Hard News by Russell Brown

Queen Street 2: Die Harder

The more I think about the Queen Street tree panic, the more it seems to me that the mayor has exercised remarkably poor political management on his own behalf. To listen to, say, Leighton Smith (and I am not for a moment recommending that you actually do such a thing) you'd think that Dick Hubbard had driven through the entire Queen Street upgrade proposal on his own; perhaps that he had personally volunteered to wield the chainsaw.

The record rather strongly suggests otherwise. The Queen Street concept design was signed off without division by the council's Urban Strategy and Governance Committee in April, with the only rider relevant to the current controversy being that "additional vegetation opportunities … be investigated." A couple of hundred submitters were also thanked for their input in the same motion.

It was announced in City Scene in the same month, and in September was subject to a recommendation from the same committee "that the commencement of the Queen Street project be delayed until detailed design is further progressed and that enabling works be progressed under delegated authority."

That would suggest to me that (a) the relevant council officials have been (and apparently continue to be) unacceptably tardy in providing detailed design plans, and (b) that they were given authority to continue with enabling works (ie: removing selected trees in advance of their replacement). Presumably, officials figured that this "delegated authority" meant that they didn't have to notify the removal of the earmarked trees. It should not have.

The mystery is exactly how this is sheeted home to Dick Hubbard. He isn't a member of the committee, and was not in attendance at either meeting. So why does he keep on stepping up to take the bullet? It would make more sense to refer enquiries to the committee chair, Bruce Hucker, or to the councillors (including councillors from the same party whose members are currently fuelling the tree panic) who unanimously approved the proposal.

Is it an unwillingness to give Hucker any more air? A touching sense of duty? Or has Hubbard been undone by the public impression created by John Banks that the mayor has unlimited executive power?

Whatever: the bizarre controversy continues, with the unloading of various strange philosophical perspectives as an accompaniment. And none stranger than Owen McShane's claim in this Kiwiblog thread that in the Queen Street upgrade we are seeing the "new Urban Romanticism – or the new road to Serfdom," which embraces "the longing for the primitive." Uh, right.

The new Save Auckland Trees blog is rather better earthed.

Anyway, some useful feedback was forthcoming. Anthony Trenwith said:

Finally a voice of common-sense and reason is heard amidst the chatter and noise on the tree debate. They would indeed have to be, as you so neatly put it, the least memorable trees in civic history. I walk up Queen Street every week day yet would have to say that I have paid more attention to the trendy smokers' bins attached to the lamposts than I have to the trees.

There's a reason for this of course: to me, they're just trees. There's nothing special, iconic or eye-catching about them. As a result, the point of the whole debate (assuming of course that one actually exists...) is lost on me.

Personally, I couldn't give a rats what kind of trees are planted there, or if the current ones stay or go. The cost, in the scheme of things, is probably inconsequential. What isn't inconsequential however is the cost of judicial review - particularly over something as pointless as this. Tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money are going to be spent on defending an action that should never have been brought in the first place. Valuable court time (of which, I might add, there is a severe shortage) is going to wasted because Leighton and friends want to wage their opportunistic anti-PC campaign. I hope they realise that if they fail in the attempt, they could be facing quite a hefty bill for court costs - particularly if the court feels that the action was taken frivolously.

True, citizens should be able to challenge their representative bodies without fear of financial backlash. It's also true that Auckland City Council officers are in desperate need of dictionaries so as to teach them the meaning of the word "consultation". Too often, consultations phases are treated almost as mere formalities - a necessary evil to be endured on the way to doing what they want to do. Master plans and policies (the dreaded "p" word) tend to override public expectations and, at times, common sense (traffic lights in Princes Street for example).

That said, this is in no way the thin end of the wedge. All we're talking about are a few trees being replaced by other trees. I wonder if the outraged brigade would be any less outraged if the replacement trees were not natives?

I know this is the silly season, but surely there's a limit lying somewhere well before the point we're at now!

From far-off Singapore, Greg Wood reports that reading of the tree panic:

… makes me want to come home just so I can drive around town with a huge PA over which I can plead "People, please, get a LIFE. Recognise you live in what could be the most unique country in the world, respect that fact, and use it; perhaps pull your heads out of your arses and expend some energy on creating something good instead of complaining about other people's efforts, you bloody CORONATION STREETERS..."

Sorry, ranting... but seriously, every day, I get in a taxi and talk to some poor old Uncle who's sentenced to live and die in Singapore by a system that locks his life's savings up in a tricky government scheme, and when he asks "Where you from ah?" and I say, well, originally New Zealand, there's always - *always* - a sigh from him and a palpable wistfulness. That's the country I want to return to: vibrant, green, original, open, exciting, interesting, dynamic, accepting, forward-looking -- not some Leighton Smith ratings-driven bullshit-spaghetti-junction where everyone is too PC to take a crap, yet so un-PC it gives me the shits.

[sings, "We don't know how lucky we are..."; goes to work.]

Euan Mason, Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury's NZ School of Forestry was more circumspect:

Personally I'd welcome more indigenous greenery in our landscapes and cities, but there are aspects of this that look like shades of gray. Firstly, Graham Platt is probably closer to the truth than Graham Ikin.

We cannot know whether or not Mr Ikin has been influenced by a desire to get the tree replacement contract, but it would be wise to seek opinions from truly independent people.

Secondly, Mr Platt is right to point out that it takes time to acquire trees of significant size, and large urban trees are often valued very highly indeed. However, it appears that people are using the issue to snipe at Dick Hubbard, and with that objective they'll reach for just about any ammunition they can find, no matter how unreliable the source might be.

Lastly, we are losing sight of the real issue, which is, "What sort of urban landscapes do we want, and what are the costs of change?" One of the costs of change would be a reduction in greenery while native trees slowly grew, and I suspect the artist's impressions of the development, uninspiring as they are, would not be realised for several years. Some sort of phased conversion to native plants, if that's what people want, would make better sense.

And Nat Curnow, who knows a bit about trees, said just this:

The council planners need to consult a gardener and Leighton Smith needs to consult a therapist.

And finally, thanks to Adam Bogacki for drawing my attention to this admirably concise explanation of what's wrong with the Blair government's out-of-control Anti-Social Behaviour Order system, which is effectively a scheme for creating new, bespoke criminal offences, on demand. Communitarianism always sounds nice in principle: it can just very easily get creepy as hell in practice.