What can British cities learn from Auckland?

An aerial view of Auckland harbour. Image: David Rogers/Getty.

In November, the Centre for Cities hosted Harvey Brookes, a key architect of the city-region strategic plan and metro mayor introduced in 2010 in Auckland, New Zealand. The event was especially timely given the increase of combined authorities in major UK city-regions, the recent announcement of a metro mayor for Greater Manchester, and the relatively strong voices on both sides of the debate for and against metro mayors in UK city regions.

In an illuminating presentation – stunning photographs of the Auckland coastal area aside – Harvey shared his experience of city-region and mayoral governance. His insights and the lively discussion that followed highlighted some key implications for the UK:

1. Top-down approaches to effective city-region governance might be necessary

The successes that Auckland has experienced by working as a city-region might not have come about without a strong push from central government. Brought to the fore during the hosting of the Rugby World Cup in 2006, individual councils in the Auckland city-region were not good at co-ordinating and collaborating towards a shared goal for the city economy.

When the solution put forward by a Royal Commission (four local councils replacing the original seven) was considered too timid, the national government in Wellington imposed a city-region council headed up by a directly elected mayor. This poses interesting questions for the UK context: while Greater Manchester has decided to adopt a mayoral model as part of a significant devolution settlement, the government is adamant that this is not a model that will be imposed elsewhere.

2. Good relationships within and outside the city-region are vital

Working with the rest of New Zealand is important for Auckland, both with the Government in Wellington and other cities. While Auckland may be the largest economy, and most outward facing, it is part of an eco-system of inter-dependent cities that it is important to work within. Cities in New Zealand are working together now, borrowing from the UK Core Cities group, to ensure that they are all as business friendly as each other and not competing on that front; that they have a joint outward focus on China.

On a more regional level, facing concerns of an “Auckland vortex”, the city had deepened local relationships between Auckland and policymakers and politicians in the North Island, with the formation of the Upper North Island Strategic Alliance (UNISA). Although it is more of an informal alliance than a formal or strategic partnership, it means actors can come together and discuss a shared vision, rather than feel they have to compete.

This is also relevant for the UK context; for larger cities, whose smaller neighbours fear behind wiped out or left behind as the major city exerts more influence. But also in smaller and medium sized cities who have strong economic ties with neighbouring authorities, but lack the formal arrangements to work together. Or indeed, where cities neighbour often larger, rural authorities with a shared interest in the success of the city but a different vision of how to achieve it.

3. Devolution does not need to be a charter for higher taxes against local wishes

Auckland city council is primarily funded through property rates. The ten-year financial plans put forward by the Mayor required local property taxes to go up by around 5 per cent per year, a decision which the electorate supported. Some local areas have even been known to want higher taxes to get the services they need and want from the city. This illustrates the benefits to local people of an explicit trade-off between what you pay and what you get in relation to local taxation. This is interesting given the debate surrounding fiscal devolution to city-regions in the UK, and the general reticence from national governance to devolve control of taxes, let alone tax raising powers, for fear it will lead to unwanted higher taxes.

4. Strong, clear leadership can drive city-region ambitions

In Auckland Len Brown has succeeded in galvanizing the city-region around a clear vision: to make Auckland the world’s most liveable city. In practice this means improving transport and urban living are key priorities. And it has also enabled the city to identify its strengths and weaknesses compared to other cities world-wide. It is about knowing your competition.

Auckland did not set out to beat New York or London on GDP growth, but has instead focused on liveability: competing with other cities in Europe, Asia and the USA who pride themselves on quality of life. This issue is pertinent in the UK debate of “London vs the rest” and emerged as a positive message from the recent Northern Futures summit – cities in the North should work with London, not against it, to make the most of their particular attributes.

Louise McGough is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities. This article was first posted on the think tank’s blog.


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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