Thursday, August 29, 2013

Grandparents pinged by Paula Bennett's welfare reforms

In mid-July of this year, the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust (GRG) issued a media release pointing out that National's welfare reforms were having a detrimental effect on grandparents raising their grandchildren. Grandparents end up with the grandchildren for a number of reasons but mostly because of family breakdown and drug and alcohol dependence of the parent(s). Trust me: it's extremely stressful because grandparents often find themselves having to deal with the problems of two generations, they're not as fit as they might once have been, and many have limited incomes. But as those of you who are grandparents will know, they'll do anything for their grandkids and you would think that a bit of support from the state agencies supposed to help them would go a long way.

The big problem at the moment is that the main state agency supposed to help is the ever-more unhelpful Work and Income. I have no idea what's going on there but my guess is that staff are under huge pressure to get people off welfare, not put them on welfare, or send them to pointless CV writing courses. Because this is the ideal way to help achieve the government's stated aim of looking after vulnerable children, right?

Unusually, the Minister must have felt she needed to front foot GRG's claims, presumably because having Work and Income staff treating grandparents in a bullying and condescending manner is only slightly better than torturing puppies. GRG asked for a blanket exemption from the work test requirements of the legislation and possibly the Minister also felt she needed to head that off at the pass. So in an interview on Nine to Noon on the 25th July the Minister explained why a blanket exemption was out of the question before assuring listeners that This Would Never Happen Again:
 "There is definitely discretion there and that's why I put it in to be blunt so we did talk about grandparents raising grandchildren and people who were raising other people's children a lot while we were developing the welfare reforms...The example I saw in the paper today [...] was not an intended consequence of the welfare reforms.  There are some [grandparents] that are a lot younger and they do want to be working and they do want support from Work and Income to get into work...No [grandparents raising grandchildren will not be getting letters requiring them to be going through this process and will not be in the same situation as other job seekers who must be available for work]. This is by no means intended to be the camel that breaks the back... [oops - it's OK, we know what you mean]...If they have got high-needs kids that need them there in the morning and in the afternoon and working is just not an option then they are not going to be forced into looking for jobs..."
Given this unequivocal assurance, imagine our surprise when we found the following in the GRG September  newsletter:
16 years ago, they both came into our care, traumatised, frightened and had no routine, I was working full time then, but quickly realised I had to give up my job to look after these 2 innocent little ones aged 4 & 6. As time went on with 9 repeated frivolous court cases and many, many thousand $$’s saw any savings we had disappear. Fortunately, my husband was still working. We managed just. Life slipped by...Recently due to circumstances we applied for an unemployment benefit (now called Job Seeker)...We have been told we have to attend job training and if we do not our Unemployment (now Job Seeker) will be stopped. So we have to drag our old wreaked, weak, ill bodies down to training for 6 months daily. For goodness sakes who in their right mind would employ us! We have sacrificed everything for these children who otherwise would have been in State Care and ended up goodness knows where. What has NZ come to? Forcing 60+ into the work force!
So Paula, does that mean your department hasn't got its language quite right yet? Or does it mean WINZ staff are still being pressured to act like mindless boxtickers? Possibly the same boxtickers who think tampons are a luxury? Because once again we see an appalling stuff-up from your department, on your watch, after you have given assurances that WINZ has discretion to be lenient in exceptional circumstances and will use it appropriately. Get it right and start treating people with dignity or resign.

And to the tireless Di Vivian from GRG: You're doing a great job. Keep it up.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest post: The dumb insolence of bureaucrats

Guest post. Obviously Spider and I have views on housing but our multi-tasking just isn't that flash so we have posted this. We don't necessarily agree with the views expressed herein but it's a valuable contribution to the housing debate and better than anything you'll get in the Herald. Enjoy!
The best laid plans of politicians are often thwarted by bureaucrats who don’t share the same world view as their political masters. This is especially so for progressive or left wing governments which need to battle for policy supremacy with a bureaucracy which is often risk adverse and moderately conservative.  This battle is one-sided because this bureaucracy provides both the policy advice to politicians and delivers programmes on their behalf. Furthermore the scope of public policy advice is often pre-determined either by convention – such as with having an allegedly non-partisan professional public service - or by the legislative decree of previous governments such as with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the State Services Act and the Reserve Bank Act. 

