Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Owen McShane (1941-2012)

_MCSHANE3I was shocked to hear of the sudden death of Owen McShane yesterday.

In the last couple of years I know he had been suffering from an inherited heart condition, but while he still suffered bad health I didn't realise his end was nigh.

We had much to say to each other over the two decades I knew him, but we didn't always see eye to eye. Over the years we had many agreements, and many, many disagreements. Mostly about the Resource Management Act (RMA), for which he was a consultant and an early champion, and which to the end he argued had simply been "misinterpreted"; about town planners, on which he argued my plans for their enforced unemployment were too harsh; and about gin martinis--which everyone knows should be based on vodka!

I eventually agreed he could certainly make a very drinkable gin martini (but it took a few goes); and he reluctantly agreed that if the RMA could be as abused by power-lusters as it has been then maybe it wasn't such a good piece of law in the first place, and maybe there was something to be learned from common law after all.

On town planners we never really agreed at all. Perhaps because he once was one. In the far off days of the early seventies Owen was a planner at the (smaller) Auckland City Council, and had much to do with freeing up land around Freemans Bay (for which many a townhouse-dwelling Ponsonby-ite might now give thanks) and with promoting the "infill" sections that have allowed Auckland to play host to more people on the same-sized isthmus.

Owen's main public work in the last two decades was on the RMA. He wrote many reports on the RMA both for the Reserve Bank, proving beyond doubt the RMA's role in skyrocketing urban land prices; and for Environment Ministers, bravely pointing out the abuses occurring under the RMA before shamefully suggesting that tinkering with it would help.

For these latter reports he fell out with Lindsay Perigo among others, who claimed McShane was simply providing a convenient smokescreen for the Minister to tinker rather than toss out, for which sin (as many of you will recall) Perigo proceeded thereafter to refer to McShane as "McScam." 

That Owen was so clearly mistaken about the tinkering fixing anything hardly needs pointing out. But despite his sadness at being so labelled, and despite his own blind spot, in his latter days Owen remained a tireless battler at defending the rights of property owners under this execrable piece of legislation.

And despite our own disagreements, I think I can say he was a friend.

The RMA wasn't the only thing that got Owen excited.

He could be a very incisive commentator. His column ‘If the Stone Age had run out of rocks...’ on the fraud of so called “Peak Oil” contains the classic line that “the Oil Age will certainly end before we run out of oil. Just as the Stone Age ended long before we ran out of rocks.”It deserves (re)reading now. 

He was active with Augie Auer and others in setting up the skeptics' NZ Climate Science Coalition, which has set a serious cat amongst local warmist pigeons (and will soon be facing them in court!). That we now must talk about both the late Augie Auer and the late Owen McShane is very sad indeed for non-warmists.

And he had a very fine sense of good, liveable architecture.

In fact, I first met him 1995 or so ago when investigating a site for sale overlooking Piha. He was doing the same for himself, and discussing its potential it turned out my ideas for my client were similar to what he was thinking for himself. Rare enough.

I remember too one afternoon a couple of years ago walking around a subdivision on the Kaipara which he had developed, and on which he had built a few houses to set the tone. It was a quite magnificent achievement.  None of your kerb and channeling or picket fences--indeed, no fences at all. Privacy was maintained by careful planting and thought about sightlines, and there was much shared public space in the form of gardens, nooks, a jetty and a vineyard. None of your grandomania either--the houses, and the whole estate, were hard-working, humble and just very, very liveable.  Living with nature in a very sensible by low-impact fashion. It was architecture in the best sense of the word, i.e., as Frank Lloyd Wright had said, “making human life more natural and nature more humane,” and barred therefore from ever appearing in any glossy “starchitecture” magazines.

We had a few discussions over the years about what makes a good house, and I always recall in particular his thoughts on siting a house in the landscape, pointing out especially that a house should first be designed to look OUT, not to be looked AT.  On a post of mine about the magnificent ways in which traditional Japanese houses so managed so skilfully to practice this principle he wrote:

Notice how these houses all "look into" the garden and the view.
Sadly our fixation with cinerama views means that many people "look over" their garden to focus on the view.
I like to look for a section shaped like a cupped hand with the fingers pointing up. Drive down the thumb build the house in the palm look over the edge of your hand to the view but look into the curled fingers at your garden.
Simple model – but effective. Views are often static while your garden is changing every day. Garden to the north on an upwards slope and view to the west - for the sundowner.

For these and other observations, he will be greatly missed.

