This week, hard on the heels of local government elections which bid fair to disrupt the current order in Auckland’s local government administration, I found myself back in a provincial town that I once knew well, without having any other connection than a job as a reporter and feature writer with the local newspaper.
As a place to build an ocean-going yacht, it was magnificent. In all other aspects, I remained stubbornly an outsider, free to be judge and jury on its social mores, closed historical family networks and the fact that even good restaurants still chopped their lettuce side-salads.
Over the years since, I have grudgingly admitted that I could shop for fashionable, wearable clothes more successfully in its compact matrix of downtown shopping than in Queen Street and Parnell combined. And that it was still the best coastal town for working boatyards and old boat gear.
As the putative capital of its region, it’s big enough to have the whole array of commercial and industrial services while retaining a certain community solidity as well as its history. It feels grounded and people-centric in the way Auckland, a candle in the winds of political fortunes and financial opportunisms since the late 1980s, no longer does.
Waiheke has shared this death by a thousand cuts and entrenched bureaucratic overreach. The council’s 11,000 staff has doubled in a decade, along with its spending, mostly on planning projects generated almost entirely without local input.
For our visitors in this new summer, we regret that our ferry queues are grievous and fares borderline swingeing because of an arbitrary decision 10 years ago by that most eminently unelectable of politicians, Stephen Joyce, that Waiheke fares, alone of all the other subsidised ferry services on our magnificent harbour, would remain unregulated.
And that the most basic of improvements at the Mātiatia traffic hub are still stalled. Auckland Transport blames it on a need to get people out of their cars and onto public transport, although incoming passengers at both wharves frequently watch buses disappear round the next corner without them, even as they get off the ferry.
It has also generated a tribe of ghost buses which, though electric, criss-cross the island marked ‘not in service’ which doesn’t advance the cause of reliable public transport or consumer confidence. Like SUVs, (and a third heavier than their diesel counterparts), the buses roll our thin tarmac into something resembling elephant droppings, as a colleague noted recently.
At the same time, the agenda to justify ad hoc 30kph and 40kph speed limits on island roads from next month ran to the size of a small book. It too was billed as keeping us safer on foot and bicycle, although the apparently-unanticipated consequences include adding a third more time and fuel consumption to everyday travel and a rewrite of bus timetables which have always and sensibly served the hourly ferry services.
Actually, the main problem is Auckland Transport’s road maintenance, narrow carriageways, broken-away road edging and the considerable size of the new generation of modern cars.
Meanwhile, many bike lanes painted on carriageways over the years still run out of road on blind corners and I am not sure that anyone has put mahi into designing a comprehensive bike trail to take in our finest views while genuinely sheltering cyclists from heavy traffic on the main arterial route linking island villages with commuter ferries.
Hilly terrains and biking through loose gravel beside nose-to-tail traffic is no game for the faint-hearted or a sound basis for a tourist industry.
These chronic frustrations at home throw my little provincial break into interesting relief. It’s been a long time in Auckland since rates equalled services or anyone stood up in a local authority meeting and successfully challenged the entrenched cohorts of officials who inform council policy and spending.
Waiheke tried and failed – our long-established community initiative famously diverting 60 percent of our rubbish stream from going to the tip, only to have the $20-million contract handed to an infamous Australian multi-nation that was suspended from trading.
The magnificent City of Sails was corralled into being the financial powerhouse of right-wing ideology and winning and losing was the only game in town.
So here I am, under a Northland sun, viewing its sturdy citizenry and realising it’s a long time since we on Waiheke could live peaceably and grow healthy children without development pressures and a seemingly endless drone of austerity narrative. I’ve had the same thought in Wellington.
It’s amazing that Aucklanders do still smile at each other; find small kindnesses and contribute to our smaller communities without being swamped by the behemoth that our new mayor is so ripe for fixing.
But it’s also unsurprising that we have forgotten how it felt to be safe in peaceful enjoyment of our homes and our treasured surroundings. • Liz Waters