The constraints of convention are often argued as providing transparent government and a safeguard against 'unbridled power'. Under such rules, power is shared between the executive, legislature and judiciary so that the opportunities for politicians to meddle are limited.  Such a system might work if the partners in this cosy ménage a trios acted in a pluralistic and democratic way.  However, it is questionable that they do. 

A big problem with the framing of public policy by embedded legislative constraints is that, in New Zealand, these constraints are the codification of the neo-liberal ideology that has been a guiding force for our economic and social policy since the mid-1980s. For example, the Reserve Bank Act is simply an application of monetarist theory while the State Services Act is a manifestation of 'new public' managerialism. Under this framing any progressive government that seeks to address such quaint notions as social justice or environmental sustainability faces an uphill struggle to turn the basic ideological foundations of the State toward their ends. Yet such policy turnarounds are a normal part of the democratic process where the government has a sufficiently strong and clear mandate. Fortunately this has not been a problem for the ruling elites since the emergence and subsequent domination of neo-liberal economics under the Fourth Labour Government. Because only the main neo-liberal parties – National and Labour - have held power since then, the problem of a political agenda not matching the ruling paradigm has never arisen (in fact a recent Herald editorial explicitly refered to "the consensus between the two major parties on economic fundamentals").

But arguably more fundamental barriers to a truly progressive political agenda are the values, inclinations and prejudices of the mainly middle-class bureaucracy.  If the political agenda of the elected government does not match this group’s interests, then real change will be hard to achieve. Paradoxically, this is especially so where public servants might be expected to have some empathy for the public or communities they are supposed to serve. Regrettably, such empathy is often lacking especially within senior management of state bureaucracies which have been captured by managerialism and its focus on economic efficiency, hierarchy and managers as moral authority.  A great example of such lack of empathy is Housing New Zealand.
Housing New Zealand is presently going through a transformation as part of the government’s social housing reform agenda.
The government’s social housing reform programme is being rolled out with the Social Housing Reform Bill, now going through the select committee stage. This Bill looks to extend the subsidies presently only available to Housing New Zealand to so-called community housing providers in an effort to extend the provision of social housing beyond a state monopoly.

In response to this agenda Housing New Zealand itself began to change how it behaved toward tenants and those seeking housing. The number of households with a serious housing needs admitted to waiting lists  miraculously fell from around 5,000 in 2009 to 2,000 in 2012. The number of households actually housed fell from over 9,000 in 2008/09 to 7,000 in 2011/12.  All this happened while state houses were kept empty  or were demolished in high-needs places like Pomare and Glen Innes. It is simply not credible to claim that declining state house waiting lists represent a real decline in need when the housing shortage - especially in Auckland - gets worse by the month. It is difficult to know if this change in attitude had any political blessing although this seems unlikely given the lack of any political mileage in doing so.  As well, the government never tried to make such claims. To its credit Housing New Zealand now has a new Chief Executive and its attitudes appear to have softened recently.

A plausible explanation is one of bureaucratic belligerence bordering on dumb insolence. That is to say, Housing New Zealand’s management was working against the government’s reform agenda by embarrassing it with unhelpful outcomes which apparently are results of these reforms.

No doubt old liberals will label the Bill as privatisation by stealth or the end of public housing. Such claims wallow in a misplaced nostalgia that everything was just swell when Housing New Zealand was the only show in town picking up bigger and bigger subsidies from taxpayers and providing poorly maintained houses in suburbs and neighbourhoods which most New Zealanders avoided like the plague. The engagement of community enterprise in the delivery of the public services, such as with the social housing reforms, can of course be interpreted as the neo-liberal rolling back of the state. Such an interpretation has some merit although in examining alternatives we need to also understand the conservative and sometimes reactionary nature of state bureaucracies and the prospects of a progressive government being able to reform these.

It may be that our real opportunity to achieve social change does not lie with reforming bureaucracies but in building a stronger civil society which relies on local control and ownership of key social resources, and on goodwill and neighbourliness.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Update on Option 4

The 2.5 regular readers of this blog will be aware that the East-West link bit of AMETI East-West (one of the top transport priorities in the Auckland Plan) has grown from being an upgrade between Onehunga and the Southern motorway to four rather expensive options that involve knocking down houses, and building interchanges and 'big bridges'. The 'East West' bit aims to relieve freight congestion in the area around Neilson St/Church St/SH1. None of the four options currently being touted by Auckland Transport is palatable in a city claiming it wishes to be the world's most liveable city, but by far the most outrageous proposal is Option 4, which cuts through residential areas in Mangere and Otahuhu (presentation to the local board here, p.177). It remains unclear why anyone thinks a motorway through Mangere/Otahuhu will deal with a congestion problem to the east of Onehunga but perhaps Spider and I need to do a geography course.

