Wellington Scoop

The rumours are true

central library closed 2

by Lindsay Shelton
The rumours are true. For ages, people have been telling me that the city council has been talking to developers about privatising the Central Library building. Each time, I’ve responded with doubt. But this week the plan has become public – and Councillor Fitzsimons who heads the council’s library portfolio says the news has surprised her.

The “Statement of Proposal” for next Tuesday’s council meeting reveals that staff are planning to invite developers to make offers to strengthen or rebuild the Central Library:

The Council has an obligation to be prudential and open to alternative approaches to funding Council projects. There is an opportunity to explore the potential for the development community to assist with this project and thereby deliver benefits to the City. For example, a developer may be willing to purchase the existing Library building, remediate it and lease Council the space required for a Central Library. This would allow Council to have a more flexible arrangement for the Library space and free up funding for other Council projects.

… Officers will prepare an Expression of Interest, supported by a design brief, to explore what this sector of the community thinks about the options presented and how they may be able to contribute. This does not commit Council to any particular course of action, but it is an opportunity to explore any potential benefits. The results of this work will be reported back to Council in October.

In a DomPost report by Damian George, we learn:

City councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, who holds the libraries portfolio, said … she was surprised the council was considering privatising the library as an alternative funding option.

And more.

“Suggestions to privatise the building are completely at odds with the role of public libraries as social infrastructure in our city and I will be strongly opposing,” Fitzsimons said. She also questioned the timeline for [demolishing and rebuilding] a new library, with attempts to demolish the current building likely to result in “lengthy and expensive litigation”.

Her colleague, Cr Rebecca Matthews, also opposes the privatisation plan. She wrote in a tweet:

I have zero interest in privatising our central library, or cooking up some deal with developers. Libraries are a public good. I have fought privatisation my whole life and not about to stop now.

I’m told that discussions on demolition to be followed by construction of a privately-owned new building on the publically-owned site of the Central Library were started during the term of the now-departed chief executive Kevin Lavery. It seems they have been kept alive by his successor. Without any involvement from our elected representatives.

As Dave Armstrong pointed out this week, council staff seem to be looking for a public/private partnership. And with such discussions having started some years ago, it’s also likely that developers with inside information (does the council have a record of working with favoured developers?) will have already begun to plan the maximum use that they could get from being encouraged to rebuild on the Library site.

Max Rashbrooke: Don’t let the private sector get its hands on the Library


  1. Hel, 18. July 2020, 11:13

    The library is a public service delivered from a fit for purpose building; who owns that building is largely irrelevant. Private ownership of a building is not privatisation, for goodness sake most Government services are delivered from privately owned buildings. All the hand wringing about under investment in infrastructure will require this Council to rethink its priorities, hopefully, and determine what it needs to fund and what they can get funded alternatively. Seems sensible to consider your options and not be blinded by some misguided outrage about privatisation shadows.

  2. Michael Gibson, 18. July 2020, 12:33

    If Cr Fitzsimons is surprised about something in her own portfolio, she might also be surprised at the proposal due to be considered on Tuesday to increase residential rates by over 6% whilst increasing rates on Central City businesses by under 1%.

  3. CC, 18. July 2020, 13:06

    Are the City Shaper fingerprints all over the mooted privatisation plan? If so, instead of developers, the singular term developer should probably have been used. It sounds pretty much like another ‘behind closed doors’ deal that is timed to commence when the white elephant Conference Centre is completed.

  4. michael, 18. July 2020, 13:38

    How is it that council officers have so much power? They clearly have been working without councillors’ knowledge or directive. Not only this, they control all the independent information regarding the library strengthening, indicating it will cost more to strengthen than rebuild by including an extremely expensive new fitout and extension as part of the latest strengthening costs. The ridiculous amount being misrepresented as the cost for strengthening seems designed to ensure that the building will be taken over by private developers and the WCC will lose a major public asset.

  5. Rebecca, 18. July 2020, 13:56

    Fully agree that better option for private ownership and council pays rent! At least will prevent councillors from building monuments to themselves.

  6. Traveller, 18. July 2020, 15:12

    Hel – does the government own the Beehive, Parliament Buildings, the Parliamentary Library, the High Court building, the Supreme Court building, the Appeal Court building etc etc? Of course it does. There’s no reason for the city to give away the ownership of the Central Library building – which is (or was) the heart of the capital, even though it has been allowed to become a dead heart these days. It would however be a better idea to seek a private owner who would buy the Convention Centre, if one could be found.

  7. michael, 18. July 2020, 15:52

    All we needed was the Library fixed and opened as promised, but there seems to be a secret agenda with council officers and developers.

  8. Helene Ritchie, 18. July 2020, 15:58

    The Central Library is a strategic asset for the city. Selling off public assets and then having the Council (i.e. ratepayers and residents) beholden to the vagaries of commercial leases is ridiculous. But of course developers would love their get their hands on more Council assets. It’s in their profit interests.

