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September 25, 2016 | by  | in News Splash | [ssba]

Interview with Justin Lester

We asked mayoral candidate and current Deputy Mayor Justin Lester the hard hitting questions, from “How does local politics work?” to “What’s your worst pest?”


Why are you running for mayor?  

Good question. *general laughter* Because I’ve been deputy for three years and it’s either up or out. I’ve also been frustrated at, I guess, the leadership of the city and I’m not one to speak out publicly against or criticize it so I thought I’m just going to run. I’ve been on council six years, I don’t want to be a career politician.

You’ll be taking the arts portfolio if you become mayor. Could you tell us about what you’re hoping to do?

We need to get some money into the arts so that people who are graduating from here and from Massey are getting jobs here and that comes down to accessibility to venues and funding. We spend about 45 million dollars a year on economic development and only a small portion goes to the arts. I think it needs greater prioritisation because it’s one of the huge advantages Wellington has, we are the arts capital but increasingly a lot of the work’s going up to Auckland so we are losing a lot of young talent. For example there’s a Mayoral Discretionary Grants pool and I’ll prioritise that for three years, 80% of the funding into the arts and arts organisations for people to get projects up and running. Arts have suffered from eight years of no investment and Creative NZ funding is going down because money from pokie machines has gone down.

Tell us about your idea for the “wet house.” How did this come about?

There’s been an awful lot of talk about homelessness in Wellington and it’s an issue that’s pretty dear to my heart. I’ve been talking to people like Stephanie McIntyre from DCM, the Soup Kitchen, and the Wellington City Mission about what can we do differently, because if we just keep doing the same thing we’ll get the same outcomes. We have things like the night shelter which takes in 40 of the most vulnerable men every night. The problem with the night shelter, while it’s great, is it provides them a home for the night but they have to get out in the morning. They don’t have a home, they’ve got a bed. 90 per cent of people on the streets have a drug or alcohol addiction and so with the wet house the idea is people come in and you wrap the support services around them, try to moderate their consumption, get them into accommodation, on benefits, and living independently. There’s 1000 people that are homeless a year, and in order to break the cycle you have to do something innovative.

What is the council’s role in increasing social housing?

We’re the second largest landlord in the country; those houses didn’t magically appear they were built by council. There is no reason the council can’t build more houses, housing is a form of infrastructure and ultimately one of the most important because it determines so many social outcomes, education, health, corrections, and has societal costs. I think we can build more, facilitate development, work with community housing providers—we don’t have to do it long term necessarily. If council and central government builds them it takes the profit margin out of it, it’s more affordable, you can build dwellings that are warm, dry, double glazed, well insulated and we know we’re getting good quality housing.

What about the Rental Warrant of Fitness, VUWSA has strongly campaigned for this, what power does council have to make this decision?

We’ve got a voluntary one already, being run by Philippa Howden-Chapman from the University of Otago based here in Wellington. But a voluntary scheme is never going to be enough for those landlords who don’t want to do it. The idea is with a local bill through parliament you create a regulatory tool that’s enforceable and you’d have requirements for landlords to have properties at a certain standard before they can rent them out. You could enforce it through a tenancy tribunal or have a requirement for annual checks.

What about fairer fares, that just has to be passed by the regional council right?

Yes, the mayor has such a huge stake and sway with the regional council, that’s why I’ve teamed up for this with Darryn Ponter, a regional councillor. With city council it’s hard to ignore us if we’ve got full support and if we’re going to contribute funding to it. The biggest impediment to fairer fares was the previous regional chair who was simply opposed to it, whereas Chris Laidlaw is in favour but has concern around the cost.

What’s your living wage policy?

Well it’s largely been implemented. So that’s for all council employees and for all council controlled organisation employees like museums, and the zoo.

Is that for contractors as well?

We’ve started with some contractors: cleaning staff and security. They could effectively work for the council but over time those services have been contracted out. I think we should bring them back in. The reason they get contracted out is to save money but what that really means is lower wages. A good example is parking wardens, they were contracted out, we brought them back in, and we’re saving money, paying a living wage, and getting a better service. It just makes sense.