A thrusting tunneling machine. Working together as one. LOL.
Now, gentle readers, we can reveal to you that, as predicted in this post, Kings College will indeed be unscathed by the carnage and wreckage Auckland Transport and Gerry Brownlee intend to unleash on the less privileged parts of Mangere and Otahuhu. The current plan is (wait for it...) to tunnel underneath Kings and the adjacent golf course. 

Yes, that's right. In a city with an affordable housing shortage, and in a suburb where overcrowding is already a significant contributor to preventable diseases in kids, these maniacs are planning to knock over houses to facilitate the movement of smelly, noisy trucks. But the educational and recreational facilities of the privileged will be spared. Who said there wasn't a god? 

By the way, for those of you hoping to attach your cycling/pedestrian/public transport projects into this project: you can be pretty darn sure that there will be no cycling or pedestrian facilities in the tunnel. The local board agenda also shows that the East-West link is no longer the multi-modal whatever-the-heck-it-was. It's just the East-West link. In other words, it's just another motorway in a city that still thinks it can build its way out of congestion.

Dismal mayoral politics

Last week saw the first round in the mayoral debates that will take place in Auckland over what is likely to seem an interminable next few months. Radio New Zealand's report on the debate hosted by Grey Power in Pakuranga made for dismal listening. Which is not surprising since talking to Grey Power always seems to bring out the worst in political candidates.

Also not surprising was the fact that most of the discussion seemed to centre around rates. No one much likes paying rates and the elderly wealthy seem to like it the least. Accordingly, promises to limit rate increases were well received with businessman John (I know what I'm talking about because I'm rich) Palino scoring an early hit. So what did the candidates say that made for such depressing listening?

It's a sad fact that if candidates want to swing voters their way, one sure-fire way of doing this is to promise to not spend money on stuff that is of no direct benefit to the audience. Palino did just this, promising the proposed white water rafting course at Manukau would be canned if he was the mayor. Cue much applause from the non-white water rafting elderly. Palino's is a true Republican Party-style hip pocket campaign, with promises to limit rate rises to the rate of inflation and cut the Council payroll by 5%. But wait, there's more! Palino is also promising a new CBD in Manukau! Quite how the Council will pay for this with constrained rates income or do the work with what is an already stretched workforce is a bit of a mystery but, you know, rich guys Just Get Stuff Done. Or not. 

Homeless in California
What someone really needs to ask Mr Palino, since most of his policies (as far as we can make out) have already been implemented in some US states, is how that's working out for them? Perhaps ask these folk in California (left), or people who lost their homes in last year's Colorado wildfires.

Also present, and showing a politician's ability to tell an audience what they want to hear, was current mayor Len Brown. He claimed we needed to have 'a genuine debate' about whether local government was funded off 'an income-based system' or property value-based system because the current system was not much good 'for you guys in particular'. Great news for the elderly sitting on valuable properties but not wanting to contribute anything to younger residents. Len needs to be careful about where he heads with that one given that most of his voting base is on low incomes, and the Council has no idea who is living where in South Auckland.

The 2007 Shand report on rates found income-based rates systems were more equitable, but also that there is a high correlation between property value and household income, and "the Panel considers that rates-based funding of local government is not inherently inequitable." I'd almost buy the income-is-more-equitable-than-property-value argument if the market was providing more affordable housing, thus keeping house prices lower overall, and if property investors couldn't use property tax losses to avoid paying their fair share. Would an income-based system mean the rest of us subsidise them even more than we already do?  At least property-based rates captures property owners regardless of tax status.  

The Reverend Unasa also promised cuts, starting with the Mayor's office, and a look at the number of consultants used by the Council. The problem with this is that consultants are doing work the Council might otherwise have to employ actual human beings to do. If the work needs to be done but there are going to be 'cuts' and a limit on the hiring of consultants, then what actually gets done? Not facilities maintenance down at the Manukau Sports bowl, that's for sure. 

