Bryce Edwards
Democracy Project
Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

Dissatisfaction with the Wellington City Council has hit new highs. The Council has just released the results of its annual survey of residents, which shows just how much discontent there is in the city. Overall, Wellingtonians seem to feel that the city is broken and its political leaders are dysfunctional or not interested in making the right decisions for the city.

The primary survey statistic of interest in the Residents Monitoring Survey is the one that asks Wellingtonians for their view of the City Council’s performance. In last year’s survey, 45 per cent indicated they were dissatisfied (versus 33 per cent satisfied), but this year the dissatisfaction rate has jumped to 56 per cent, with only 29 per cent being satisfied with council performance.

Furthermore, 50 per cent of Wellingtonians are dissatisfied with the Council’s decision-making processes, compared to just 20 per cent who are satisfied.

Wellington is broken

There’s plenty of other negative feedback from residents in the latest survey. While it used to be common for 95 per cent of Wellingtonians to agree that “Wellington is a great place to live, work and play”, this has dropped again this year – from 79 per cent last year to just 73 per cent in 2024.

Likewise, the percentage of people who agreed with the statement “I feel a sense of pride in the way Wellington looks and feels” was 82 per cent in 2020, but it has dropped to a new low of just 50 per cent. Similarly, although a few years ago 88 per cent of Wellingtonians thought “Wellington’s city centre is lively and attractive,” this has plummeted to just 37 per cent.

Regarding key issues like the ease of using public transport to get around the city, the satisfaction rates are still meager – just 58 per cent (but higher than the 38 per cent figure last year when the major bus services disruptions occurred). But evaluations of the ability to drive around the city continue to trend downwards – they used to be 51 per cent, but they have dropped again this year to just 34 per cent.

The ease of cycling around the city is also very low in Wellington – with only 41 per cent being satisfied. But this has increased considerably from the 17 per cent low in 2022. Given the considerable resources put into cycle lanes, it’s interesting that the improved perception isn’t much higher.

Wellington City Council responds

The Wellington City Council is treating the latest survey as good news. The Council’s press release and survey summary highlight the more positive aspects or ways to read the results. Mayor Tory Whanau has celebrated that there are some aspects in which respondents indicate satisfaction or positivity.

For example, Whanau draws attention to “the Council’s work to be a bilingual city by 2040”, with survey respondents identifying that this is taking place. Whanau says: “73 per cent of people also recognised Maori culture and reo was visible at Council facilities, and just under 70 per cent believed culture and te reo Maori was recognised and visible across the city.”

As to all the discontent, Whanau spins the line that “Poneke is going through a huge transformation”, suggesting that people are just reacting negatively to change but will soon see the advantages of her reforms. As to the unhappiness about the political process – in the survey, 38 per cent complain that the Council doesn’t listen to residents – Whanau indicates that this will be solved with experimentations in citizens assemblies and a new ethnic advisory council.

The Council has pushed back on the issue of 43 per cent of Wellingtonians being concerned about personal safety in the central city. Councillor Iona Pannett told the Post [last week] that she lived in the inner city and felt safe, and suggests that residents’ perceptions of crime were out of sync with reality. Similarly, the Council’s press release points to Police statistics showing that although crime is increasing in Wellington, it’s worse in other cities.

Iona Pannett also turned the crime issue into something of a culture war one, saying the problem wasn’t the council’s failure or related to the housing crisis: “Our problems in the city are not because of poor lighting or homeless people, they’re because of booze culture, misogyny, homophobia, and racism.”

Others on the Council appear more ready to listen to the negative survey results. Tim Brown was reported to believe that the council needed to do more work to regain the public’s trust. Ben McNulty – one of the councillors leading the campaign against the sale of airport shares, said he wasn’t surprised about the negative results and took them seriously: “This survey puts all 16 elected members on notice that we are fundamentally not meeting the expectations of the city we represent.” Similarly, councillor Tony Randle is reported by the Post saying the survey showed “this city is on the wrong track and residents know it”.

Wellington’s Long Term Plan passed but with significant dissent

There’s been some suggestion that the Council leadership held back from releasing the survey results until after the council voted on Wellington’s highly contentious Long-Term Plan. This was passed last week by a margin of 9–7, with the political left side of the council bitterly divided.

Councillor Diane Calvert said today that the survey results should have been released to councillors before they made their final decision on the Long Term Plan. The discontent might have shifted some councillors to reconsider, especially those on the left who voted for the plan despite the unpopular airport privatisation element.

Calvert has become one of the biggest critics of Whanau and her closest councillors. [Recently], she penned a scathing opinion piece for the Post titled “Wellington’s a city on the brink.” In it, she points out that some big spending projects have caused spending to go up from $570m in 2020 to $912m this year, producing a debt of up to $8100 per Wellingtonian, while serious infrastructure upgrades such as water pipes are ignored.

According to Calvert, the problem is a political one, in which the Council operates too secretively, frequently breaks promises, and needs more accountability.

Much of this came to a head [recently] when a decision was required on the Mayor’s Long-Term Plan proposal, which some on the left of the council were in rebellion over – mostly because it involved selling the Council’s ownership of the local airport.

