Losing Our Democracy

SmartGrowth” is a collaboration between Tauranga City Council, Western BOP District Council, BOP Regional Council, Tangata Whenua and central government that was established in 2004 to “manage” growth in this part of the country.

On 17 August 2022, in a SmartGrowth Leadership Group meeting that wasn’t even livestreamed or uploaded onto YouTube, representatives of the other organisations voted against the wishes of BOP Regional Councillors to scrap the community ‘Forums‘ that were the last remaining direct link with the wider community.

People ask us “Why should we care? SmartGrowth obviously hasn’t worked. Just look around us!” Or more pointedly, “Isn’t SmartGrowth a misnomer?” “Don’t you mean DumbGrowth?”

We understand that way of thinking. It’d be hard to find anyone who lived in Tauranga 20 years ago who says the city is better planned now. Congestion is worse, sprawl has doubled the daily work commute for many people, there is a lack of community facilities in many suburbs, housing affordability is far worse and homelessness is now a significant problem. SmartGrowth’s goal to “create communities where we live, learn, work and play” was a pipe dream.

However SmartGrowth is the only game in town. It’s the forum for the mayors and councillors and tangata whenua reps to sit down with central government and decide the growth and transport plans for our city. Which determines how much we’ll end up paying to make that happen. So love it or hate it, SmartGrowth is important.

SmartGrowth

SmartGrowth’s website tells the official history:
“Launched in 2004, SmartGrowth provides a unified vision, direction and voice for the future of the western Bay of Plenty…”.

That immediately raises a key question. What is that unified vision and direction? And whose vision is it? Certainly not the public’s, as we haven’t been asked for the past decade.

Perhaps the three representatives from each of the councils and the four tangata whenua representatives can articulate a somewhat unified vision, but most people haven’t got a clue. Not even the 100 or so people involved over the past few years in the SmartGrowth Forums, which were set up to “provide valuable input into implementation pathways and help with monitoring the impact of SmartGrowth.

In reality, there has been an emerging split in SmartGrowth, with some councillors and most Forum members wanting more community say, an increased focus on social and environmental outcomes, and fewer secret meetings. However the majority of councillors, commissioners and tangata whenua reps have voted not to have any public consultation in the past few years, to scrap community forums, and to focus on their expensive “growth agenda” – at the expense of better social and environmental outcomes.

The ‘powers-that-be’ tell us that now SmartGrowth has Ministers Mahuta and Woods sitting on its Leadership Group, it is in “delivery mode” or “implementation mode”, to implement its sub-regional plan. Sounds good, right? Less talk, more action. Who doesn’t want that?

No Public Consultation

The problem is that no-one has asked the public what they think about those plans and whether they’re prepared to pay for them. Incredibly, there has not been a single public consultation on the SmartGrowth strategies and plans since 2018, and that 2018 plan (the “Future Development Strategy“) was slammed by most submitters. That means no public say on any of the crucially important spatial plans or transport plans developed in recent years.

While we don’t know what the public thinks about those specific plans, the Vital Signs surveys showed that Tauranga and Western Bay residents prioritise the environment and good community outcomes, so it’s almost certain they wouldn’t support the current strategies and plans, or the complete lack of community input.

UFTI

The main SmartGrowth strategy is the Urban Form and Transport Initiative (UFTI). Developed in 2019-20, “UFTI is focussed on supporting liveable community outcomes – finding answers for housing capacity, intensification, multi-modal transport (such as public transport and cycleways) and network capacity.” That seems a good idea, right?

In fact, UFTI was councils’ response to a 2018 proposal put forward by 21 Tauranga-WBOP community organisations (including BOP DHB, Chamber of Commerce, Sport BOP, Tourism BOP, Toi Ohomai, iwi-hapu, business organisations, environmental groups and others) calling for an integrated, sustainable urban development and transport plan.

Hence UFTI was warmly received and we all looked forward to a comprehensive engagement process with local communities, as initially promised. We knew that would be challenging, as councils grappled with people’s different views about what was needed, and whether money should be spent on public transport or cycling infrastructure or other roading investments.

UFTI should have led to an agreed transport plan backed by local residents, with central government funding to help deliver that plan. But that never eventuated. Unlike Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Christchurch and other NZ cities, there has been no consultation with the people who live here. Unlike Auckland’s transport plan and ‘Let’s Get Welly Moving‘, which saw controversial issues raised and debated at public meetings, in the media and on social media, the SmartGrowth plans have never been analysed in that way.

That has avoided any public conflict, but it means there is no buy-in from local communities for these plans. Which has consequences when councils roll out their transport projects. Just ask people whether they think rebuilding Cameron Rd was a high priority? Or if they like all the extra traffic lights the council is installing? Or if they approve of TCC closing off Links Ave to most vehicles?

