Local Government – Muddling through Democracy

Long experience observing and making submissions in Christchurch finds that all is not well.

All levels of government play their part in mediating class warfare. At the local level issues can get personal; people can feel rightfully aggrieved and often do.

Government’s role is to try and do what is best for the many while making us all feel heard and respected. But too often the “Golden Rule” applies; He who has the gold, makes the rules.

Elites feel entitled to run a community as they run their business interests. Decision making is by invitation, selected employees only. They apply the same standard to “democracy”.

Most of us are typically too busy trying to keep life together to be aware, let alone involved. When an issue impacts us directly we might take action, but too often we succumb to our prescribed powerlessness. It is when folks push back that local government really steps in.

Elites will have the networks, made the connections and campaign “contributions” which allow them undue control over who gets elected, hired, promoted. Government may have some “do gooders”, generally tolerated to provide a degree of credibility of fairness, but nearly always in positions which can be over ruled by senior staff.

Consultation & Submissions
In NZ the consultation process finds few instances where elite interests have not triumphed over others. A good consultation process will leave submitters feeling like they were heard, but things were too far along, or there were no other alternatives, or their concerns were “outside of the scope” of the project. Alternatively it can be made clear to folk that they lack the background and skills to properly understand, let alone make changes. Whatever the tactic used, people are disempowered.

Those who persist experience a system which ably chews us up, wastes our time and impresses upon us the futility of our efforts to make substantive changes, set responsible policy or to make changes to fatally flawed projects. All the while being told our input is important. Empowered engagement is not encouraged. Frustration and exclusion guaranteed.

Meanwhile Councillors and staff hear loudly from those who have the time and money to attend and be “heard”.


Where opposition has not been too strident, or well-funded, Council has managed to deliver some cycling infrastructure which is appreciated. All would be even more appreciated with the opportunity for real input which leads to needed changes.  Here are some examples of where bad projects have been made worse to suit elite interests.

Ferry Road
The Heathcote Express Major Cycle Route consultation presented a route down Ferry Road. People who cycle offered suggestions to improve it, local business interests fought it. Concerns raised by people who walk and cycle could not be addressed as the plans were too far progressed. Yet the business interests offered a wholly new approach. Without notifying other submitters Council then met with business interests, developed their preferred option and adopted it, all without further consultation.

Victoria Street
In 2016 plans for Victoria Street sought to discourage through traffic with cul de sacs to promote a shared space. Business interests objected and plans were put on hold for 2 years. A new plan responsive to business interests was then presented featuring a through route, on street parking and unsafe cycling infrastructure. Again, submissions not in support of more parking and less road safety were ignored. The response to consultation was to offer more parking.

When it was suggested that a shared space was a better option staff protested that such a major change was not possible as this was a continuation of the 2016 plans and such a major change would be unfair. Told that the 2016 plan offered just that staff expressed ignorance and business interests again reigned supreme.

High Street
High Street is a designated pedestrian route and the block between Tuam and St Asaph a designated cycle route. The tourist tram complicates the street.

Staff met with business interests and developed a plan featuring on street parking and unsafe cycle infrastructure. Submitters were nearly evenly divided by those calling for fewer cars and better cycling and those wanting more parking. A shared space was suggested. Staff offered changes to increase parking, nothing more.

Councillors succumbed to landlord’s demands and decided that the block from Tuam to St Asaph, a designated cycle route, would not even get narrow cycle lanes, just more parking.

Cranford Street
Cranford Street has been much in the news as it is to be made car friendly to take the traffic coming from the new Northern Extension motorway, one of the former National government’s Roads of National Stupidity (RON’s). This project has regional impacts and public transport was a clearly better alternative.

Local opposition to thousands of commuters on Cranford St. has been fierce but law, like history, is written by the winners and central government can compel local government to support their disastrous projects.

Elites, this time subdivision developers and road builders got their way and Cranford is to be a de facto throughway that severs the neighbourhoods. Pedestrians and cyclists get a narrow shared path and eventually a way over to the Papanui Parallel, even if that is not where they need to go.

Council presented plans which don’t quite make Cranford a throughway but don’t really deal with the negative outcomes. Attempts to deal with the cars and their impacts with plans to direct commuters to other modes were needed.