The deeper issue sitting under all this 'no rates rises for the elderly' is the extent to which elderly residents sitting on ever more valuable properties should be shielded from having to contribute to the wider social good, or having to pay a levy on the increased value of their properties: properties they undoubtedly obtained in a time of full employment, free university study and (often) subsidised government mortgages. Because at some point the polity, whether through central or local government, is going to decide to tax those rising property values through a capital gains or other property tax, means testing of services for the elderly or some other mechanism. Grey Power might not like it, but a property value-based rating system at least makes it look like the elderly and their accumulated wealth are contributing something to society at a time when their grandchildren are struggling to purchase even a modestly priced Auckland home.

The Radio NZ report noted a high approval rating among the audience for John Palino. Grey Power (and the rest of us) need to be very careful what they wish for.   

A happy coincidence

We've been a bit busy recently so a few things have passed unremarked (look, it's what happens when you rely on volunteers). But one thing that did catch our attention a wee while ago was an announcement by Maurice WIlliamson that compensation for homeowners whose properties are required for public works (which means roads - so-called projects of national significance - under this government) will increase from the value of the property plus $2,000 to the value of the property plus a maximum of $50,000.

This is great news for the people in Maurice WIllliamson's electorate who, by remarkable coincidence, are in line to have their properties purchased to make way for the busway from Panmure to Pakuranga (details on the Auckland transport blog and here). It must be especially welcome since Gerry Brownlee announced he wants to bring forward parts of AMETI East-West. The increased compensation means former residents will be more likely to be able to repurchase in the area. What a shame this largesse won't apply to renters or the state house tenants who stand to get their houses bowled under the various other loopy proposals for the East-West link. Indeed, houseowners in Pakuranga will not only reap the benefit of increased compensation payments but will get vastly improved public transport services in exchange (the green blobs in the map are public transport interchanges). No such luck for the residents of Mangere and Otahuhu who just get a bunch of smelly noisy trucks carving through their neighbourhoods, or what's left of them. See any big green blobs in Mangere? No, of course not. Just traffic interchanges in the middle of dormitory suburbs.

Still, this National government is about looking after its voters, and it's good to see the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Pakuranga being attended to  by their local MP.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Send a tampon to your National MP today

I'm sure this post is redundant because the social media including Twitter are already over this like  rash but...but a story popped up on the Herald's website late this afternoon about women being unable to purchase tampons with their food grants because tampons are a "luxury".

Let's keep this brief, eh? I have been reading and writing about welfare and welfare reform for what is now some years, up to and including those batshit reforms implemented in the US that this National government is so keen to emulate. But of all the dumbass, braindead, don't-give-a-fuck-about-your-clients idiocy I have ever come across this wins hands down. 

The article quotes a number of women who have had similar experiences. Are we to believe they're all lying, as the Minister's "not true" tweet suggests?

I don't care what the Minister of Social Development says as she dodges the blame yet again: this is her department, her watch, her dislike of anyone else getting a slice of the welfare biscuit, and she needs to front up, apologise and promise this will NEVER HAPPEN TO ANOTHER WOMAN EVER AGAIN. In the meantime I'll be sending her a tampon or two with a  basic biology kit to help her understand why tampons are a fact of life not a luxury for most of us.

June jobs data: no improvements for those with the least

We finally got to look at June Household Labour Force Survey this morning, having only perused the headlines briefly last week. The headlines themselves were interesting:  Statistics New Zealand asserted Labour market continues to improve, and odd statement given that the content of the press release went on to say that unemployment was "up slightly since the start of the year". As we showed here unemployment is still well above what it was in the mid-2000s, and has stayed high for longer than any period since the late 1990s.
More thoughtful was Economists play down joblessness rise by the Herald's Brian Fellow. He gently chided the (mostly Australian-owned) bank economists for ignoring the not-so-great news contained in the June HLFS. And in Spider's and my view, he was right to do so. The economy is not creating a bunch of full-time jobs ready to mop up all those beneficiaries Paula Bennett and her department are sloughing off the welfare rolls: on the contrary the figures suggest that the groups most in need of work are increasingly unlikely to find it.

