Wellington Scoop

Report card: Justin and his council


As we await the arrival of Santa and the opportunities a new year will bring, it’s useful to review the year just gone. How did the Wellington City Council do in 2017? Are they deserving of a pat on the back and the school prize, or are they being sent home with “must try harder” on their report card?

It’s an opportune moment to pause and reflect, as we’re now within sight of the halfway point of Justin Lester’s triennium as mayor. There are a range of councillors old and new, and the impending arrival of a newly-elected member in the Southern Ward following the departure of Paul Eagle to Parliament.

From all counts and the myriad reports of the wellington.scoop informant network, Justin Lester’s management of the council has been much more assured than Celia Wade-Brown’s efforts. Much of the day-to-day rudderlessness and friction seems to have dissipated, and there is a greater sense of a cohesive approach from the elected members. Justin had no hesitation in tearing up the portfolio assignments handed out by Wade-Brown, and while this has brought new energy and new voices to the fore, it’s not been without its contentious moments – notably the appointment of first-term councillor Jill Day as deputy mayor.

The appointment of Day looks like a gutsy move from Lester – she’s a council newbie and was promoted over the heads of more experienced councillors who had a reasonable expectation of the job, notably Green Party stalwart Iona Pannett. Day is tangata whenua (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) and is the first Māori woman appointed to the deputy role, which is an important step in itself. But there’s no denying that the recent stay-at-home mum will have a steep learning curve and has yet to be tested in the heat of battle with long-term councillors, a few of whom may resent her holding the job.

Time will tell if her appointment was a good step from Lester, but it seems a clear case of prioritising loyalty to his agenda over experience around the council table, with all the risks that implies.

And while we’re on the subject of appointments, the real power-base of the Wellington City Council – chief executive Kevin Lavery – continued his reign. Despite the opportunity to re-advertise his position (a preference apparently expressed by Justin Lester), councillors decided to do the cautious thing and simply extend his contract for the next two years, with a pay rise on the cards – potentially taking Lavery’s salary to more than $420,000, or $2 for each and every ratepayer. Whether this represents value for money is left as an exercise for the reader, particularly given the very public concern over closed-door decision-making around projects such as the Movie Museum.

Ah yes, the Movie Museum. This was one of the halo projects in Justin Lester’s election campaign, but it has degenerated into a shouting match from Sir Peter Jackson. At heart the issue seems to be a commercial one – who pays for what and how much, how long leases will run, and where the risks and liabilities lie. There seem to be allegations from the Jackson camp that the council is being commercially naive, and concerns from the council camp that Jackson wants to have his cake and eat it too. Unless something happens to thaw the cold war between the two parties, it’s pretty much a certainty that Wellington won’t be getting a movie museum (or a convention centre) any time soon. If at all.

Which does, of course, call into doubt the whole $150 million building project and the claims about economic benefits that the top-floor convention centre would bring to the city. Given the dearth of commercial experience and preponderance of left-leaning ideologies around the council table, sticking the entire bill on the rates demand may, arguably, be the preferred way forward. Either that, or Te Papa will be looking across the road to a blank bit of ground for decades to come.

Does the news seem any better just down the road at the Town Hall? A fourth year has gone by with no work started but the price escalated further, as one of the country’s premier acoustic music venues is left empty and unused. Back in March the price had gone up to about $90 million, and with commercial construction costs rising by about 7% per annum it’s a safe bet that Wellington’s ratepayers will be shelling out more than $100 million by the time its doors reopen. Allegedly this will happen in 2021 with work starting next August, but given that the Town Hall closed in November 2013 the progress has been “glacial”.

And that does seem to be a recurring theme across the city. In fact, with the exception of the Movie Museum debacle, most of the issues on the table for the council were exactly the same ones that filled 2016. The Island Bay cycleway is still not fixed and residents are still marching in the streets to oppose it, though the project is slated for a compromise solution that will blot up another $4 million. The contentious issue of cat microchipping is being re-debated, for reasons known only to the council. Light rail is still a mere glimmer in the eye of its advocates and seems no closer than when Wade-Brown made it the centrepiece of her first election campaign in 2010. Development on the waterfront is still the same rancorous fight between developers and open space advocates, from which the council appears to have learned nothing in 30 years. Zealandia is still losing money.

But the year hasn’t just been about re-litigating the same old arguments.