In response to the opposition Council will try to develop park and ride lots, more buses and maybe congestion charges, if it is all not too hard. Past experience is that what is not fully planned, scheduled and funded, too often gets lost. Unlike the other examples some minor improvements were achieved.

Managed Democracy
These are all examples of poor governance and “managed democracy”. Democracy managed for the benefit of special interests at the expense of benefits to the general public. Councils and politicians hide behind the excuse of having to listen to those who have the most to lose, you know, the current winners in our rigged system. The status quo is protected and we are assured that it is a great outcome, the benefits will trickle down. Now drive home and leave us alone.

Harewood/Gardiners/Breens Road
Many residents have been asking for a light here and a local politician has been irresponsible enough to exploit the discontent and lead the charge for “drivers rights”.

Consultation ensued and most called for the light with others calling for safer options for cars, bikes and pedestrians. The traffic engineering and safety audit agreed that a light would actually increase collisions.

But, more people wanted it, they “voted”. Unlike the other consultations Council came down on the side of road safety. Without the rich old boys interfering Council was able to practice governance for the public good.

Council and responsible electeds need to help people understand why this decision was made. One can hope a disgruntled Councillor won’t seize on this as an opportunity to bash the Council and continue the campaign for unsafe infrastructure.

This year we get to vote. In too many instances the candidates on offer are unpalatable. A combination of actual and want to be elites seizing on a few popular issues while failing to make clear statements of policy.

Some are well meaning but remain convinced that with a few tweaks the cancer in our governance will be A-OK. There are a few qualified people running and they need your support. There are also some well-meaning ones who will actually engage on issues and are preferable to the posers.

Nope, no list provided here, for democracy to work you need to use the internet, go to the forums, ask the questions, learn to detect the BS and work for those you find deserving. The media will offer articles of varying quality and veracity.

Yes, it is work; it is also all of our lives and our future. Yes, we are all busy, working, paying off debt, thinking about or perhaps buying a house or raising a family, (OK, not an option for most under 40). It’s “funny” how people’s options have shrunk over the past 40 years.

Democracy even takes place between elections. To work well it takes hundreds of us to make submissions, many followed up by oral presentations and to call and visit our elected representatives regularly to remind them of the issues which are important, and that we vote. The future might just include roads safe for all of us, clean water not exported in bottles, a regional council which actually protects the environment…..

We can make it happen, for ourselves and for those yet to come.

12 thoughts on “Local Government – Muddling through Democracy”

  1. Hiya – just a quick note: Harewood Breens Gardiners is not yet settled. The Community Board today voted in favour of the traffic lights and it will go through the ITE committee before heading to Council. While I completely agree that all of the above could have been much better projects – doom and gloom is also disempowering and discourages people from taking part in the process. With no advocates in the process the projects will be worse and the programme may fade altogether… you need to look at what we have achieved, as well as the disappointments. I understand where you’re coming from – it’s where I started and it’s tiring, but keep pushing us for more and for better… it’s the only thing that gives us the mandate.

    1. The same is presumably true for Victoria St and High St, no? That there is no Council decision yet, I mean. Although I doubt that anything will change, it could.

      From my perspective, what is genuinely broken about the consultation process is that staff sometimes -there are honourable exceptions -does not even address the substance of the submissions. They read something about cycling, and prepare a generic response about how the street caters to different modes, yada yada yada, but don’t read our think through what the submission actually says. In the High St example, a number of submitters raised the Lichfield intersection issue, but staff did nothing to address that problem (only one small aspect of it, i.e. they rejected one solution, but didn’t bother to address the problem). I had a similar issue when contacting Council staff about the Crossing car park. That is the only carpark in the CBD with no continuous footpath over its driveway, quite a big safety no no. I point this out to Council and get a response that all car parks are like that. This is so patently untrue that I can only conclude that the staff member did not even bother to correctly read my message.
      I fear the same will happen with the Cranford St consultation. The cycle plans are extremely bad, because they clearly are drawn up by somebody who doesn’t cycle, doesn’t know the area, and has no intention to actually develop a cycling network beyond the MCRs. It’s just a box-ticking exercise to put some disconnected paint lanes on. At the same time, there are a few tweaks that don’t cost the world that could make the cycling provisions immensely more beneficial. But I can predict that this will be ignored again, because that is what seems to always happen. I wonder if there are examples of a consultation that actually resulted in improvements for cycling.

