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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. [Volume 39, Number 19, 1976.]

The People versus The Council

page 4

The People versus The Council

Some time ago, back in the days when the motorcar was praised as King, the Wellington City Council conceived of the Victoria Street Extension plan. A road was to run from Victoria Street to Abel Smith Street and beyond, via Farish, Herbert and Sturdee Sts and Cumberland Place.

Opposition to the crazy idea of inviting more cars and vehicles to pound through the central city, was raised in 1975. The "Victoria St. Action Group" organised public meetings and a petition. There was clear public opposition to the plan but Council decided to go ahead anyway.

Recently a new group called the "Herbert St. Mall Committee" joined the opposition, and proposed a viable alternative: the Herbert Street Mall. Plans were drawn up, sketches published by the Post and Dominion, submissions made to the Council's Town Planning Committee.

A public meeting conveyed a resolution against the plan and favouring the alternative development of the entire Herbert St - Edward St- Wellington Settlement area as a pedestrian-dominated cultural and social centre.

A Radio Windy talkback revealed powerful public opposition to the plan: of all the callers only Mayor Fowler spoke in favour! And the switchboards were jammed.

All this to no avail. Council decided by 10 votes to 6 to proceed with the road. The following is not a detailed story of what has happened, but describes a few of the problems we, the action groups, struck, and which mystified us at the time. Hope they'll be useful to other groups, and also hope any students interested in opposing the plan will leave their names and phone numbers at Salient.

1. Fowler defined the issue in such terms as made his argument appear reasonable. Defining the issue is an important but often overlooked way of exercising power. One of Fowler's methods was to say "We as a Council have done much to help the pedestrian in Wellington", then shoot of a list of things Council hadn't done. The aim to draw us into a bargaining game: we'd concede some areas to the cars and he'd concede some to the people. Unfortunately for us, he'd already made his concessions—some years ago - so we'd already lost! That is, on his terms we'd lost. But why should Fowler be able to attack the merits of our proposal, a Herbert St Mall, on the basis of Councils negative "achievements" in other areas. His whole task was to ignore the merits of our argument, to define the issue so as he did define the issue so as he didn't have to answer us on the merits.

2. The Council's principles are quite different from its actions. For example, Fowler's memo on the Victoria St Extension says (try to follow the logic!):

(1) 'The overriding concern which Council had and still has is to lessen the throughput of traffic in the inner City area, i.e. the traversing of the established street pattern by North/ South traffic".

This is our thought exactly. But, lower down:

(2) "....it is quite apparent that the main generator of traffic from the Hutt Valley is the desire to get into the central business district for business purposes and servicing".

This is exactly the opposite of our argument. Fowler agrees with our principles but will concede them away to "business" and "servicing" interests at the slightest hesitation.

3. Fowler - motivated by political interest, not logic.

Arguing with Fowler is like arguing with (you guessed it!) a brick wall. He constantly praises and agrees with your argument, then reaches the precisely wrong conclusion. This is frustrating - it seems inexplicable. But it becomes explicable as soon as you stop assuming that he's arguing logically, and start suspecting that he's serving politcal interests. Fowler wants the road because Cuba Mall businessmen want it. They fear that, unless the Victoria St Extension goes through, Cuba Mall will have to be opened to North/South traffic. The Mall has been a boomer for business, and these businessmen support the Citizens Party (remember those blue and white Fowler posters in the Mall during the 1974 local body election campaign - the Mall supports Citizens). They obviously expect Fowler to support them. Now, we don't think there's sufficient need for any new north/south road, not Cuba St and not Victoria St. But you can't convince the wary Mall businessmen of that. So Fowler has to support the Extention, and he has think up some plausible justifications. His 'reasons' are not reasons but justifications for the unjustifiable, and thats why he's consistently changing his grounds, and why his grounds are illogical.

4. The Citizens Party can be embarrassed.

A most puzzling (to the unfamiliar) aspect of Council Meetings is the "musical chairs" phenomonen. During a single evening, numberous "Citizens" will remove their arses from their chairs and walk out the door vaguely muttering about "my peripheral interest" in this matter. They have many property interests in town, for example. Cr Spry owns the Spry Building in Farish St. It's value will be considerably enhanced if the Victoria Street Extension succeeds (the Spry Building will be by-passed-not demolished). Cr Spry is a firm supporter of the Extension, and interestingly he didn't abstain from the vole about that very same Extension at the Council meeting of July 14. There is nothing corrupt or scandalous about this. Its just an aspect of our free-enterprise democracy. But its interesting.

5. We had trouble finding "experts" to speak on our behalf-not because they disagreed with us - they agreed, but worked for local and central government departments thus considered they couldn't safely speak out. It is necessary to have expert, e.g. architect and town planning people to speak on your behalf against the Council, because basically the Council has far better resources than the citizen group. So it's frustrating, when you find a "free expert (i.e. one whom you don't pay), to find that he's prevented from having his name mentioned in the press.

These are just a few of the problems we were mystified by. The use of the word "mystified" is deliberate. For example, the Council's argument really could sound convincing when the Council framed the issue. And the fact that its "reasons" were illogical was baffling - until we perceived that logic was not their motive. It was only the justification, the afterthought. If nothing else, we discovered for ourselves some of the subtle ways in which power is exercised in our community.

John McBride,

"Herbert St. Mall Committee"