The standout figure is the increase in unemployment among women. While the government boasts that it is getting thousands of Domestic Purposes beneficiaries (most of whom are women) off benefits, where they are going is somewhat of a mystery since the overall unemployment rate for women remains high. The unemployment rate for women in the June quarter stood at 7.1% down a smidge from 7.2% a year before. The problem is that while the number women employed increased by 3,000 the overall labour force participation rate fell from 62.9% to 62.5% bolstered by an increase of 13,000 in the number of working-age women not in the labour force (664,000 to 677,000). Can Paula Bennett unequivocally tell us that sole mothers with children are not coming off a benefit just to join New Zealand's growing reserve army of labour?

Another standout statistic is that of Pacific unemployment. European unemployment has fallen since June 2012, Maori unemployment is static (still an unacceptably high 12.8%) but Pacific unemployment now stands at a whopping 16.3%, up from 14.9% a year ago. Now I'm not a political strategist but it seems Labour should stop secretly siding with National and taking cheap shots at roof-painting Sickness beneficiaries and start asking WTF National intends to do to start bringing down the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among Maori and Pacific people. They are, after all, a key part of Labour's core constituency. 

The last statistic that appears to have fallen under everyone's radar is that for 25-29 year olds. While the NEET (not in employment, education or training) rate for 15-24 year olds has fallen due to a rise in the number of young people avoiding the labour market studying (or moving into subsidised jobs), the unemployment rate for their older graduate siblings (25-29 years) has increased, from 7.0% in June 2012 to 8.3% a year later.

As the Brian Fellow article points out, the new jobs are being created in Canterbury and many are part-time. Many thousands of part-time workers want more work but the total number of hours worked continues to fall so it is unlikely they'll all find it. The number of manufacturing jobs (142,000) is up off its low of 140,000 in December 2012 but remains below what it was in 2011 and even the first half of 2012. Whatever the spin, this is not a dynamic economy - this is an economy in the doldrums, bouyed along only by the Christchurch rebuilding effort. No wonder social agencies, increasingly filling in for the former welfare state, are reporting record numbers of financially distressed clients.

What to do? Hard to say: most other developed economies are in the same boat and our traditional employment safety valve (Australia) is rapidly coming unglued. Maybe we need to step back and think about engineering an economy that's good for people, not fund managers. And in the meantime, the evidence is absolutely clear: the best way to get people off welfare is to ensure there's jobs for them to go to. Anything else is socially divisive and self-defeating.    

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Here, oblivious to the fact that Gerry Brownlee wants to bowl his house over for a Motorway To Nowhere, Rocket the Lion snoozes in the sun on an extraordinarily warm winter's afternoon.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How many houses does it take to build a cycle way?

In our small, sheltered world, Spider and I try not to take pot shots at community groups because we know they are invariably underfunded, often rely on volunteer labour and are usually up against far better resourced professional lobby groups.

So it is with some reservations we feel the need to call Cycle Action Auckland (CAA) out on the recent post on their website wherein they mull the cycling benefits of the proposed East-West link - the roading project this blog posted on a mere few days ago. 

The first thing is that we generally support the work CAA does. As racing and commuting cyclists of many years we (a wee handful of us in this instance) support any efforts to make cycling in Auckland safer and more pleasant. Because, let's be honest, cycling in Auckland can be a life-threatening experience, which is not conductive to getting people out of cars and onto bikes.

But back to the article. It opens by correctly noting that the East-West link was a "last minute addition to the Auckland Plan". To be less polite, it was polevaulted to second place by being attached, without public consultation, to the existing AMETI-ville horror. The original plan for the East-West link was to plough a motorway along the south of Onehunga (a project dating back to the early 1950s). This has since morphed into four rather grandiose options that involve demolishing lots of houses and building bridges across an ecologically sensitive estuary, with officials' preferred option now seeming to be one that only goes through Labour-voting areas.

The key question no one seems to be asking is what transport problem, exactly, is the East-West link going to solve? And is it a problem that can be dealt with effectively by some local road and intersection improvements that won't cost many millions of dollars? The answer to the first question is congestion around the Neilson St/Church St/SH1 intersection, and the answer to the second question is yes, probably. So why has CAA unquestioningly fallen for the tripe on the Auckland Transport website? There are two possibilities: the first is that CAA has been selectively briefed by Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency; the second is that CAA is comprised of persons who don't understand that the maps do not show new roads going through empty land - they go through populated, old established neighbourhoods.