    Hel: compare it to owning your own house or renting at the behest of a landlord. The Council does not have the mandate to sell this public asset (or even propose it). What is behind the officers’ intentions?

    I agree Traveller with your comment re the Convention Centre … but who would buy it. A fire sale? (Let’s not go down that track at present!)

  9. wendy, 18. July 2020, 16:48

    Our elected representatives voted 14-1 in favour of a motion indicating their preference was to strengthen and upgrade the earthquake-prone building, rather than demolish and rebuild. So, what happened to this directive? Instead, we get confirmation that the rumours suggesting council officers have been discussing privatisation of the library with developers are true. And in the meanwhile, council officers have continued to push their $200 million vanity option – is this to make selling to developers look more attractive?

  10. DM, 18. July 2020, 17:37

    Selling the library is about as daft as it gets.

  11. John, 18. July 2020, 18:45

    Pity it’s too late to stop the white elephant conference centre.

  12. Andrew, 18. July 2020, 18:59

    I get the feeling that Wellington city’s councillors have about as much effect on the workings of the council as commenters on this site do.

  13. Caroline Glass, 18. July 2020, 19:00

    This proposal makes no sense. The logic behind it will be that it reduces council debt, but an obligation to pay rent for the library is also a form of debt which is likely to be even costlier than the normal sort of debt. [via Facebook]

  14. D'Esterre, 18. July 2020, 22:16

    Andrew: “I get the feeling that Wellington city’s councillors have about as much effect on the workings of the council as commenters on this site do.” Hahaha! Our view in this household as well. By extension, it means that ratepayers’ views have no effect on Council officers’ decision-making, either. Democracy schemocracy….

  15. Max Harris, 18. July 2020, 22:17

    Good to hear there’s already strong opposition to moves to privatise the public library in Wellington. The library’s a public good. Sale of the building risks increasing costs for users and introducing a profit motive for what should be a public service. This is a terrible move. [via twitter]

  16. michael, 18. July 2020, 22:38

    It seems fairly clear that WCC decisions and direction are driven by council officers, not the councillors who, along with the public, seem to be kept in the dark regarding council agendas. Why are we bothering to go through the expense and effort of electing councillors when they have no real power to represent us?

  17. D'Esterre, 18. July 2020, 23:29

    michael: “Why are we bothering to go through the expense and effort of electing councillors when they have no real power to represent us?” Yup. In this household, we’ve asked ourselves the same question. What’s the point?

  18. Kevin, 19. July 2020, 12:40

    Public libraries are what they say – public spaces. Making them private negates their role and place in the community.

  19. Jude, 19. July 2020, 14:21

    Public private partnership. H’mm look at Transmission Gully for how that works!

  20. Richard, 19. July 2020, 15:12

    If I am a developer, just refurbishing the Library is not so enticing. What is enticing is to contain the Library below a multi-storey building that also includes the council offices – think the Datacom building or higher. That will enable maximising plot ratios. Soon after developing, I then sell the building to an overseas pension fund and move on.
    My commitment to the Library is limited to my profit generation in the longer term.

  21. Michael Gibson, 19. July 2020, 17:47

    Jude, coping with a faulty ten-mile stretch before Transmission Gully is even opened is much easier with a public private partnership. You just get the other lot to take the blame and fix it. And it helps if you can get the workers back from Spain.

  22. Thomas Nash, 20. July 2020, 15:17

    This is the worst idea and I can’t believe people even have to spend energy rejecting it. Where does the mandate come from to even explore selling the library?! [via twitter]

  23. Dave Armstrong, 20. July 2020, 15:20

    Council officers. A law unto themselves. They also recommend stings on bowling clubs to root out ‘dangerous’ drinking, so be prepared for anything. When past CEOs say things like ‘these are the things that I’ll be focussing on this year’ with no mandate, that’s what happens. [via twitter]

  24. toni, 20. July 2020, 16:48

    After 18 months of broken promises, and misleading and ambiguous statements, it is not surprising to discover that council officers have been quietly pursuing their own agendas, some of which were put in plan by the previous CEO before the Library was closed, and which are in complete contrast to what councillors have been telling the public.

    Andy Foster says the Library will not be sold and leased back, yet it is clearly stated that ‘expressions of interest’ from developers will be sought under the Statement of Proposal with a design guide being provided.

    At a full council meeting, councillors indicated a preference to strengthen and upgrade the earthquake-prone building. This is skimmed over in the Statement of Proposal in preference for the $200 million spend wanted by council officers. The public are going to be “consulted” with flash marketing documentation controlled and generated by council officers with a bias towards their own preference. And, if the past year is anything to go by, reports and information will continue to be withheld from the public. The consultation process is going to last for over a year before a decision is made, which goes against all promises to get the Library opened as soon as possible. Is this genuine democracy at work? I think not!