population growth will actually come from breeding. If you look further at the statistics, this is not surprising, because not only is Auckland’s the fastest growing population, it is also the youngest, with a median age of 34.2 The next youngest median age in the country is in Gisborne, about 1.5 years older than in Auckland. Several places, particularly further down south have a median in advance of 40.
To this observer these figures all look like a mounting problem for the country. It looks like a country and an economy that will be increasingly unbalanced.
So, to an extent, the unseemly squabble between the Government (who seem to have started it) and the Auckland Council (who seem to this observer to be more reasonable in their approach) is actually missing the main point. Don’t let’s see how many more people we can shoehorn into Auckland without first seeing how the rest of the country can be made to grow and prosper too.
But first, just a couple of points about the argument that the Government and the council are having.
As someone who had never lived in Auckland till relatively recently, I find beyond belief the concept that there is apparently no land available within this sprawling mess for new houses. If we accept that is the case then it all goes to show how derelict original so-called planners of the city were. See green field. Build housing development on it. Link with roads. No problem. Oh...okay. Problem.
For the Government to implicitly push for a return to that sort of idiotic thinking is a recipe for disaster. Just pave the whole North Island and call it Auckland. And be prepared to wait a very long time for a bus.
I suspect the mounting hysteria in Auckland that suggests the council is looking to house everybody in 200 storey apartment blocks, or 10 kilometre-long terraced blocks is being rather overdone. But the reality is that some more apartments in the central city area would not be a bad idea at all. And maybe some in outer lying areas as well.
The real objection possibly that most Aucklanders would have to apartments is that so many apartment developments have been abysmal, don’t-board-your-dog-in-them, things. To walk up Auckland’s Hobson Street is to really feel like you have been thrust up the backside of the universe. It is disgraceful that half these “structures” (the word is used loosely) ever got beyond the drawing board, if indeed they were ever drawn.
A lot of people in New York live in apartments. Why? Well, yes, there is a lack of space. But people live in them because a lot of them are nice. The thinking in respect to Auckland is that apartments should be cheap. Well the word nasty goes very nicely with cheap. More quality apartment blocks may well attract more of the well heeled to live in them. Okay so what about housing affordability? Well, the theory would be that more people moving into apartments would take the pressure off the housing stock elsewhere and ease the pricing pressure. That’s the theory.
But that’s all about managing the current problem.
In the future, the Government should be thinking about how it actually takes some of the focus off Auckland and allows the rest of the country to grow. If you give Auckland’s population growth a breather you will give the council more chance to remedy some of the sins of the past.
So, what to do?
As mentioned, giving new migrants incentives, at the very least, to base themselves somewhere other than Auckland would be a start.
How about incentives to businesses to base themselves in places other than Auckland? Okay, it immediately starts to sound expensive. But would there be incentives using the tax system that could be applied? Perhaps some kind of deduction for non-Auckland businesses? Yes, obviously there would be a cost via lost revenue. But there might also be economic benefits.
The point is, it would be worth going through the intellectual exercise of seeing whether such incentives could be arrived at.
Similarly, could the tax system be used to provide young couples incentives to move away from Auckland?
These kinds of alternatives are worth looking at.
But as long as the argument remains about how can we make Auckland even bigger, you have to suspect that the country is missing a big opportunity to diversify its economic base. And it is playing Russian roulette with its future economic prospects.