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2013-07-28-Bob-Edit-2After I arrived at prop­erty investor Bob Jones’s Lamb­ton Quay office, he first had to take me to his bal­cony to point out the ter­rible job people do on high-rise office façades. Sat­is­fied he’d made his point, he poured us each a mid-after­noon glass of red and lit his pipe to smoke with the few breaths he took dur­ing the col­our­ful inter­view that fol­lowed. Below is a heav­ily abridged ver­sion of a con­ver­sa­tion that covered everything from loc­al gov­ern­ment reform, to what sort of growth Wel­ling­ton does and does not need, water fea­tures in Seoul, and Sir Bob’s pen­chant for pav­ing. As always, the first word was from Jones:

I’m not much use to you, look­ing at the vague­ness of these ques­tions. 

We’ll see. What do you think’s going right and wrong in Wel­ling­ton at the moment?

Politi­cians, ambas­sad­ors and seni­or gov­ern­ment depart­ment per­son­nel are forced to live in Wel­ling­ton. Every­one else chooses to. That stark fact alone should suf­fice to put an end to the absurd recent out­break of hand­wringing about the capital’s future. It began with Sir Geoff Palmer’s dooms­day­ing last year and was reignited by a money-trader’s (cur­rently and inev­it­ably tem­por­ar­ily, the Prime Min­is­ter) glib remark that Wel­ling­ton is dying. If we’re done for, then what hope for Duned­in, Timaru, Mas­ter­ton, Napi­er et al?

But we’re not. Indeed, to the con­trary, life is bowl­ing along hap­pily for the vast major­ity of us. As for any whom it’s not, whatever their prob­lems, for sure they won’t be solved by chan­ging cit­ies or coun­tries, but noth­ing is stop­ping them doing so any­way. That said, arising from this out­break of des­pair in some quar­ters (led by the Domin­ion Post) there’s been a mixed bag of ‘solu­tions’ proffered.

Can you talk about these ‘solu­tions’?

We must have high­er growth,” cry some. “We need a full-length air­port,” argue oth­ers. “The may­or is hope­less and must be replaced by a busi­ness/­con­ven­tion­s/­tour­ism-pro­mot­ing dynamo,” say yet oth­ers. “A super­city as in Auck­land should be our mod­el,” cry some, albeit this led by the two most likely super­city may­or­al can­did­ates. And inter­spers­ing all of this, an infant­ile envy-based abuse of boom­ing Auck­land. If that’s what you want, then shift there I say to the woe-is-us clam­our­ers, which always leads to an anti-Auck­land tirade and a lec­ture on their love of Wellington.

Let’s con­sider all of these urgings. First growth. What sort of growth, I ask some of the more pub­li­cised pro­ponents? Do you want more people? They’re vague about that. Of course fall­ing pop­u­la­tions have dis­astrous eco­nom­ic effects but our pop­u­la­tion is not fall­ing, rather it’s simply not rising as fast as Auck­land. Well nor is Sydney’s or Brisbane’s or Adelaide’s or Melbourne’s, but so what!

Is it more industry you want, I ask? Again, vague responses, more so when I fol­low up enquir­ing would they be happy if we shif­ted down here all of Auckland’s main indus­tri­al activ­it­ies (primar­ily in South Auck­land) and, of asso­ci­ated neces­sity, their low-income employ­ees. Most Auck­landers would cheer their depar­ture, bid­ding farewell to the accom­pa­ny­ing crime and social prob­lems. Be grate­ful that Auck­land bears this burden.

We want high-salary brain indus­tries, the growth advoc­ates then say. Well so does every­one, but you can’t force them to come. We should height­en tour­ism they argue, claim­ing it brings money into the city and cre­ates jobs. Really?! So you want to increase our pop­u­la­tion of waiters, hotel maids, bus drivers and oth­er low-paid meni­al work­ers and some­how this will enhance Wel­ling­ton, for that is where tour­ist rev­en­ue, such as it is, largely goes.


What about the air­port extension?

