Tauranga’s Civic Centre and City Priorities

The Te Manawataki o Te Papa civic centre project is the centrepiece of the Commissioners’ plans for Tauranga. With under a year left in their 3 and 1/3 year tenure, they have so far struggled to get much happening around the city, so this project has taken on even more importance.

TCC’s Transport System Plan seems to have stalled. The Turret Rd-15th Ave business case continues, the Papamoa east interchange is being built as planned, and NZTA has begun its business case for the critically important Hewletts-Totara corridor. However, apart from a few minor roading projects, nothing much has actually been done to address the number one issue for Tauranga residents.

The Commissioners did sign off on additional ratepayer funding for the Cameron Rd project, previously approved by councillors on the grounds it would be 100% funded by central government’s ‘Covid’ fund. However, many Tauranga residents would argue that (a) the project has caused more harm than good and (b) that project was never a high priority in the first place – a justified view, according to TCC’s own list of priority projects.

The Commissioners have pushed through plans for Otumoetai’s cycleways, which have just undergone public consultation. However, that project was put into the Draft 2021 Long term Plan by TCC councillors, along with funding for four bus interchanges, hundreds of bus shelters, and various other projects.

Recent Mayors and Councillors have joined their District and Regional Council colleagues to lobby the government to complete the B2B, TNL, and Tauriko highway projects as soon as possible. The Commissioners have continued the same approach, recently requesting the Tauriko bypass be completed within a decade.

If Tauranga is to transform from a congested, high carbon, car dependent city to a less congested, low carbon, multi-modal city, there is a lot of work to do. The Councillors signed up to a plan to cut carbon emissions from transport by 25% by 2031. The Commissioners signed up to a plan to increase mode share for buses to 20% by 2032.

In other words, both sets of city governors expressed their aspirations for change, but what have the Commissioners done to improve our transport system that the Councillors would have done differently? We don’t really see anything.

Where is their plan for the promised rapid transit system to connect the “Connected Centres” in Tauranga’s SmartGrowth plan? When will we get a busway to Papamoa, and the express cycleway that Papamoa Residents & Ratepayers have requested? What about a plan for safe cycleways to-and-from all Tauranga’s intermediate schools? Or some park and ride facilities, so more people can get to their destination without changing buses?

We still have no bus interchanges – or even an agreed design for one interchange! The central city bus interchange was due to be completed by December 2023 at the latest, but stakeholder engagement stalled in March and no-one seems able to speak publicly about what is happening. The Arataki bus interchange was also scheduled to be completed, yet it too seems to have been shelved for now, and the Brookfield interchange is looking further away than ever. Instead of “hundreds of bus shelters” by the end of 2022 (as pledged by the previous mayor), there is still just a promise of “dozens of bus shelters” being installed this year.  

Overall, the Commissioners appear to have made little difference to our transport system – other than the temporary problems resulting from the Cameron Rd road works, which many locals claim would have been minimised if elected councillors had been available to respond to the complaints of local businesses.

Scan through the other big-ticket items from TCC’s $5 billion 2021 Long Term Plan and you’ll see that water infrastructure ($1.7 billion) was second only to transport ($2 billion) in the 10-year budget. The ‘Three Waters’ reforms have added a layer of complexity as we await the general election result, but it’s fair to say that business as usual has continued with water and wastewater since the Commissioners arrived.

The remaining $1.3 billion or so of capital expenditure in TCC’s 10-year plan covers a range of community facilities across the city, including the rebuild of Memorial Park facilities, the waterfront redevelopment, and the civic centre.

In that context, Te Manawataki o Te Papa is the one big project the Commissioners want to get over the line before they leave. Based on the recent Council meeting to discuss the business case, it is hard to imagine any information would dissuade them from carrying on with their plan.

The True Cost to Ratepayers

Stake in the ground: Sustainable BOP supports a library in the city centre and a regional heritage network. We think TCC should work with local designers and experts to plan a smaller, more affordable museum in the city centre that forms part of a network of (existing or planned) place-based experiences at The Elms-Te Papa, Brain Watkins House Museum, Pukehinahina-Gate Pa, Mauao, Katikati, and Te Puke-Otamarakau – with each area having its own story to tell.