Many people understood and expected that public consultation was a legal requirement. However, SmartGrowth allows councils to ‘pass the buck’ on that, with SmartGrowth officials repeatedly saying that councils would eventually consult on UFTI in their Long Term Plans (LTPs) – especially the Tauranga City Council LTP.

However, TCC eventually stated that it wouldn’t explicitly consult on UFTI in its 2021 LTP because the UFTI projects had already been agreed by partner councils and central government! Senior SmartGrowth and council staff repeatedly stated that UFTI can’t be relitigated (or words to that effect). This raises the question of whether central government is okay with no community consultation?

The Removal of Representative Democracy

Not only has the government not batted an eyelid, it has replaced Tauranga’s elected council with commissioners because of “concerns about the ability of the Council to set rates at a realistic level to address the substantial infrastructure and funding challenges faced by the City”.
“The Department notes that … elected representatives chose to endorse an LTP option that would deliver only a partial implementation of its approved strategic direction” and concluded the Council was unable to deliver a robust long term plan.

The fact was that Tauranga City Councillors voted in December 2020 to support the Draft Long Term Plan proposed by TCC staff, which contained the UFTI projects, choosing scenario C+ (between the medium scenario and the highest rates increase scenario) and a rates increase of nearly 30%,- hardly a small increase! Did the government really expect Tauranga ratepayers to fork out even more than 30% extra in the middle of a pandemic?

Councillors expressed concerns about future rates increases for residential ratepayers in the context of Covid-19, especially because Tauranga residents already paid the highest residential rates of any NZ city. And those councillors also knew there had been no public consultation on the underlying plan (UFTI) that was driving this huge capital investment programme, with growth projects comprising more than half of the LTP spend – mostly for transport and water infrastructure.

However they understood that the SmartGrowth “partners” (central government, the other councils, and two of the three TCC SmartGrowth representatives) wanted to fast-track those plans, so they voted to support the draft LTP and let the public decide the outcome in the LTP consultation.

That seems perfectly democratic. Yet a key reason cited for Minister Mahuta appointing commissioners was that central government and ‘civic leaders’ were worried that if the public didn’t support the proposed LTP and its expensive UFTI growth plan, a majority of councillors may not sign it off in the 2021 TCC Long Term Plan. Installing Commissioners removed that risk.

That move by Minister Mahuta might have been understandable in light of the silly name-calling between the mayor and some councillors, with a resultant loss of public trust in the Council. Putting in a manager or commissioners to ‘sort things out’ and then letting people elect a new mayor and councillors in 2022 made some sense. However the commissioners option was an extreme step, as several councillors pointed out at the time.

Cr Hughes said in late 2020 that she didn’t think replacing councillors was the answer. “I’d like to see us be able to get through to where we can have a proper election in two years time. Because commissioners sometimes, they can last for years, and [that] does really take things apart to the point it’s quite hard to rebuild”. Her comment about commissioners lasting “for years” has proved prophetic.

Further Rolling Back Democracy in Tauranga

However installing commissioners was only one component of a wave of anti-democratic measures rolled out in Tauranga that has severely restricted three basic components of our local democracy:
1) Representative democracy i.e. voting in your elected representatives
2) Informed communities, as a prerequisite for active community participation in democratic processes
3) An equitable process taking a diverse range of views into account

Those additional anti-democratic measures have included:

  • Not holding elections for Tauranga City Council in 2022
  • Extending the unelected Commissioners’ term to July 2024
  • Limiting the public’s ability to become fully informed about plans and policies, by making greater use of public-excluded confidential sessions in SmartGrowth meetings and City Council meetings, and not providing online access to recordings of SmartGrowth meetings
  • Not consulting on key strategic plans, and severely limiting the scope of public consultation on other plans and projects
  • Not changing plans to reflect strong public views (eg Links Ave)
  • No locals in most key roles (SmartGrowth Independent Chair, Strategic Advisor, Ministers Mahuta and Woods, Tauranga City Council Chair, Regional Council Chair). Only Western BOP mayor is a local, but his former Chief Executive openly advocated against democratic processes at an important August 2019 SmartGrowth meeting
  • Excluding DHB and Forum Chairs from SmartGrowth governance groups on the grounds that “only potential funders” could be represented (ruling most people out)
  • Holding no meetings of most SmartGrowth Forums in 2020-21, except for a few “Joint Forum Hui” whose scope did not allow changes to the key plans
  • Then not even paying most SmartGrowth Forum Chairs in 2021
  • Then eventually scrapping most SmartGrowth Forums in August 2022 … but retaining the Property Developers Forum
  • A noticeable lack of diversity in the views expressed by the Commissioners in public City Council meetings – especially compared to when councillors sat around the council table
  • Limiting the opportunity for a more diverse and representative group of councillors at the next TCC elections – by scrapping at-large councillors and introducing single-councillor wards (i.e. making the STV system redundant and favouring less diversity)
  • Dismissing the value of submissions made by many local residents and community representatives, including for being “male, European, aged over 65” and even due to living in Papamoa! What wasn’t stated was that in some cases those older people had engaged with a diverse range of city residents, including women, tangata whenua, young people, people with disabilities, etc. And that 27% of Tauranga adults are aged 65+, so 44% of respondents coming from that age group for a time-consuming consultation is to be expected.