The selective briefing theory is possible. AT have been selective in what they have shown others, and have only recently been upfront with key stakeholders about some of the more radical options. This theory is supported by the map in the CAA article showing improvements to the cycle lanes around Highbrook. This map fails to show the proposed new road in three of the four options that goes through a heritage area in Otahuhu then becomes a bridge over the estuary to Highbrook. It runs just under the bit saying Curlew Bay (sadly the curlews have gone but there's lots of other bird life there for now).  On the other hand one of the comments under the CAA article talks about "big new bridges" (how exciting!!) so perhaps they have been adequately briefed after all.

The other possibility - that whoever wrote the article and one or two of the subsequent commenters are prepared to trade off houses for cycleways - is, unfortunately, more likely. I don't believe all the individuals who comprise CAA would actively support motorway construction through urban areas, especially when it involves demolishing many existing houses in a city with a housing shortage. But somewhere along the way the idea seems to have taken hold that it is better to support such projects if they include a token cycle lane or two than to fight to get spending reallocated from roading projects to cycleways and improved PT and pedestrian facilities. Of course, that is a much tougher battle ("...that’s one of our hopes for this project. It has funding, the cycling budget hasn’t") but one that is, in the long run, going to improve the lives of all Aucklanders rather than a few middle class commuters.

There's one other point a couple of us would like to make about 2 of the 4 options. These involve constructing a new road along the Onehunga foreshore before proceeding, in one case, to go through Panama peninsula (another place where actual people live) and thence over the Tamaki estuary. So the map on the CAA website showing the link between the existing cycleway and Sylvia Park is undoubtedly a good thing for cyclists who want to head that way. But the foreshore cycleway is not just a cycleway. It is one of the few off-leash dog areas on the Auckland isthmus and is used by people walking their kids and picnicking etc. Surely CAA can not think it is acceptable that two much larger groups of users lose their recreation space so that cyclists get an extra cycle lane? Here's a thought: why not be bold and tell Auckland Transport to spend the money on removing some roading and put in cycling and pedestrian facilities instead?

Cheonggyecheon, South Korea was formerly the route for an major elevated highway. Completed in 1976, removed in 2005.

We want to love CAA. They've done some fab work over the years and some of their members have an awe-inspiring knowledge of Auckland traffic, and traffic and cycling planning. But by taking the political soft option they risk becoming part of the problem. It is mindboggling that in 2013 Auckland transport planners are still contemplating knocking down houses to make way for new roading. It is even worse that the region's cycling advocates seem to think this is OK. How many houses does it take to make a cycle lane? Who cares? Build us some bridges.

CAA response:
We are aware that some people see this post as “support” or “endorsement” of the East-West-Link project – and its potentially quite destructive effects on large areas of housing in South Auckland. To make it clear – we do not endorse the project, even though we are admittedly keen to use it as a chance to fix some key missing links in the cycle network.
However, on projects like this, CAA always faces a hard choice. If we fundamentally oppose them, and have nothing to do with them, then we have no ability to provide input closely to the planning teams. We could hope that overall opposition was strong enough to simply not make the project happen at all. Our experience of the last 5-10 years has sadly shown that that never seems to be the case – mainly due to pressure from Wellington, these projects happen. On the other hand, where we DID get involved, like on Waterview, we won substantial concessions for cycling, and we and others are building on them.
We are aware that to some, such compromises make us “beyond the pale”. But they are not compromises we make easily.

Thanks for taking the time to respond. We accept that the involvement of CAA in projects can improve facilities for cyclists but we stand by our point that by becoming an integral part of the planning process CAA risks becoming part of the problem. Let's be clear: the East-West link is about planning traffic around freight. I'm sure many CAA members saw The Human Scale at the film festival. This project is moving Auckland firmly in the opposite direction.
As an aside, I'm not sure why 'beyond the pale' is in quote marks. This blog did not say that nor can I see it in any of the comments under the CAA post. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Urban redevelopment, old school

We have something of a fondness for old school in our household: steel bicycles, woolen T-shirts, old Dr Marten boots. But there are some old school thingimagigs that should be relegated to history's dustbin and one of them is Auckland's Old Style Urban Redevelopment.

OSUR is a process whereby in the name of improving traffic flow a bunch of houses get knocked down to make way for a motorway. Hard to believe it may be, but the motorway running through Newton Gully used to be houses (see photo below). They weren't in good repair and only poor people lived in them (this was when people were moving out of the city to shiny new suburbs) so planners could kill two birds with one stone by bowling the houses and putting in a motorway to help car-driving suburban commuters get to their jobs. This photo of Newton Gully was taken in 1959. 