However, we are deeply concerned about the cost to ratepayers of the civic centre. The agreed cap is $151.5 million, as mentioned in reports by BOP Times and Sunlive about the recent Council meeting that approved TCC’s latest plan.

However, this latest plan will cost ratepayers much more than that. The total ratepayer cost (p. 82 of Council meeting agenda) is now estimated at:
$151.5 million Council loan and/or IFF funding
$  12.1 million ‘Better Off’ 3 Waters funding
$  91.6 million current shortfall (most likely selling ratepayer assets)
$255.2 million ratepayer contribution for civic centre site

In other words, even if the costs don’t blow out more than expected and TCC manages to pull together another $30 million of external funding, ratepayers will likely spend $255.2 million on the civic centre! Plus another $83.7 million on the waterfront project, which was part of the Civic Centre project when consulted last year, making a total of $339 million. That’s over $1/3 billion on this one project!!

‘Must Haves’ v ‘Nice to Haves’

An earlier article on TECT’s $21 million contribution towards the museum-exhibition centre includes this quote:

“[TECT Chair Bill] Holland told the Bay of Plenty Times the money would enable Tauranga to finally have some “nice-to-haves” that had previously been unaffordable, such as a museum. “The focus of the last five years has been to keep the rates down, and that’s fine, but it means we don’t have community facilities that we need and should have.””

In response to Bill Holland’s comments, we suggest that, firstly, “nice to haves” are not “community facilities we need and should have”. An international exhibition centre is a “nice to have” that some people will use, but we don’t need one – what we need is a functioning transport system and affordable housing for our elderly residents.

Secondly, things “that had previously been unaffordable, such as a museum”, aren’t now magically affordable. They are (sadly) even more unaffordable, after recent inflation and interest rate rises. The museum’s cost has massively increased from 5 years ago, when $15 million from ratepayers would have got a museum over the line. It’ll cost four or five times that much – even if they get the extra external funding.

Thirdly, the TECT funding doesn’t “enable” this project. It only contributes about 5% of the cost estimate for stage 1 of the civic centre and the waterfront project.

Lastly, if “the focus of the last five years has been to keep the rates down”, then the council has failed – big time! TCC’s rates take increased by 72% over the 5 years to June 2023 (average 11.5% pa).
Inflation went up 21% during that time – so Tauranga’s rates increased by more than 3 times the rate of inflation!

What’s more, the city’s debt is now over $1 billion … before this project. That’s higher per capita than Auckland, and rates have already massively increased before the debt costs of these new projects are added.

The Background Story

Tauranga’s Council, Commissioners, developers and big business-people should all just stick to the facts, which are that Tauranga has had big rates increases in recent years and residential ratepayers have for years paid some of the highest rates of any NZ city.

Yet Tauranga still has expensive housing and homelessness, our transport system is worse than ever, many elderly and younger people are struggling to pay rent and bills, there is a lack of sports facilities in the city, the council closed one of our two transfer stations (so we now all have to queue at Te Maunga), and the city centre is emptier than ever.

We don’t blame the Commissioners for all those problems, but the blame should also not be laid at the feet of the long-suffering residential ratepayer. The Commissioners increased the commercial rates differential, so commercial ratepayers are now paying a higher proportion of rates than they have for decades, albeit still significantly less than in some NZ cities.

If you are looking for why we don’t have the “community facilities that we need and should have”, it is the funding gap that resulted from businesses paying hundreds of $millions less in rates over the past 20 years than they would have paid in any other main centre. That was a conscious decision of TCC councillors about two decades ago, so it seems unfair just to blame recent Councils. More importantly, blame isn’t going to help us find the money to fund the facilities that many Tauranga business-people seem to desire.

Looking Ahead

Commissioner Tolley has dampened down expectations for the capital investment programme that the Commissioners will push through in next year’s Long Term Plan. She stated “The likely spend will need to reduce to around $400 million a year for the next few years, rather than the $500-plus million that would be required to deliver on all of the city’s aspirations and growth needs.”