Joel MacManus of the Spinoff covered the council session and pointed out how divided the left of the council had become: “It was the ugliest meeting I’ve ever seen. There were anger, insults, outrage, councillors talking over each other and a jeering crowd of protestors. The chaos of the Andy Foster years was a tough act to follow, but this meeting managed to outdo it by a country mile. There has always been political division in Wellington local body politics, but now it is deeper, more complex, and personal.”

Ben McNulty particularly challenged Whanau and her supporters on Council, announcing at the meeting: “Today is the beginning of the end of a number of political careers… This long term plan is a political obituary.” He then conveyed that leftwing activists would de-select or campaign against those that he portrayed as betraying their supporters. Similarly, his colleague Nureddin Abdurahman denounced Whanau’s plan as “undemocratic, crappy, sugar-coated poison”.

Due to the level of dysfunction and division, some are calling for the Central Government to intervene, either inserting a “Crown Observer” or even dismissing the Council in favour of appointees. The signs are, however, that the Local Government Minister Simeon Brown is entirely reluctant to do so (yet).

Newstalk ZB broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan explained Brown’s reticence [recently]: “He should let WCC do an undeniable job of wetting itself in public first. The catastrophe should be beyond doubt and he should appear forced to intervene. Partly, that’s because his party, National, has made a big play of letting local communities call their own shots. As dysfunctional as this council is, it is what the local community voted for.”

She argues that the more the nation sees what a Green-Labour-dominated council looks like, the less likely they will want to vote to introduce such a “mistake” at the national level in 2026. But du Plessis-Allan concludes: “It’s just a pity Wellington ratepayers have to suffer that mistake.”

Will this be the death nail in the Mayor’s re-election campaign?

Wellington leftwing political commentator Dave Armstrong wrote [recently] that the local left was disenchanted with Whanau, as many leftwingers “see Whanau as a right-wing sell-out, with her support of water meters, the Reading Cinema deal, and the selling of the airport shares never mentioned during her mayoral campaign.”

However, Joel MacManus says this doesn’t mean Whanau won’t be re-elected next year. Although the Mayor has recently rejoined the Green Party, she might be able to position herself more to the right: “The centre is a very broad area, especially in local politics, where most people aren’t that engaged and their stances are fairly malleable. In Wellington, green-tinged centrism could be a winning formula. Whanau could mould herself into a business-friendly teal candidate who is pragmatic but still assuages voters’ concerns about climate change and social issues.”

It’s certainly true that, as mayor, Whanau has turned out to be much more business-friendly and aligned than might have been expected from a Green Party-endorsed mayor who had been Chief of Staff for her party when Jacinda Ardern was prime minister. Of course, much of the analysis of Whanau before she became mayor neglected to mention she had left the Beehive, walking through the revolving door of parliamentary politics into the business of corporate lobbying, working for Capital Government Relations, headed by lobbyists Neale Jones and now Ben Thomas.

It’s therefore not surprising that one of her key political-organisational tools in office has been to set up the “Mayoral Business Group” to regularly advise her on the needs and perspectives of large local property owners and employers.

It’s not clear how much this has helped. Other business leaders have recently been rather pessimistic about the state of the city. For example, Jessica Manins, the co-founder of the highly-successful video games studio Beyond, wrote on LinkedIn recently that in the past, “Wellington felt like the place to be if you were starting or scaling your business”, but “Now I only see tiny pockets existing in silos across the city… Many of us [are] considering new places to live and run our businesses because Welly has lost its edge.”

Reporting on this last week, BusinessDesk’s Peter Griffin asked: “Is Wellington still a great place to start up?” He suggested that the Mayor had taken her eye off the critical issues, and got “bogged down in contentious political issues, from the Golden Mile project to the future of the Reading Cinema complex”.

Such projects fell into serious trouble this year, and Whanau’s Reading deal has now been cancelled. She has, instead, been championing the new convention centre, Takina. But, this too, is turning into something of a white elephant. It was reported recently that the $180m project is struggling already, failing to meet the financial targets promised to Wellington. Takina’s business model is now being re-evaluated.  

One of the issues that Whanau is shaping up to fight is the idea of the Wellington councils amalgamating. It’s recently been proposed to unite Wellington City, Porirua, Hutt City, and Upper Hutt. The Post’s Tom Hunt reported discussions amongst the various mayors and council executives this week.

Whanau – who has said she’s planning on being Mayor of Wellington for three terms – says she’s opposed. In contrast, all the other mayors in the region appear to be in favour.

Arguments in favour of amalgamation suggest that economies of scale might be found in the Wellington region working together, reducing rates. Meanwhile, the rates bill has just gone up. As of Monday this week, Wellington City Council rates have gone up by an average of 18.5 per cent (or an additional $700).

Next year’s Residents Monitoring Survey is likely to reflect even more discontent because of this and the increasing meltdowns and dysfunction on the Council at the moment. However, the real survey will be next year’s local government elections, in which Wellingtonians will undoubtedly express their discontent by voting against the status quo.

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