Why do something today when you can put it off until it becomes someone else’s problem?
As we enter another yawn-fest Long Term Plan consultation phase for Dunedin City Council we are reminded again how much time council spends talking about what may or may not be done at an unspecified time in the future by people as yet unknown in circumstances as yet uncertain. Submit all you want you hopeful residents, but look at the faces behind the table you are submitting to. Lights are on but no-one’s home. If you asked them about their long-term plan they would tell you that “we are on journey.” Was there ever such an over-used phrase for bureaucrats to embrace as their catch cry for filling in time without actually doing anything? We are having meetings; we are going through due process; we are strategising; we are consulting; but we are most affirmative and decisive in stating that someone should do something, sometime.
But what are we achieving right now? What are we doing about today’s issues?
One example of Dunedin’s inability to sort itself out was highlighted when the “Sunday” TV show decided to have another ratings grabber by reporting on Dunedin’s student party culture. This is not new; its been around for decades. The Hyde St party is a years’ old well-established event. Never actually bothers me, I don’t live anywhere near it. By now our civic leaders should have had a solid a position on it. Either we tell the rest of NZ to mind their own business or council ought to have brought in the cavalry years ago to outlaw this ‘party culture‘. Personally, as a very long-term North Dunedin resident surrounded now by more and more flats, I am very firmly in the former camp. Tell them to sod off and mind their own business. I don’t know much about Hyde St, but I do know it seems well contained within core student land and the loony couch-burning phase is under control, so party on! I am however within the precinct of Feastock and have nothing but praise for those organisers. Every year I get a notice letting me know when it’s on and even kindly inviting me along. I would love to pop in and bore them senseless about the original ‘stock’ (Cocker was there man, like, far out man) but I still have enough sense to let them have their fun. Apart from that, the TV Current affairs show focused on one inner-city resident complaining about one flat that apparently has had one party this year. What a slow night of affairs when that hits primetime. Where on earth is that an unusual or newsworthy event. TVNZ needed to be told to sod off and find a story worthy of their primetime.
What we did not need was a mayor wringing his hands on national TV saying this was such a bad look for Dunedin and muttering something about us being just too tolerant. Then a day later he announced that a meeting of ten stakeholder organisations had a meeting about this issue back in March. Everyone at the meeting had agreed that someone needs to do something. And, by jove, something they did. The representatives of these stakeholders unanimously drafted a statement confirming that someone had to do something. They began a journey with an announcement that another meeting will be planned for sometime in the future. And at that meeting, or a subsequent one, ideas will be discussed and as a result someone will be most clearly told that something needs to be done. We are not a Council who sit around ummhing and aaahing. We called a damn meeting; we consulted; we issued a statement.
But putting a student party or two aside for a moment, lets look at the real elephant in the council chamber.
This mayor and his greater Dunedin party knows precisely what achievement was expected of them in their term. A reduction of the debt incurred by proceeding with the overdue public amenity projects of renovation of our Town Hall and our Early Settlers Museum and the building a modern and international standard sports complex for cricket, football and rugby in the University/ Logan Park precinct. The rhetoric of this “Greater Dunedin” political party during the debates to commit to these projects gave residents the distinct impression that this ‘Greater Dunedin’ political group was of a similar mindset. Objective: reduce the ratepayer debt.
I personally believe a city of Dunedin’s history and status has an obligation to maintain the appropriate standards of our Concert Hall, Conference Centre, Museum and Sports facilities. But whatever side of these civic projects’ debate other residents sit on, one thing everyone is agreed upon is that with our Council having committed to them, we needed some creative thinking and action from Council around reduction of that debt. The debt cannot be just be loaded onto the residents’ tax bill becoming not only a burden for us but also a burden of the next generation or three. Just let taxes take care of spending is, however, the standard answer of green politicians. All of these buildings will need further investment within twenty years and that will be sufficient challenge for future generations. We must deal with the current debt level now.
So what has been achieved? Nothing. Four and a half years after voting Dave Cull and his crew in, the debt situation has gotten worse and worse. It is not as if there are no precedents for alternative funding options for civic projects. The Sydney Opera House was fully funded by a national Opera House Lottery. Even closer to home, in the 1920’s, while Dunedin residents agreed a grand Dunedin Town Hall would benefit the city, it was decided to fund it by staging the South Seas Exhibition. And over a six month period, between November 1925 and May 1926, three million people attended. Consider the logistics, ambition and dynamic management of this venture especially given New Zealand’s total population was just over one million at the time and the challenges of people travelling here. The Town Hall was paid for in cash. On an even grander scale, the Eiffel Tower, while commissioned by the French Government for their Universal Exhibition in 1889, was only partially paid for from taxes. Most of the cost was met by Gustave Eiffel’s own company in return for the income derived from the tower over the first twenty years.
All great monuments at different levels. But achieved by people who focused and solved financial challenges in the now. They did not ‘start on a journey’; they were not just part of a process; writing cheques today that their children and grandchildren were going to have to honour or go bankrupt in the attempt.
Our Council called together ten organisations to address new ideas for dealing with a rowdy student party. But as far as I am aware, in the past 53 months of Dave Cull’s mayoralty there has ever been a meeting of creatively minded people called to develop innovative ideas for reducing this $200 million debt that we have incurred.
Something is starting to make sense. The only ‘visionary’ project that Council is blindly bringing to reality, the cycleway network, actually does suddenly have some tragic logic. Council have left our debt level entirely in the hands of market forces. If the economic environment tightens, highly probable with the attitude of this Council to any business interest in Dunedin, and/ or/ when Dunedin City Council’s credit rating is downgraded, also highly likely, then interest rates on the $200+ million dollars owed by Council itself will climb exponentially. Then the only option will be to raise rates further and further to meet our astronomically rising interest bills, with capital repayment no longer even an option.
At that point a significant proportion of our population will simply not be able to afford to own and operate a car; bicycle transport will be a rapidly growing economic necessity. So we do have a council of vision. They have already given up on being able to slow down the runaway debt train and so have prepared for our economic demise by creating cycleways right through the city. It is the macro version of a person buying a bike to leave in his will for his children and grandchildren because he knows he has incurred debt on their behalf that he knows will probably bankrupt them.
If this Council expects to be fondly remembered for their vision, they are tragically mistaken. We need a Council that can live in the now and deal with today’s challenges today.