If we had a prop­er inter­na­tion­al air­port we’d attract more Asi­an stu­dents,” is anoth­er cry. Let us assume that is true, although I doubt it, but tell me why, say, anoth­er 5,000 Chinese stu­dents will some­how enhance the city, apart indis­put­ably, on the aes­thet­ic front with the girls. Since when have stu­dents been big spenders?

Busi­nesses will start up here, the inter­na­tion­al air­port pro­ponents then claim. Really?! I struggle to com­pre­hend why a 50-minute flight would be such a make-or-break factor. It’s cer­tainly not else­where in the world, few cit­ies hav­ing major inter­na­tion­al airports.

Thoughts on the supercity?

Again, I hardly see that it mat­ters. Auckland’s explos­ive growth needed a single cent­ral man­age­ment to deal with the issues arising from that expan­sion. We don’t have those problems.

As the cap­it­al, Wel­ling­ton is by defin­i­tion an admin­is­tra­tion city. I look down the ten­ancy lists of my company’s 14 CBD build­ings and see that reflec­ted, not just with gov­ern­ment depart­ments and embassies, but also numer­ous nation­al body headquar­ters, drawn here because it’s the cap­it­al, plus our cent­ral loc­a­tion. Des­pite the efforts of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, the bur­eau­cracy will con­tin­ue to grow because demo­cracy always means bur­eau­cracy as ever more polit­ic­al expendit­ure prom­ises are made, and indeed, deman­ded from the politi­cians by voters. That said, growth undoubtedly raises liv­ing stand­ards, but let it be qual­it­at­ive and not quant­it­at­ive in its nature. We can attract more high-income brain activ­it­ies by increas­ing the city’s appeal in diverse ways, although it must be said, it’s got heaps going for it already. But try­ing to force the pace will prove fool’s gold. Much more of this des­pair, and I’ll be shift­ing to Auck­land myself to be amidst positivity.

What would you do if you were mayor?

Look, I’ll tell you about cit­ies all over the world. I’ve been here, there and every­where. Of course, through­out Bri­tain now, everything’s paved. Everything’s paved, it’s fant­ast­ic. The whole of Britain’s been pedestrianised.

The fact that Lamb­ton Quay is paved – it prob­ably wouldn’t be now if I hadn’t bul­lied Kerry Pren­der­gast con­stantly. We’ve got these three office build­ings in Feath­er­ston Street. I wanted to put tiling down, but of course it’s their pave­ments. I said, “Well we’ll pay for it.” It was about 20, 25 grand a pop. It makes such a dif­fer­ence. You go to a town like Rotorua, beau­ti­fully done, all paved, gar­dens and things, it’s just beautiful.

2013-07-28-Bob-Edit-24            That fel­low – writes let­ters to the Domin­ion Post now and again. He came down to see us, and he said, “You’re not going to do it because it’ll look too good.” We thought he was tak­ing the mickey, but he wasn’t, he was ser­i­ous. He said, “It’ll detract from Lamb­ton Quay.” That’s when the may­or was good. She came down, and we did it. Now it’s all been done, only through my con­stant bul­ly­ing of Kerry. She was receptive.

Now in Auck­land, the same sort of thing arose and the coun­cil were very grate­ful that we were pre­pared to do this. When the may­or­alty changed in both cit­ies in the last elec­tion, as soon as Len Brown took over, he was ringing my Auck­land office want­ing to arrange to meet me. Why? He wanted to get our views on the city plan.

Finally when he came he said, “I’ve only got half an hour.” He stayed sev­en hours. We all got pretty tiddly. The reas­on I wanted him there was because in one of our build­ings, we’re up there on about the 21st or 23rd floor or some­thing, and we look over the whole city. I said, “Len, what they’re pro­pos­ing to do is pav­ing the whole bloody town.”

We’ve got incred­ible nat­ur­al advant­ages here and I’m inter­ested in cit­ies, because our main street bends and bends and bends. I’ve seen tour­ists out there. I’ve seen Japan­ese and Amer­ic­ans, tak­ing pho­to­graphs. It has a Man­hat­tan feel, because it bends. You can stand on Lamb­ton Quay and it just looks grand. Every­where there’s all these dif­fer­ent build­ings. To the layper­son they look good. For some­body who knows about it, I know they’re crap in most cases. But that doesn’t mat­ter, they look good.