      1. Thank you for your comments.

        The inertia of decades of submissions calling for better cycle infrastructure has definitely resulted in Council waking up to their responsibility. While submissions from people who cycle have not resulted in major changes there have been some wins, mainly when the problems identified were blatant and easily dealt with.
        The problem I have attempted to focus on is that Council remains stuck in car centric planning, fails to engage with people who cycle while actively pandering to certain elite interests. As you note on Cranford st. this produces unsafe infrastructure which will not attract interested but concerned riders and locks people into car dependency.

      2. That’s what I think to. Unless the project is a cycling project anyways, there is little attention that is being paid to the development of a cycling network that encourages a shift in transport habits. Just some random infrastructure that doesn’t link up or is as good as it could be if user voices were heard.

    2. Big thanks to you and all the others at Council working so hard to make our communities worth living in.

      Disappointing that the Community Board rejects safety in favor of political expediency.

      I had thought the piece ended on a positive note with encouragement to get involved. That things are the way they are is why many more of us need to give a little of our time to make life better. It is not that hard and the rewards can be great.

  2. You are incorrect about the High st project, council staff & a certain councillor rammed through their car park reducing/ cycle friendly scheme on the northern most blocks, on the south most block/ lower high st there is likely to be a dedicated cycle lane north and south a slow shared lane (one way) & hopefully a boat lost of cycle parks & wide footpaths/landscaping, there is a real chance of a win-win for everyone on lower high st.

    1. Thank you for your information. The minutes of the 15.8 meeting are not up on the Council’s site. Hopefully some good bits will be delivered.

      I really appreciate that you clarify that staff were complicit in helping out the landlords. I take it David East was the Councillor?

    2. The preferred plan envisions 31 parking spots between Tuam St and Cashel St on High St. People on bicycles will partially be directed in a strip between parked cars and the tram tracks between Lichfield and Tuam St, meaning that in case a door gets opened, people will have a choice between slamming into an opened door or getting their wheel stuck in tram tracks. It is hard to characterise that section of High St as being an anti-parking/pro-cycling scheme. I know you cycle to work every day, but that doesn’t mean that your needs for a safe infrastructure are the same as every other person who has the ability to use active transport if only that would have the same level of incentives as driving has.
      Further, the simple fact is that the split between people wanting the area to have less parking and those wanting more parking was almost even, and yet staff only prepared a pro-parking option.
      Finally my usual remark: people go on about the convenient parking in malls. From the second level of the parking on Northlands to the movie theatre, it’s a walk of over 500m, but it’s a walk in a pure pedestrian area, and that is what is attractive about it.

      1. “but it’s a walk in a pure pedestrian area, and that is what is attractive about it “.

        So so true….. walking in the CBD is becoming more and more attractive too and it feels as though there are more and more people doing it. This is why I have written off areas like Victoria Street as being a place to feel relaxed around and opening up the wallet. Much more confident about the CBD though. As Sara said chipping away at it will achieve baby steps; small wins add up to good progress eventually. 40 years plus in some countries that we eye up enviously. It would be sad and expensive however if High Street needs a revisit in a short number of years simply because of lack of foresight by those who we empower to make decisions for our future.

      2. Agreed on Victoria St vs “CBD”. Since the city promenade opened, I shifted my commute to go along Oxford Terrace in the afternoons, and Cashel St/Oxford Tce are always lively and keep getting busier; I am still annoyed about the Peebles submissions to the High St redesign, but I can’t wait to be able to do my grocery shopping in the market on my way home with my bike instead of having to go to the grocery store in a mall. Victoria Street, although closer to where I live (and also on a potential commute route), I can count on one hand the number of times I have been there. There is nothing that invites me to that street, and nothing in the redesign that will do that.

  3. A very good assessment of the way the council operates, and it turns into a whole heap of issues over time. The city essentially is divided into haves and have nots all over the place because of what essentially amounts to focusing their responses on those communities that have the time and resources to campaign long and loud.

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