Sunday, June 19, 2016

Verran’s Island

"Verran's Island" (Source: Facebook)
The people of Auckland have a favourite indoor sport: Complaining about their local government. Aucklanders aren’t unique in this, of course—residents of many cities are the same. But they have become pretty good at it. Sometimes, though, that negativity can be kind of fun.

Among the many things I’ve seen people complain about in a Facebook group for people who live in this area of the city, one of the most enduring has been a roundabout. People hated it being done at all, declaring that there was nothing wrong with the old non-standard (and, so, very unsafe) sort of, kind of roundabout-like thing that had been there.

However, there were actually legitimate complaints: Construction took months longer than had been promised, and it was messy, the road uneven, and often pretty unsafe at times, during that lengthy construction. However, once it was completed, it was so much better than the old one was—and yet, people still complain about it.

The roundabout is located where three roads converge: Verran Road, Birkdale Road, and Rangatira Road (Google Maps; select Street View to see how it normally looks). The latter is one of two roads into and out of Beach Haven, a suburb that has fairly expensive coastal property maybe a couple streets over from poor people living in state houses and sub-standard private rental accommodation. It’s a study in contrasts.

Birkdale Road connects those two roads into/out of Beach Haven, and serves as a pseudo border between Beach Haven and Birkdale, which is somewhat better off than most of Beach Haven—middle class, even if sometimes lower middle class, but even then, with far fewer poor-standard rental houses.

I mention all that because this area is a vibrant community, a melting pot of different economic classes, races, and ethnicities, all living fairly peacefully alongside each other, and all sharing an unfocused antipathy to Auckland Council, our local government. The roundabout is just an example of that.

In the months since the roundabout has been completed, nothing else has happened. Ordinarily, such roundabouts are planted with low perennial plants to make it look nicer, but nothing has happened in this particular roundabout, and no one—complainers and elected representatives alike—seem to know why.

A couple weeks ago, maybe, people started taking matters into their own hands. A couple plastic pink flamingos suddenly appeared. Then, more, along with other garden ornaments—the tackier the better—and then a small recliner with a stuffed pink panther doll with an umbrella. Locals dubbed it “Verran’s Island” and someone set up a Facebook Page for it, which is where the photo above comes from.

It’s all kind of funny, and it also calls attention to the fact that nothing has been done to finish the roundabout in the months since the construction ended. If mainstream media pick up the story, something might finally happen. After all, winter is good time to do the planting so the plants can get established before the hot, dry summer. If was to bet, however, it would be that the guerrilla gardening on “Verran’s Island” will be called a traffic hazard and workers will be sent to remove everything, and it’ll remain a barren weed patch. And people will complain.

The roundabout is part of the unfocused antipathy to Auckland Council because they almost always blame the wrong target: Auckland Council. Roads and projects like this are done by Auckland Transport (AT), which is what’s called a “Council Controlled Organisation,” mostly independent of Council, basically like a private business that Council entirely owns. AT has demonstrated contempt for popular opinion, and has yet to discover a customer service ethic, so it’s probably the single most complained about agency in all of Auckland—even if people get confused and blame Council instead.

While some of the antipathy toward Auckland Council takes on a humorous air, like the “Verran’s Island” installation did, much of it is far angrier and even quite bitter. Next week is the deadline for areas of the city to petition to secede from Auckland Council, and apparently at least two areas plan to do so. They will almost certainly fail, probably deservedly so, but it'll mostly be because the government in Wellington that set up the “super city” still controls government, and they’re unlikely to allow any attempt to undo what they created.

One of the reasons that a larger Auckland matters is that it spreads the cost of infrastructure over a far larger number of properties, whereas smaller councils, with fewer ratable (taxable) properties have to charge much more for the same thing. If areas with small populations start peeling off Auckland, those people will face far higher rates (property tax) bills, and if enough do that, it’ll drive up rates in Auckland, too. No one wins.

But whether the disgruntled succeed or not, the complaints won’t stop, not even when a new mayor and new council are elected in October. Complaining about their local government is Aucklanders’ favourite indoor sport, after all. Pink flamingos, though, are optional.

Footnote: The area the roundabout is located in is called "Verran's Corner" colloquially, however, that name is not an official place name, so there’s no official spelling. There are many people in New Zealand who drop apostrophes, and in this case, spell it "Verrans". Because there’s no such official name, I opt for the grammatically correct apostrophe, and always have.

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