That’s less than the current plan. It also contrasts with earlier indications from TCC, which were that the desired facilities would require nearly double that investment every year, with the transport plan short by another $4 billion. Whatever the total required, the $4 billion to $5 billion of projects planned this decade will still result in “10-15 years of congestion on the roading network”.

That means the Commissioners need something big to show they achieved something while in power. Remember, amongst other tasks, they were asked to:
• ensure programmes of work identified in the Commission’s Exit Plan are progressed and sufficiently resourced for delivery;
• progress citywide and local area plans for the provision of recreational and community facilities and services to help influence and guide development decisions and allow related transport, network infrastructure and housing planning and development to proceed;
• any other tasks the Commission determines to be necessary to maintain the trust and confidence of the community in the Council.

So far, no work has started on any new urban growth areas and the only one set to begin in the next three years (Tauriko West) would have already happened under the elected council. More importantly, the community’s net satisfaction rating of the Council’s “image and reputation” has dropped to its lowest level ever: minus 29% last year and minus 21% this year (compared to + 24% under Mayor Brownless).

All of that explains the Commissioners’ obsession with the civic centre project. Rightly or wrongly, they have prioritised Te Manawatakai o Te Papa and the waterfront redevelopment and staked their reputations on that project “getting the heart of our city pumping”.

The Big Question

The real question is what are Tauranga residents’ priorities for the next two decades? Is their top priority to spend more than $620 million to redevelop the civic centre and waterfront and build an international exhibition centre and stadium at Tauranga Domain, to attract more people into the CBD? While spending $26 million per year on operating costs for the civic centre (on top of the existing library and museum storage budgets) plus another $15 million per year for the proposed stadium?

Commissioner Tolley this month said “Some of our previously planned capital investment projects will need to be refined or delayed, because capital does have a direct effect on our operating costs. That means some things we had intended to do in the next decade may have to wait a bit longer than anticipated, with our capital programme honed down to a level we know we can afford and that we have the capacity to deliver.”

Given the operating costs for the civic centre have blown out to $26 million per year, we think Commissioner Tolley needs to ensure the civic centre plans are “honed down to a level we know we can afford”.  $430 extra per ratepayer each year for one ‘nice to have’ project is not our idea of an affordable plan.

For starters, tell Willis Bond to design a more cost-effective library and community hub and get that finished. Then work with local experts to come up with an affordable city museum that links in with other Bay of Plenty heritage centres, and scrap their expensive international exhibition centre. Use the money they save to provide some ‘must haves’ instead – including a better transport system for the city.


  1. Another good summary thank you.
    On differential rates these comments are made in your article;
    “The Commissioners increased the commercial rates differential, so commercial ratepayers are now paying a higher proportion of rates than they have for decades, albeit still significantly less than in some NZ cities.
    If you are looking for why we don’t have the “community facilities that we need and should have”, it is the funding gap that resulted from businesses paying hundreds of $millions less in rates over the past 20 years than they would have paid in any other main centre. That was a conscious decision of TCC councillors about two decades ago, so it seems unfair just to blame recent Councils.”

    This all implies two things;
    1. Business has not paid its share previously, and
    2. By implementing a business differential more revenue is raised.
    Both of these implications are wrong and challengeable.
    On what basis can it be claimed business has underpaid, what extra do they receive for the employment, service and goods supply for the city’s residents. Everything provided in a downtown is essentially for all residents. Unfortunately, those aspects that should be provided to enable the easiest access to the CBD for residents have been progressively undermined for decades. That is is stark conflict with improvements that should have been the basis for change.
    The suggestion that by not having a differential less revenue is raised. Don’t think thats the way it works. Council determines what it wants through its budgeting exercises then allocates that to rates. Whare a differential is imposed it simply means that residential rates are favoured at the expense of commercial rates. Total rates raise remains the same.
    In fact there are many examples where differentials are being reduced overseas in an effort to restore fairness and not prejudice business development. This is also happening in Auckland, right here in NZ.