Transport Plans

Finally, in the past five years, there has been no public consultation on the three overarching transport plans developed by councils. The Tauranga Transport programme was first up, but that was scrapped by the NZTA Board. Then there was UFTI, and now there is the Transport System Plan (TSP).

Never heard of the TSP? Don’t worry, it’s hard to find anyone who has outside of council circles. That’s because no-one has asked the public for their thoughts on those plans – despite transport consistently being ranked the #1 issue for local residents!

Sure, Tauranga City Council says it “engages with stakeholders and communities” on specific projects, such as Cameron Rd, Totara St and Links Ave. But we’re talking about proper, meaningful consultation on the high-level transport plans – just like in other NZ cities.

It’s now become a standing joke amongst stakeholders that whenever there is a council plan or project that people want to discuss, TCC often responds along the lines that it isn’t open for consultation because the plan has already been decided by UFTI!

You may like the end result of that, or you may not. There is certainly lots more happening around the city – just look at Cameron Rd! Our point is that another layer of the democratic process has been significantly reduced.

The Obvious Conclusion

So when the SmartGrowth community forums were shut down this month, it was confirmation that most of the SmartGrowth partners don’t actually want to know what locals think. BOP Regional Councillors seem to be the exception, arguing strongly to retain the Forums, to consult with the public, and urging a reset of SmartGrowth after the upcoming local government elections. But that was quickly overruled by TCC and Western BOP District Council.

If you’re wondering whose views those SmartGrowth leaders do care about, that has become clearer too. They scrapped the Strategic Partners Forum, Social Sector Forum, Environment & Sustainability Forum and Affordable Housing Forum, all with broad community representation, but retained the Combined Tangata Whenua Forum and… the Property Developers Forum.

Last year, some of those developers set up the lobby group Urban Task Force (UTF), which states “UTF is committed to promoting growth and collaboration for the future. A new leadership model of collaborative, innovative thinking across central Government, local Government, iwi, and the private sector will lead the city to a positive future.”

No mention of local communities, who have suffered a lot from the recent growth. Instead, a focus on “promoting growth”. Is that what we want? To proactively promote even more growth? Even more importantly, is that what we need?

You can draw your own conclusions, but the facts are:

  1. There has been no public consultation on UFTI or the Transport System Plan or the SmartGrowth Spatial Plan in the past half decade
  2. All SmartGrowth community forums were scrapped – despite being designed to monitor the impacts of the SmartGrowth implementation plans
  3. The Property Developers Forum was retained – so their voices are still being heard loud and clear, along with their influential Urban Task Force organisation
  4. It’s full speed ahead for SmartGrowth’s massive growth agenda, including further sprawl up the Kaimai (including Belk Rd and beyond) and out past Papamoa East
  5. Significant rates increases are planned for years to come, to pay for those plans
  6. Tauranga has a 5-year exemption from the government’s freshwater reforms to enable further sprawl
  7. There is no SmartGrowth plan to reduce carbon emissions
  8. The transport plan is not delivering a viable low carbon public transport system across the city … but it also won’t address traffic congestion
  9. Current transport projects are going to increase carbon emissions
  10. UFTI will also not deliver affordable housing, despite stating that as a primary goal

We think there’s something very wrong with that picture. You may or may not agree with us, but we’re interested in hearing your thoughts.

Are you concerned about the lack of democracy in our city? Is SmartGrowth a sustainable planning model? Not just environmentally, socially and financially, but also politically? What do you think will happen when people get to elect a mayor and councillors again in Tauranga in 2024 or 2025?

Let us know your thoughts.

5 comments

  1. Indirectly, your presentation makes a case for community boards, a democratic tool that was refused by TCC and the Local Government Commission in last year’s representation review. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that so long as Labour holds the reins of power community boards and other democratic tools will not be encouraged.
    Maybe a petition to Parliament demanding that the commissioners be dismissed immediately – not in 2 or 3 years’ time – and that elected representation be restored to Tauranga should be launched. The process is simple and free. Let’s tell the Government, and the rest of NZ, loudly and clearly that the deal it has foisted on Tauranga stinks!