With the Shelly Bay development, the council has now bought an entirely new fight that seems likely to end up in the courts, with local business interests talking in strong terms about judicial review of the council’s decision-making processes. The problem seems to be that the outgoing council designated the land as a Special Housing Area where the planning controls are (deliberately) relaxed, and the current council is now getting cold feet about the consequences. Of course, most of the councillors who voted for the SHA designation seem to be the ones most concerned now, but that’s what happens when the ideological view of increasing housing supply collides with the reality-based consequences of actually building things. Perhaps the responsible councillors weren’t paying sufficient attention at the time.

This contrast between the ideological crusades of councillors and the harsh realities of Wellington have shown through on a few occasions this year, notably in the deeply-impractical rental housing warrant of fitness – which seems so aspirational that a mere handful of properties in the city would meet the sky-high standard. And the debacle of Butt-gate was also the subject of much public derision, with councillor Simon Woolf wanting to make the discarding of cigarette butts its own heinous crime, despite the fact that it was already illegal. It seemed the perfect example of empty political posturing with no discernible effect, in a year that had perhaps a bit much bluster and too little achievement.

In other news, the core business of the council continued to run as expected – the drinking water still flows from the taps, the toilets flush, and the rubbish is collected regularly. In summary, there are probably days when the majority of Wellingtonians wish that the noise from the council chamber would fall away, and they could get on with their lives. We hope that 2018 will bring exactly that.


  1. TrevorH, 19. December 2017, 6:51

    A litany of incompetence.

  2. Ian Shearer, 19. December 2017, 8:10

    Sorry PCGM: there will be no peace for those with innovative and sustainable visions for the future of Wellington. We want (and need) more noise (and vision) from the council chamber to ensure that we can get on with our lives and travel on great public transport through the city.

    When the consultations on the GetWellyMoving options are published showing huge support for Option A+ (ie better public transport, walking and cycling facilities, plus a light rail rapid transit system) we need the mayor and councillors to stand up and fight for this option.

    It is clear that the Transport Minister is on board, but is the mayor and his council? I do hope that 2018 will bring exactly that.

  3. Ron Oliver, 19. December 2017, 13:30

    It seems to me that the present Council as with past Councils has an inclination to worry too much about the welfare of businesses and corporations operating in wellington city rather than the ratepayers and the ordinary low paid (if they are lucky to be employed) tenants who have to foot the bill for the council’s excessive expenses. Regarding the ratepayers and citizens having to pay Mr. Lavery $420,000 a year for what he does and to subsidise Peter Jackson’s success – for me as a ratepayer this does not please me greatly. Don’t get me wrong. I do like his films but I do not see why I and other citizens should have to pay him extra through my rates.

  4. Nitpicky, 20. December 2017, 22:38

    Not forgetting that we now will not recoup the $300,000 lent by WCC to the failed Call Active company

    We won’t have a Guy Fawkes fireworks display, presumably meaning we will go back to individual risky displays all over town

    We don’t have any new cycleways but do have lots of new second-rate ‘shared’ paths

    Don’t have public use of the Karori campus

    Not sure we can call the arbitrary and behind-closed doors decision-making an improvement on the last mayor, and when will the councillors show their hand and let us know what they want for Wellington

    Maybe the bold leadership was in saving a bowling club with its cheap booze

  5. Will, 21. December 2017, 11:11

    “A fourth year has gone by with no work started on the Town Hall” – this is incorrect. The engineering and architectural team has been working on the Town Hall for the past 10 months, and I understand a building contractor is due to be appointed in the early part of 2018. I agree that WCC could have done a much better job of communicating this progress to ratepayers.

  6. Keith Flinders, 21. December 2017, 23:24

    In view of the situation with the Defence Building in Mulgrave Street failing, should we ratepayers be concerned about spending $200 million to strengthen and repurpose the Town Hall. The Defence Building failed structurally, yet I understand that it had base isolation fitted as is proposed for the Town Hall. Perhaps a replica Town Hall incorporating the best features taken from the old might be more enduring and less expensive.

  7. Mavis, 22. December 2017, 9:12

    The Town Hall has stood strong through many and major earthquakes for over 100 years without base isolation.
    Why now?
    Just unlock the doors and let us back in at last!

  8. greenwelly, 22. December 2017, 9:28

    @Keith, The Defence Building DID NOT have base isolation, It was built as a standard Office block and then titivated to defence’s needs with stronger glass, emergency power etc,

  9. johnny overton, 24. December 2017, 11:33

    You had your chance to vote in a revolutionary mayor who would have turned the establishment upside down, but you chose to stick with business as usual. So next time around give the weeds a chance to flourish by getting rid of the CEO Caesar & his PC party political cronies.