Stolen from

We're over that, I hear the progressives among you say. These days we build public transport facilities and don't turf the poor out of their homes. At least not without due process.

Wrong (although there still might be some token due process). In a press release issued Friday the 2nd June, Gerry Brownlee announced:
“Together, AMETI and the East-West Link have the potential to unlock the economic potential of this important part of Auckland [Onehunga, Tamaki, Mt Wellington].
“I have asked the NZ Transport Agency to work with Auckland Transport and report back to me about which elements of AMETI and the East-West Link should be brought forward with additional funding.
“This work will be completed in December, and I expect that the Government will make funding decisions in the first quarter of 2014.”
One of Spider's girlfriends (he has lots) informs us that officials at Auckland Transport are pushing Option 4 (see map below) of the possible routes. The beauty of Option 4 is that it doesn't go through a National MP's electorate although we wonder how many Onehunga residents realise that wee diamond on the Onehunga foreshore actually covers an area twice the size of the Southern Motorway/SH20 interchange at Manukau. The more mysterious aspect of Option 4 is that it appears to be answering a question no one has asked.

At this point we do need to declare an interest: the big black line in the map above goes over the top of our house. Literally. So we are taking it kinda personally.

But it's not just us. If you take the above map and compare it to a map of Mangere you'll notice the following:
  • the black blob on the left (black blobs are a "full road interchange") covers a good portion of Mangere Central park (in an area short of recreation facilities). If SH20A is widened it will also take out bits of other parks in the area.
  • it will also take out housing to the west of Robertson Road. Robertson Road is home to several schools and we can only assume that some of the children who attend them live south of where the big black line crosses over.
  • The black line then goes cheerfully over a big bunch of housing in Mangere. Apparently much of the housing is state housing so by putting a new motorway through in that modern 1950s sort of way, the government can give back to its road freight sector donors and say it is selling horrid old state houses to build new ones...somewhere. Sometime. What happens to these residents? Who knows? We suspect AT and the government are working on the basis that no one is that interested in the fate of dozens of low-income families with extremely limited options for resettlement.
  • Advancing west, the black line goes through some light industrial land but then proceeds slightly to the south of Mangere Road. The problem with this is that it goes over the top of Otahuhu College. We're sure it won't touch a hair on the head of next-door Kings College but Otahuhu College (a school with a role of about 1,300 students from some of the poorest areas in the region) is a goneburger under this plan.
  • The big black blob to the right looks like it will probably take out Wymondley Primary School. Again there are currently state houses down there but if they get bowled over then there won't be any need for a school.
  • The part of this that probably gets the transport boys (they're nearly all boys) terribly excited is the prospect of building a bridge over the Tamaki Estuary. Bridges are big and present engineering challenges. Whether or not they solve an actual transport problem doesn't seem to matter.
There's other aspects of the plan that are less than loveable but they're the main ones. And now, thanks to Gerry, people who may have lived in their sleepy suburbs for years face the very real prospect of an accelerated planning and consultation process. The fact that the New Zealand Transport Agency is dealing directly with AT cuts the Mayor and Council (and thus any meaningful democratic input) out of the process. The good news is National gets to deliver a major Auckland transport project to its mates before the 2014 election. It's deeply cynical pork-barrel politics, played out under the banner of solving a largely non-existent transport problem. Residents who find themselves with nowhere to go are just so much collateral damage here in the world's most liveable city.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The new work bonus: bringing beneficiaries greater results

It's no secret that National governments have never had much affection for the welfare state, especially this one and its 1990s predecessors. Something about how looking after the vulnerable means people don't turn into thrusting, money-making entrepreneurs who create wealth and avoid tax. It is notable that after 30 years these entrepreneurial thrusters have not emerged in their dozens, and certainly not in sufficient force to provide decent well-paid jobs for their fellow citizens.

Not to be deterred by the bleeding obvious, this National government have over the last several years gutted the welfare system. This shredding of the social safety net has been marketed as concern for a nebulous group known as 'vulnerable children'. The government has never defined a 'vulnerable' child and has made this more difficult for itself by treating the measurement of child poverty as something of a joke.

Minister of Finance Bill English is adamant that reducing the incomes of the poorest will save the country squillions as the government works towards its goal of a balanced budget.