  2. In 2008, when i worked as a RMA planner for Rotorua Council, I was sent to a Smartgrowth meeting to see if perhaps we should join.

    My advice was don’t, and that council never has. It was clear to me even then that SG had a narrowly framed agenda, and that environmental issues in particular were and would be essentially ignored.

    It took many more years before the environmental advisory forum was established, and by then SG had demonstrated an almost total lack of responsiveness to the fora – except of course for the two that have been retained.

    Despite Glen’s arguments here, there was a notable failure of democracy in Tauranga. TCC was and still is at the mercy of a small cohort of strong-willed senior managers, and councillors who had ceased to be effective along with a new mayor who was unable to wield them into a functioning resource for the city.

    When they were fired they had already considered and mostly approved a draft LTP that was subsequently shown to be seriously deficient during consultation.

    The Commissioners signed off that plan with a fanfare of consultation, and almost no change.

    WRT current developments, including the focus on growth, we are experiencing business as usual, slightly sped up.

    Most of the current activity is due to significant govt subsidy. Several plan changes in process are a response to new govt legislation. The fundamental issues have not changed, and there is no genuinely imaginative response to them.

    Hence we are still trapped in 20th century thinking, with a refusal to genuinely respond to the greatest challenges of our time – global warming first, and second, a local population that is both aging and growing. Council has little to no ability to control or manage either of those issues.

    Tauranga had also reached its growth limits for water. Three waters may be a solution to something, but it is not a solution to that specific problem.

    Glen has identified the problems, and explains some of their historical origins. As a planner, I quickly learned that 90% of our options were constrained by history. Also, bad decisions can have multi-generation-long consequences.

    Being genuinely imaginative is not a feature that attracts public votes. Put ‘imaginative solutions’ on a billboard and see if you are elected!

    The reality is that democracy is a process that resists and obstructs imaginative change, due to its emphasis on compromise and its focus on costs rather than benefits. The difference between Councillors and Commissioners may make little difference within a system that is anchored by a history of unimaginative planning and compromise.

    1. You make some good points Ian. One of our biggest concerns about the erosion of democracy (which most people understand is not an ideal system – just better than the alternatives) is that we now have the worst of both worlds: an unsustainable growth agenda being rammed through without anyone even having a say about it.

      From our perspective, the most painful aspect has been people saying to us “well this is what happens when council rolls out your low carbon projects”, or words to that effect. Yet, as you know, their projects (Cameron Rd, Links Ave, etc.) are actually increasing carbon emissions. We have yet to even get to the point when we have an informed community discussion about how we can become more sustainable, because the shadow of the growth agenda obscures everything else.

  3. Glen Crowther’s 31 August 2022 article lifted the veneer off the much touted action plan by Councils, Commissioners and explained how Smart Growth which still reflects the outmoded 1960’s transportation model with urban sprawl and has morphed into “stupid growth” favouring influential clique of vested commercial interests , developers, construction, roading/motor/oil/ rubber/ battery, etc industries, consultants, repeating things that worked 60 years ago. Moreover publicity has painted Smart Growth as a pipe dream fairy tale, in reality a farce, out of touch and hopelessly failing the community in its projected aims. Great fanfare has been made about Councils/Commissioners public consultations which many feel have been cleverly steered into manufactured outcomes whether or not people wanted those. In July, two full pages of Commissioners self praise appeared in newspapers.
    The facade of public consultation is further confirmed by dismissal of value of submissions particularly for being male,European, over 65, etc, seems to echo my experiences. Presentation of carefully prepared submission documents “Omni-Solution for Tauranga & Regions (2021/22), publicly speaking several times to these at Council was met with a polite listen, yet total dis-interest as this sustainable transportation vision for the future was not in their predetermined agenda. Nevertheless, we are promised a redeveloped CBD of architectural monoliths commented by some, reminiscent of communist grandeur? With the staggering $305 start cost, Unquestionably the wealthy benefit, but how does it improve the lives of the paying public? Commissioners and council signing off deficient Long Term Plan (already out of date when adopted) is a backward compromise, showing poor decision making and a total lack of accountability. When the commissioners are done and dusted will they be held responsible? Highly paid (or otherwise) all public sevants foremost duty is to the general public wellbeing, ideal but an honest criticism shows cronyism and collusion occurs.
    Those in charge must be identified, be directly answerable and not hide behind a facade of bureaucracy or invisibility.
    EXtreme times are eventuating and we must transition to successful ways of doing things better by copying best existing examples (eg, Netherlands) already proven over years. The argument that NZ does not have enough populace does not stack up, we just need to get over the political lack of will and local dithering. Urban sprawl is one major cause of emissions. We know we can do better. Thank you Glen for presenting your article.

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