Now, Queen Street [in Auck­land] is a single long, straight street. Under it is a river. Len was going to Korea, and I said, “You look what they’ve done in Seoul.” They’ve had the same thing. Slop­ing main street. They pulled the stream up, they had it bub­bling down, little water­falls, ponds with trout in them, garden seats, little bridges going over here and there. It’s beau­ti­ful. I said, “There’s one option.”

The oth­er, he’d nev­er heard of it. Have you heard of El Alamein foun­tain in King’s Cross in Sydney? We threw it up on the com­puter for him. I said “Ima­gine that every 50 yards.” They’re incred­ibly recept­ive: they said, “Oh, it’s a great idea”.

Auckland’s got a lot of dis­ad­vant­ages com­pared with us. For a start, it’s extremely hilly, the CBD. Queen Street comes down, the top half is quite steep, it still goes all the way down to the sea. Then it slopes up both sides very, very steeply. But Christ they’re doing some good things. They’re going to pave the whole bloody lot, everything, downtown.

I’ll give you an example. Kirks [Kirk­c­al­die & Stains], which we now own the build­ing, com­plete halfwits. This goose that was the CEO, he said, “Our people like to park out­side.” I said, “You can’t park out­side, it’s a bus stop.” But he chanted again. You won’t have that in Auck­land. Auckland’s full of get up and go people. We’ve so many nat­ur­al advantages.

So many nat­ur­al advant­ages.” You sound like Gareth Mor­gan – any thoughts on him?

Cur­rently he’s in North Korea work­ing on uni­fic­a­tion. I assume once he’s achieved that he will then quickly move on and resolve once and for all, the India–Pakistan stand-off, which I ima­gine – giv­en his all-encom­passing tal­ents – won’t take him very long, then he can move on again and reach set­tle­ment between the Israel­is and Palestini­ans. After that, he can act as medi­at­or and sort out the oppos­ing parties in Syr­ia and then Egypt. Doubt­less he will be offered the Nobel Peace Prize, but being a mod­est sort of chap who shuns the lime­light, I ima­gine he will turn it down.


Jones Gems


On Celia Wade-Brown: “I think the death knell for this may­or, for me, was when she rode her cycle out to meet Hil­lary Clin­ton. I mean that’s not just wet, that is the Amazon in flood. That is unbe­liev­able sat­ur­a­tion.” 

On Nic­ola Young: “Nic­ola is a very cap­able woman; don’t judge her by her oth­er sisters.”

On the big earth­quake: “Wel­ling­ton has got this earth­quake thing hanging over it, but for Chris­sakes, I think there’s a bit of hyper­bole about that.”

On low-wage job cre­ation: “The factor­ies in South Auck­land, with the accom­pa­ny­ing low labour and social prob­lems and crim­in­al prob­lems and that, they can have it.”

On the Ger­man Prime Min­is­ter: “Bloody Merkel, she was elec­ted for her beauty, by Ger­man standards.

On wheel­chair access and ramps: “The amount of costs on this coun­try to accom­mod­ate wheel­chair bug­gers, in the build­ings… I’ve nev­er seen any­one in a wheelchair.”

On packed open-plan offices: “Open-plan offices. I’m depressed for days after I see them. I think you should be march­ing school kids through these things. Your bloody head in some girl’s groin. Their bod­ies are touch­ing one anoth­er. It’s pathetic.”

On wheth­er blondes will be extinct in 50 years: “Everyone’s pil­ing on to every­one… bio­lo­gic­ally the blondes will be bred out.”

On cat erad­ic­a­tion:I have a detest­a­tion for con­ser­vat­ism in any form… I tried to talk Helen into wip­ing out the con­ser­va­tion depart­ment… “Oh, they’re not nat­ive”, well neither are these bloody con­ser­va­tion buggers.”

On Fish­Head: “Quite a nice-look­ing publication.”


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