Our Rates, My Pain

Over the last month or so you have read that Auckland Council has:

  1. Installed exspensive speed cameras and not commissioned them;
  2. Underestimated holiday pay to the tune of $20m;
  3. Charged $69,000 in building consent and water connection fees for 70m2 unit, then taken six months to issue the CCC and then;
  4. justified it all in a PR puff piece.

So really it’s just another month in the life of the long-suffering ratepayer. I have to admit job satisfaction has been low for the past few months. I am using this forum as a cathartic release. Don’t get me wrong – the paper is being shuffled at a record rate. And I still enjoy the challenge of getting a plan from concept to the tick of approval. However, the dark clouds have been descending and the blame is with some Council planners. I will now refer to some of them as receptionists, although that is a discredit to those hard-working people.

Don’t worry, you’ll get your discount

They are a new breed of Council officer – they trained to not think outside the square, not to have an opinion, and not respond in a timely manner. And if they do not meet their obligation in the required statutory time, who really cares? We have recently has this exact response from a planner on a consent that was late:

“Don’t worry, you’ll get your discount”

Now that discount was the “penalty” the last government put in if council’s were late in processing a consent. Almost a reality check on performance. Council now treats it like the panacea to poor performance. Like it’s OK to miss the deadline, because the applicant will get a reduction on the total invoice. And who doesn’t want a discount?

I want you to pause on this for a moment. Where do you think the discount comes from? Your rates. Your rates pay for poor performance. This is the world we live in, and change will not come from my rants. It must come from the leadership within Council itself, and they think they are doing a great job.

The minute and irrelevant

You as a home owner often only see the pointy end of a proposal – when it hits the media, your boundary fence or when you have to get a consent yourself.

You don’t see the endless pedantic requests from Council officers for more and more information. One of the latest across my desk was for a renovation to a family home that has the space for two laundries. There was to be a second laundry by the garage for the kids’ sports gear and Dad’s work clothes (he’s a builder). Council deemed that as there were two laundries, there was a chance that two families might live there and that might mean this renovation was actually a second home unit.

We gave up arguing. We’ve deleted the second laundry and the owners will install it later on. It may be unusual to have two laundries, but in my own home, we’re adding a second smaller washing machine. We have four kids, who seem to change three to four times a day. We will put it in the existing laundry, so no consent required.

The application of the rules

The problem is the Resource Management Act is permissive and the Unitary Plan is permissive. But the planners (‘receptionists’) are the gate-keepers who focus on the minute and irrelevant. The latest section (104(1)(ab) of the RMA was enacted to address all the semantic definitions and distinctions we spend so much time on. But we still go around in circles because the planner does not like something, or is on leave for two weeks.

The RMA takes a huge kicking – there are reports that generally say the RMA has failed to deliver for environmental outcomes as well as economic outcomes. But when you get down to it, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Act. Rather, it’s in the way it is interpreted, applied and administered.

Phil Goff: for a better Auckland

The big picture

There’s an inherently conservative approach at Council, where “we know best” responses are defended with a view that often misses the big picture. The over-arching, ultimate goal and first commandment of council planning departments should be “you are here to ensure good quality developments happen”. Not the opposite we currently have.

Tony Alexander said it very well in BNZ’s weekly overview:

Kiwibuild is a good idea, but it doesn’t change the essential dynamics of our residential construction sector which consist of many little, inefficient operators purchasing from oligopolistic material suppliers, dealing with obstructionist councils increasingly terrified about getting any thing wrong..

There needs to be an enabling attitude to achieving environmental outcomes. If something does not change in the halls of Auckland Council soon, no amount of PR staff will save them from the reality that while in their minds they are doing the best they can, their customers share the opposite view.

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