    1. Hi Brian. That’s a helpful viewpoint – thanks. We agree that in general “Everything provided in a downtown is essentially for all residents”, but with the proviso that, unlike roads and footpaths and watewater pipes etc., which tend to benefit anyone going to the city centre, some things (e.g. an international exhibition centre) may not be utilised by many locals, whereas they are touted as benefiting some CBD businesses much more. So they are the types of facilities we were thinking of, although we doubt an exhibition centre will directly benefit a commercial ratepayer in Papamoa or Pyes Pa either.

      We also agree that the council just sets the rates and divvies them up, but we contend that the thinking behind that might change if TCC knows the differential will increase. So our comment was suggesting that, all being equal, if TCC had received the same residential rates and (magically) received more from businesses over the past decade or so, in line with the Hamilton business differential or similar, that would have resulted in much higher overall revenue (hundreds of $millions).

      Overall, our view on this is primarily based around two things:
      1) We believe a differential of 1.6 is needed to make things ‘even’ between residential and commercial ratepayers. That is because businesses can (rightly) claim back GST and also claim rates as a business expense, which effectively means they don’t pay the full amount of the rates bill.
      2) We think the additional amount that businesses should pay above a 1.6 differential should be a city-wide discussion. Noting there are big differences between various businesses (e.g. the Port v a sole trader), and also noting that the Commissioners probably increased the differential faster than elected councillors would have, especially during/after the Covid period and heading towards a recession.

      Whatever the merits, Tauranga has been an outlier compared to every other comparable NZ city, which all had a differential of between 1.7 and 3.25. We note that Auckland (and maybe others) are slightly reducing their differential, but last we looked theirs is still higher than Tauranga. Two years ago, Tauranga commercial ratepatyers only contributed 16% of the total rates take, whereas commercial ratepayers in all other main centres brought in between 32% and 44%, so that’s a stark difference.

      That all said, our main point is that we frequently read or hear local developers (e.g. Urban Task Force) and business ‘leaders’ pushing for expensive facilities, such as the civic centre, waterfront redevelopment, Domain stadium, etc. We also often hear from those same people that rates have been kept low by councillors who were “holding back the city”. Yet that isn’t true, as we’re sure you know, because Tauranga’s residential ratepayers have for several years paid some of the highest rates of any NZ city.

      So our analysis is that:
      a) Tauranga should feel free to ‘go it alone’, but because we’re the only outlier in NZ, we should have a mature, informed conversation about this and whether there is a good reason for having a much lower differential than elsewhere.
      b) If we do have a low differential (which could be defined as 1.6 or even 2.4, in a relative sense), we contend that residential ratepayers ‘shouldn’t pick up the slack’. The current high residential rates indicate that funding for any ‘nice to have’ projects should not primarily fall back on them.
      c) Because business leaders are the ones who seem to want all those ‘nice to have’ facilities, then if businesses support those business leaders (as the ‘leaders’ suggest they do), then whatever the theory and equity of the differential debate, commercial ratepayers should put their money where their mouth is and pay up… knowing they’re still paying a lower differential than commercial ratepayers pay in most other cities.
      d) If, on the other hand, many of those businesses don’t want to pay more, then those business leaders should not speak on their behalf (and suggest they do want those facilties) – and they should probably not even be pushing their agenda without wider community buy-in.
      e) If most residents also don’t want to pay more on ‘nice to haves’, then we probably shouldn’t spend so much on them – at least until we finish the ‘must haves’.

      Finally, to be clear, we know ‘nice to haves’ is subjective, but even ardent supporters of the exhibition centre (and latest waterfront redevelopment) have agreed it fits that description, whereas things like wastewater pipes, libraries, sports fields, footpaths, roads and a public transport system are generally agreed to be essential for any modern city. So we will keep using those terms, but are happy to discuss what falls under each category… noting safe cycleways are an example of one man’s essential infrastructure being another man’s (or woman’s) ‘nice to have’.

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