My thoughts go out to his wife Jenny and his family and friends.  And I will be making myself one of his gin martinis tonight in his honour.

PS:  National Business Review farewells its former columnist:

NB: Owen worked almost until the day he died.  Since he put so much into it, here is his last weekly missive, sent out last Friday on his networks:

Background: Why so much Dissent – at this time?

Recent ST Digests have drawn attention to the wave of dissent spreading throughout the Western World in response to the failed experiment in central planning at the local and regional level of Government. For some reason we have suffered decades of top-down local planning in spite of the total failure of central planning in economies as diverse as the Soviet Empire, Maoist China, and North Korea.

This wave has now become a flood and is attracting attention in all quarters.

During the property boom, triggered by the planners’ excessive regulation of land markets, and powered by the speculative bubble and lending, the rapid inflation in land prices allowed the planners to fund their excessive interventions and compliance costs, and of course their own salaries and fees, because the “speculators” and developers could absorb the costs.

But now the bubble has burst the real costs are being revealed. Worse, the drop in revenues means that Council budgets are now hopelessly out of kilter and the anticipated development contributions (fines) do not even fund the interest on the borrowings.

Remarkably, the typical response of Council administrators and their consultants has been too increase fees and charges to try and maintain the lifestyle to which they have become adjusted.

Of course, it doesn’t work any more than a retail store can increase revenues by increasing its prices. So the obvious solution was to raise the rates.

Suddenly, the ratepayers began to ask the hard questions and demanded to know why they should be expected to pay for other people’s profligacy.

A good question, and a hard one to answer. Especially when asked by all those pensioners on fixed incomes.

1. The Generic Problem – Amalgamation Compounded by the Powers of General Competence.

The current crisis in Local Government has two basic causes.

The first is the belief that bigger is always best. Whenever some local government creates a mess the immediate response is to propose amalgamation. But the end result is no more than a local authority considerably larger than the one whose problems have just proved too big for councils to deal with.

Dr Smith, the Minister for Local Government and the Environment, has recognized that Local Government is dysfunctional, drawing attention to the escalating rates and debt levels that are causing waves of discontent all around the country. These symptoms of widespread failure of are largely the result of the last round of amalgamations in 1989.

Councillors suddenly found themselves in charge of multi-million dollar organizations that demanded skills and experience well beyond their levels of competence. Since then, the Chief Executives (previously known as Town Clerks) have been able to exercise largely unbridled power.

Those problems were then compounded by the 2002 amendments to the Local Government Act that gave Councils the power of general competence.

This expansion of powers enabled already over-extended authorities to expand into new policies and activities totally outside their competence.

Their general incompetence has been demonstrated all around the country – as exemplified by the losses on V8 races, entertainment events, swimming pools, sewage schemes, arenas, and exploding levels of debt and rates. Project cost overruns became the norm as a councillors lost control of their staff, consultants and advisors.

The end result has been that most of our councils have been colonized by major corporations who are now busy exploiting the local “environment industry”. These consultancies regard our districts and cities as little more than well-funded ATM machines.

It’s time to take back control of our Councils and their Plans. Hopefully, Dr Smith’s proposed caps on borrowing and rates will restrain these excesses.

2. The Myth that Bigger is Better.

The routine response to any problem in local government is to propose amalgamation. The end result is a local authority considerably larger than the one whose problems have proved too big to deal with.

Dr Smith, the Minister for Local Government and the Environment, has recognized that Local Government is dysfunctional, drawing attention to the escalating rates and debt levels that are causing waves of discontent all around the country. These symptoms of widespread failure of are largely the result of the last round of amalgamations in 1989.

But sadly he is also launching a further round of amalgamation. For example, he is promoting the amalgamation of the Unitary Councils of Tasman and Nelson into a single Unitary Council. Kaipara District Council is in financial meltdown and so he has proposed similar amalgamations for Northland.

He says his general aim is to get rid of Regional Councils. However, his current proposals will actually get rid of Local Councils, leaving behind a few truly massive “Super-Regional Councils”. It will take 4.5 hours to drive from one end of the Tasman/Nelson Council to the other. The merged Kaipara-West and Far North Council would stretch from Kaipara Harbour’s North Head to Cape Reinga – another 4.5 hour drive.

This bias is understandable; Dr Smith is an engineer, and he instinctively focuses on the efficiency of regional services which do enjoy the benefits of scale.

