Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Editorial: Study tour necessary but flawed

Representatives of Auckland City need, from time to time, to go on study tours overseas. In the quest to make this a first-class city, there is much to be gained from the insight and inspiration provided by international comparisons.

Unfortunately, there is no great benefit to be derived from cheaper visits to the likes of Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. The extent of Auckland's problems, the size of its potential, and the scale of several looming projects make globetrotting unavoidable.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that councillors Vern Walsh and Penny Sefuiva are off on an overseas study tour. The council, they say, needs to be ready for the likes of rugby's World Cup in 2011 and a possible America's Cup defence, and to develop an appreciation of what successful waterfront and Aotea Square upgrades could involve. They could do better, though, than characterise their trip as an "intellectual capacity-building tour". Phrases such as that generally are an attempt to disguise a lack of substance. Closer examination of their itinerary suggests that is certainly so in this case.

In four weeks, the two councillors, accompanied by two council officials, are visiting a bewildering array of waterfronts, art galleries, museums and sports stadiums in North America and Europe. They will even, for reasons that are not readily apparent, visit the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov, a world heritage site in the Czech Republic. That one stop-off highlights the peculiarity and irrelevance of much of the tour. For every point inspected that has an obvious connection to Auckland - the successful waterfront development in Vancouver, for instance - there is one that is difficult to justify.

The grand terminology the councillors attach to their tour is not the only reason to suspect that even they are uncomfortable with its length and breadth. Why else would they keep it under wraps? For three weeks, the Herald sought details from the council. All it received was a sketchy outline, with a declaration that the councillors would receive a $150-a-night accommodation allowance. Only late in the piece was it conceded the group would, in fact, stay in hotels.

Now that, belatedly, the details have been released, it is possible to assess its likely value. Obviously, there are serious question-marks. Indeed, what is suggested, above all else, is that such tours should, in the main, be the domain of officials, not councillors. There is little point, for example, in the Walsh-Sefuiva team meeting 2007 World Cup officials in Paris to discuss planning at the Stade de France. Auckland's staging of the event four years later is simply too distant for the pair to be confident they will still be on the council. A trip to Valencia to talk with the Team New Zealand yachting squad is even more will-o'-the-wisp, given that we are yet to see if the team's new boat is fast enough to mount a strong challenge.

There is a far greater likelihood that officials occupying senior seats in the council bureaucracy will be around in the long term. And, because they are not captive to the three-year electoral cycle, they can also take a broader perspective of what will work best for Auckland. It is they who councillors must often rely on, as a matter of course, for judgment and insight before they sign off development schemes. It is they who provide the best return to Auckland from study tours such as this.

The shortcomings of this trip should not be a catalyst for the reining in of such ventures. Auckland needs to draw the best from successful overseas developments. But it needs to do it in a way that does not involve unnecessary expense and leave the suspicion that ratepayers are providing an inflated junket.

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