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Viv Beck: Covid 19 coronavirus is an opportunity for Auckland

Thursday 9 Apr 2020

Published in the New Zealand Herald on 9 April 2020. 

Watching a city come to a standstill is surreal and disturbing in equal measure. The reasons for doing so on March 25 were crystal clear, but it was a mammoth and heart-wrenching task for everyone, not least the businesses forced to shut up shops and dreams in a very short space of time.

Challenging as a situation with no rulebook is, some positives are emerging. Smart cities embrace collaboration. Whatever concerns still linger about border control and testing, there have been some good examples of business working with government through these issues. This is a perfect time for Auckland Council to show it too can adapt and offer contemporary leadership through and beyond a crisis.

As the business association charged with fostering the city centre as a successful place to do business, a vibrant place for international visitors and students, and an interesting place to live, Covid-19 has "threat" written all over it. There is reason to be concerned as the city centre's fundamentals are shaken, not least because this concentrated area delivers 20 per cent of Auckland's GDP. Furthermore, an economic and social shock of this scale is not just a city centre issue – it also contributes about $100m of rates to the rest of the region annually.

Heart of the City has been closely monitoring Covid-19 impacts since early February. We tracked the impact on spend and pedestrian counts and could see the devastating tsunami that was hitting city centre traders. Herald business writer Aimee Shaw wove together a story of the reality for city centre businesses who watched foot traffic drop from about 40,000 customers a day on Queen St to barely any as we spoke through the days between the level 2 and level 4 lockdown.

Along with others, we have been engaging with senior government officials from MSD and MBIE for many weeks. They wanted to understand the impacts on business and what support could best be provided. These discussions have had results. One early recommendation was a wage subsidy to support businesses through this period – that was implemented and the cap was removed after more feedback from businesses.

Heart of the City has continued to advocate for rent relief, which must be addressed in a way that considers the needs of business and landlords so we have a strong framework for the economy to build from in the post-crisis phase. This has taken longer than we hoped, given the stress it is causing businesses but we understand an announcement is due soon.

As well as work we have under way to consider recovery and longer term issues and opportunities for a place that is being built for lots of people, we are also engaging with government officials about online shopping.

This is a way to stimulate the economy and avoid the current confusion over what you can and can't buy online, as long as health parameters are met. Getting construction moving again while the city is quiet would also be a positive stimulus and there are examples of how this can be done while meeting health criteria.

Auckland Council could do some things right now to bring down its borders and strengthen its response.

The council should welcome scrutiny in its crisis and recovery decision-making, whether it comes internally or externally. The Covid-19 Emergency Committee set up to ask questions of government as decisions are made in real time is an interesting yardstick. So far, this looks to be improving results, not hindering progress.

It should broaden its catchment of ideas. This situation calls for bold, lateral thinking to ensure the right actions are taken now to shape what will be a different city centre in future.

The council needs to collaborate. Co-design principles applied in High Street should be applied to rebuilding our city centre.

And it should reinvent itself. Other businesses need to adapt, innovate and think creatively about how they will survive and thrive. Council must do this too - leadership matters now more than ever.

To fully achieve an ultimately positive and productive future, which is eminently possible, we need central and local government, the private and not-for-profit sectors working together for the benefit of our country and the people in it. Mayor Phil Goff – this is a golden chance for you.

View from H&M to Queen Street and Customs Street in Auckland's city centre. Image: Heart of the City