Seymour calls out Bridges as "weak" on Auckland traffic

ACT leader distances himself from National's handling of Auckland issues, especially traffic congestion

ACT leader David Seymour backed congestion charging in Auckland and called Transport Minister Simon Bridges "weak" for his inaction on Auckland's traffic congestion, at a local government panel discussion tonight.

I'm just home from chairing the event at Somervell Presbyterian, where Seymour featured on a panel alongside economist Shamubeel Eaqub, Greens Finance spokesperson Julie-Anne Genter and Mission Bay and Kohimarama Residents Association Chair Don Stock. It was the first part of a Talk Auckland series, ahead of next Thursday evening's mayoral debate.

Much of the conversation focused on Auckland's housing crisis and, with the exception of Stock, the hope across the panel that however imperfect, the Unitary Plan was a blueprint for encouraging a significant increase in the number of homes being built in the city. The plan's target of 18,000 new homes a year seems wildly optimistic, especially when, as Eaqub said, council is snookered with no obvious way to fund the $17+ billion of infrastructure the city requires. But it does lay the groundwork politically and institutionally at least for a rapid increase in the number of homes built in Auckland.

But the takeaway headline was Seymour's strong criticism of National's handling of Auckland's traffic woes. He argued there was nothing wrong with people commuting from the fringes of the city as long as they pay their way. When I asked him about National's refusal to allow the council to introduce congestion charges he said he didn't know why Bridges had been so weak on the issue and that the government must move to allow Auckland Council to raise money for infrastructure.

One of the answers is that Bridges is stalling for time. The Auckland Accord and the one year of talking about "alignment" that it brought was a delaying tactic to get passed these local government elections, get a year beyond the higher than expected rates rises of last year and, presumably, to save central government actually having to spend. But it was striking to hear a support partner call out National on its approach to Auckland traffic.

He also was at odds with Finance Minister Bill English, who has said that "fundamentally" it is not the government's job to pay for Auckland's infrastructure. Auckland was a rapidly growing city and it should use its own growing ratings base to pay for the development it needs. English has been insistent that – the central rail loop aside (and that took years of convincing) – it is not central government's job to build Auckland's infrastructure.

It seems inevitable that English will have to move on that stance, whatever he and his cabinet colleagues think of the current Auckland mayor, council and bureaucracy. While they keep the council on the naughty step for its perceived wastefulness, both refusing to fund infrastructure itself and refusing to allow the council to raise funds from, say, congestion charges or regional fuel taxes, the city grinds ever closer to a halt. It's point scoring at the expense of Aucklanders.

And Seymour seems to see that, in particular that National will have to come to the party at some stage. In opposition to English's 'not our job' stance, Seymour suggested that all the tax and GST revenue that the government collects from Auckland's construction sector should be returned to the city.

He argued what the government takes from Auckland's growth should be ring-fenced and funnelled back into the infrastructure needed to sustain that growth.

It seems a most un-ACT-like policy; quite interventionist and reminiscent of New Zealand First's policy of royalties from oils and minerals having to be poured back into the regions where the drilling and mining occurred. But most notably it was the ACT leader speaking to a local Auckland audience and clearly distancing himself from some of the key decisions National is making about the city. And not only taking a fundamentally different view on government spending in the city, but openly calling a cabinet minister "weak" in his handling of his portfolio.

A little over a year out from the next election, that's telling.