But democracy enjoys no benefits of scale. Small local councils can be effectively governed by local citizens and managed by local staff and consultants who actually know their people and territory.

Many councils are in the midst of RMA plan reviews and any amalgamation means the millions of dollars invested in those plans must be written-off and the whole planning process, including Long Term and Annual Plans, begun again. Proposed reforms to the RMA will generate another round of plan reviews. This endless plan writing halts all development because of the consequent DURT (Delays, Uncertainties, Regulations, and Taxes).

This is the time to implement a comprehensive reform of the legislative framework for the whole of local government in New Zealand.

3. Small really is Beautiful.

The people of Switzerland place great emphasis on both efficiency and democracy. The average Swiss Commune (district council) has two thousand people. The average Canton (region) has 135,000 people. Switzerland is one of the most successful economies in the world.

Maybe small really is beautiful – and we “Power to the People” folk of the sixties had it right all along.

4. It’s Time to take our Councils Back.

Just prior to the last Local Body elections I wrote a pamphlet, widely distributed to the Residents and Ratepayers of Kaipara District called It’s Time to Take our Councils Back. Muriel Newman’s New Zealand Centre for Political Research here, has given me the opportunity to say “I told you so” on her Guest Forum here.

The company is excellent. Muriel’s own essay “The Need for Local Government Reform” and her husband Frank’s recommendations on “Regulatory Controls for Local Bodies” complement my commentary on how we got here, with some forthright recommendations for the future. Frank puts the blame squarely where it belongs. While KDC has its own sorry tale to tell, Frank makes a generic point about Central Government’s actions and intertia across the country when he writes:

The proper place for Kaipara to confess their errors and plead poverty is at the doors of central government. It is they and their agencies that have sat on their hands and watched Kaipara go deeper down the drain. Indeed the failings of central government to adequately oversee local government goes back as far as 2002 when it assumed councils were competent to handle the greater powers given to them with the reform of the Local Government Act in 2002.

Muriel reminds Government that no matter what is strives to achieve it will be defeated so long as Local Government is allowed to continue its spendthrift ways. She writes:

There are widespread problems with local government. At a time when central government is tightening its belt, striving to reduce debt and lower its costs, local government appears to be moving in the opposite direction. In contrast to households and farms, which have been reducing debt since the onset of the global recession in 2008, council debt has been on the rise with borrowings growing from $500 million in 2007, to $800 million in 2008, $1,100 million in 2009, and to $1,800 million in 2010....

5. Kaipara District Council – A case study.

Kaipara’s own Legal Eagle, (a retired Barrister and Solicitor) has been on the Kaipara Case for some time now, focusing on the illegal setting of rates and related charges. He has now been vindicated by an independent report by Simpson and Grierson. His latest report is here:

It’s hard to do justice to this collection of “concerns.” All I can do is strongly recommend readers set aside some time to read the whole sorry story.

In particular the total failure of the Government’s watchdogs to take any action in spite of all the evidence is thoroughly documented here:

6 When Councillors Dissent.

So far I have concentrated on the general conditions that have changed Council behaviour. There is much more to discuss in future Digests.

The general argument in this Digest has been that amalgamation and the extension of powers has meant that the tasks and responsibilities of Councils are now beyond the competence of their own councillors.

This is generally true but there are the exceptions that prove the rule. Bruce Logan and Bill Guest, both former Councillors of Kaipara District, had the necessary skills and moral fortitude to ask most of the hard questions and demand the necessary answers. Their efforts were not appreciated. Current Councillor Jonathan Larsen began raising the same issues during the election campaign and has continued to press for the necessary financial information, and legal opinions, to be presented to Council so as to allow them to properly make their decisions. His efforts have not been appreciated and indeed, he has effectively been prohibited from making any sensible contributions to Council’s decision making. (A future Digest will deal with this general failure of proper process – especially as it relates to the notification of the Proposed District Plan.)

At this stage it is best to let the “Workboot Councillor” tell his own story at his web page here.

In particular, the menu item Workboot Motions documents Cr. Larsen’s multitude of attempts to table notices of motions only to have the great majority of them “censored” or lost, or failed for want of a seconder.

This web page demonstrates that the web allows councilors elsewhere, who find themselves similarly silenced, or stripped of their portfolios and committee memberships, to speak directly to their electorate.

One can also only hope that those Kaipara Councillors who recorded their determination to remain uninformed are now having second thoughts.

We have to ask why the standards now applied to the Lombard Directors do not seem to apply to Councillors, who seem happy to work on the principle that “ignorance is bliss.”

