After 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.
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.[info]
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.”[/info]