So it was somewhat surprising to see the Minister of Social Development in parliament on the 31st of July that saying that as a result of the reforms the government "would expect to get greater results for New Zealanders and their families". This is curious: I went to a talk given by a frontline community worker this week and she was firmly of the view that the results for New Zealand families she is seeing are the worst they have been since the early 1990s. Then there was the usual boasting about something called the "investment approach" which is, as far as anyone can see, about getting people into any sort of unsuitable job and ticking a few boxes. But mostly we were surprised to learn about something called "a new work bonus for those who choose to move into work sooner than required". Hot diggity dog! So why aren't feckless sole parents flooding into the streets to take up jobs flipping burgers till midnight?

Because the new work bonus is somewhat enigmatic. Oh yeah, and in keeping with this government's stingy approach to the poor, it's, well, stingy. 

The first thing we had trouble with was finding it in the latest Social Security amendment act. It transpires that it's not there. There's a raft of sections on stuff the government considers important such as drug testing beneficiaries but nothing about a work bonus. So we went to the WINZ website where we did eventually manage to find it hidden away in a dusty corner. According to the website, the relevant legislation is section 24(1)(d) of the Social Security Act 1964. But this section is a generic section concerning money payable from the Crown bank account, and was not amended under the 2013 amendment act. In fact section 124(1)(d) hasn't been amended since 1998. So for a layperson (ie most of us) the legal basis for this payment is unclear (although the Act does say "any money that may be appropriated by Parliament for the purpose of granting special assistance under any welfare programme established and approved by the Minister..." so that's probably good enough). But this also means if Paula or a future Minister changes their mind, it can be whipped away. But while interesting to a particular sort of legal mind, this begs the question of how much better off sole parents who go back to work before they have to will be. And the answer, gentle reader, is not much. Here's the rates (again from the WINZ website) (note this is a non-taxable allowance):
Sole parent support

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Sole parent $295.37 $195.37 $95.37 Nil Nil Nil

Supported living payment

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Single, 16 - 17 years $208.58 $108.58 Nil Nil Nil Nil
Single, 18+ years $257.75 $157.75 $57.75 Nil Nil Nil
Sole parent $338.60 $238.60 $138.60 $38.60 Nil N
Married, civil union or de facto couple (with or without children) $429.58 $329.58 $229.58 $129.58 $29.58 Nil

Each $214.79 $164.79 $114.79 $64.79 $14.79 Nil

Beneficiaries! Throw off the shackles of dependency, start working earlier than you might have otherwise, and reap the rewards! In the case of a sole parent that's enough for a couple of outfits from Slappers 'R' Us and a couple of weeks train fare in the likely event you have to commute.

But there's something else going on here.
Supported Living Payment is for people who are not able to work because they are:
  • permanently and severely restricted in their capacity for work because of health condition, injury, or disability or totally blind or
  • caring for a person who requires full-time care and attention at home.
In other words they are the ones least likely to find work or are already working looking after someone else. But fear not. This is not as pointless as it seems because an unremarked feature of the new Act is that work and other so-called social obligations not only apply to beneficiaries, they apply to their partners as well. Yes, it's all very nasty and has no policy justification; certainly this government has never produced any.

Will any of this make vulnerable children less vulnerable? We doubt it. Because none of it addresses the more fundamental issues of low income, lack of employment and, often, poor housing and transience. It's just another sign of how out-of-touch this government is with the needs of thousands of low-income New Zealand families and children.

At the party pill march

Of course Spider demanded to go on the march against using animals to test party pills. Naturally he feels quite strongly that anything that contributes so little to the wellbeing of humanity and dogdom cannot possibly justify using dogs as experimental subjects. And he (and us) is very disappointed that only one person in parliament agreed.

A fellow SPCA dog along for the march.

Here's the security detail keeping a watch for unwarranted spies.

Spider and friends. Any time's good for a cuddle.

 It's not just dogs. It's bunnies, mice, rats, guinea pigs, cats and other warm- and cold-blooded animals. Shameful, really.

This is a black and tan coon hound. Not common in these parts but more common in the US. That's a rescue greyhound he's hanging out with. Yay, rescue dogs.

Spider the circus dog has a sit down to recover from the excitement.
Big ups to the organisers and the several thousand people who turned up at short notice to march on a weekday.