7. Will We Ever Learn?

The planning theory of Smart Growth has proven to be one of the great failed experiments of all time. And yet many people continue to be seduced by the foolish concepts of “Dense Thinking” and “Compacted Cities”. (It does take some flexibility of thought to believe that serious congestion will be reduced by further intensification.)

Anyhow, for those who continue to be persuaded:

In his essay from "The New Blackwell Companion to the City", UK urbanist Richard Sennett argues that to create more habitable, vibrant cities, urban planners need to focus more on revitalisting life at the borders between communities: "The planning of the last century was hopeless at creating or promoting borderlands". Planners need to focus on the "living edge" of communities and on making the city a more open and flexible system"

From TLS February 10th 2012.

8. Indoctrinating our School Kids to make sure we Don’t

Bay of Plenty community leaders got down on the floor this morning to build their dream city using blocks and a giant floor map.

They were getting a hands-on look at a new teaching resource launched for high school students that looks at managing growth in the western Bay of Plenty.

'Managing Growth - SmartGrowth' has been jointly developed by the western Bay of Plenty's growth planning organisation SmartGrowth, Tauranga City Council and Bay of Plenty Regional Council with educational curriculum development company Indigo Pacific.

The free resource uses SmartGrowth and the western Bay of Plenty sub-region as a case study for managing growth, exploring global growth-related concepts and national growth-related trends.

Launching the resource, SmartGrowth independent Chairman Bill Wasley said the resource is free for all education providers to use to develop the knowledge of future generations about issues of population growth and how communities can manage these issues over a long period of time.

"It investigates the nature of population growth, in particular in the western Bay of Plenty sub-region, urban settlements and patterns, planning and decision-making, and population growth and sustainability-related issues relevant to our region," he said.

Read the whole story here – and weep.

9. Census 2011: Urban Dispersion In Canada

This essay on growth in Canadian cities shows where population grows in the real world as opposed to the fantasy world of the Dense Thinkers. (Who are always wrong but never in doubt.)

10. Time To Rethink This Experiment? Delusion Down Under.

Ross Elliot writes on “newgeopgraphy”

The famous physicist, Albert Einstein, was noted for his powers of observation and rigorous observance of the scientific method. It was insanity, he once wrote, to repeat the same experiment over and over again, and to expect a different outcome. With that in mind, I wonder what Einstein would make of the last decade and a bit of experimentation in Queensland’s urban planning and development assessment?

A sample of Ross Elliot’s pungent commentary follows:

So the triple whammy of ‘reform’ in just over a decade was that regulations and complexity exploded, supply became artificially constrained to meet some deterministic view of how and where us mere citizens might be permitted to live, and costs and charges levied on new housing (and new development generally) exploded.

At no point during this period, and this has to be emphasised, can anyone honestly claim that this has achieved anything positive. It has made housing prohibitively expensive, and less responsive to market signals. Simply put, it takes longer, costs more, and is vastly more complicated than it was before, for no measureable gain.

He concludes:

All up, it’s a pretty damming assessment of what’s been achieved in just over a decade. Of course the proponents of the current approach might warn that – without all this complexity, cost and frustration – Queensland would be subject to ‘runaway growth’ and a ‘return to the policies of sprawl.’ The answer to that, surely, is that everything prior to the late 1990s was delivered – successfully – without all this baggage. Life was affordable, the economy strong, growth was a positive and things were getting done. Queensland, and south east Queensland in particular, was regarded as a place with a strong future and a magnet for talent and capital. Now, that’s been lost.

Einstein would tell us to stop this experiment and try something else if we aren’t happy with the results. To persist with the current frameworks and philosophies can only mean the advocates of the status quo consider these outcomes to be acceptable.  Is anyone prepared to put up their hand and say that they are?

No doubt, unless we come to our senses someone will cut and past this story to summarise the failure of the great Auckland experiment in Central Planning by the ardent promoters of Dense Thinking.

Read Elliot’s whole essay here.

11. Assistance.

If you need assistance in challenging your Council’s land use policies, or proposals for amalgamation feel free to contact the Centre for Straight Thinking to discuss how we might be able to help.

Or help us finance our own research and submissions by making a donation using the form attached below.

1 comment:

  1. My god this is a sad day, I used to visit him at his home and rant, his home was great a refugee from Auckalnd, god this is a sad day, I hope his dear wife will be OK, I will try to ring her .


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