Are you inclined to encourage employers around Wellington to pay a living wage, for example the university?

I lead by example. I’ll show them our experience as a council and how it’s been beneficial in terms of reduced turn over, higher productivity, improved customer service, and savings. So leading by example… because most people want to pay people well, they want to support people, it’s just a question of finding out how they can do it.

So the runway extension, is this a good idea?

Well we don’t know yet if it is a good idea. I’m more in favour of having the information. What is the business case, where’s the benefit, the environmental affects, the climate change impacts? What we’re doing is collating that information and going through the environment court, so you’ll have independent judges that will determine if the business case stacks up. Intuitively, I think, it’s something we need to investigate. We’ve had extensions in the past and if you have an international airport you’re going to be more connected, look at Christchurch, at Auckland, we can’t have all our growth in Auckland. They don’t have the infrastructural capacity to keep allowing for all the growth across the country. So we do need to spread it out and I hope Wellington can be one of those outlets… I need more information to make that decision but I am certainly not scared of doing the analysis.

What do you think about four lanes to the planes?

*Laughs* It’s not a slogan I would adopt. I think we need to improve congestion, in and around the basin reserve, but I think you need a balanced transport system. I’m really proud of the fact we’ve got the highest public transport usage in the country by a mile, and you need walking and cycling too… we want to create dense urban forms for more people to do that. We want people living in and around the CBD. We don’t want big massive sprawl.

So you’re happy with the standard amount of lanes to the planes?

I think in time there will need to be a second tunnel in Mount Victoria because it’s a massive congestion point and a detriment to the Eastern suburbs. And it’s been designated since 1945, there’s a pilot tunnel—they started drilling and then they stopped. But I’m not campaigning on it because it’s not my be all and end all. I want balance. And there’s more to a city than just roads.

We’re going to ask some local politics questions so we know what to do with our voting papers. There’s mayors, wards, the DHB, Regional Council… please explain.

So choose your favourite candidate and vote for mayor. The ward is really important as well… because you’ve got to do the makeup of who sits on council. It’s important to get a good council because you don’t want councillors who aren’t going to do that job well and if you want a majority on council you’re going to have to look closely to find out if they support the same values you want in your mayor. So you rank first the one you think will do the best job, then the second, then the third, and then if there are some others you want there just incase.

And the District Health Board? The Regional Council?

The DHB is slightly convoluted in that it’s quite separate. It’s got nothing to do with us. But to save money and make it all sensible they do it at the same time. And the Regional Council, likewise, it’s quite a separate institution, but because it’s part of the local government sector, they get in at the same time.

What is the separation between the Regional Council and the Wellington City Council?

The Regional Council does things that spread across the entire region: transport planning, they contribute to the state highway network planning, waters across the regional water planning and environmental aspects. Things that basically flow across air pollution, air quality, water quality. The WCC is basically everything you see in Wellington, and in our borders, but they [Regional Council] do run the public transport service because, again, that connects with the whole region. So we do waste, water, and roads here, except the state highway network because that’s central government. We do everything else: the playing fields, the libraries, the swimming pools, the economic policy for the city.

You’re on the SPCA board, why?

I love the fact that Wellington is a biodiversity capital… I’m on the SPCA board because I love the work they do and they have an awfully hard job that they do. They have to fundraise every year, so I can help them to do that through my networks.

Can you tell us your favourite animal, and do you have any pets?

No pets, because my six year old daughter is terrified of animals. My favourite animal is just our local animals, so the birds. The highlight of my day is seeing a kaka. I saw a falcon the other day come screeching in and picking up a pigeon. I love tuis, we’ve got a resident tui at home called Thomas Tui.

What’s your least favourite pest?

Rats. We had a rat and caught it. Not a big fan of possums either. They do more damage to nature: possums would be the worst. Also stoats—they’re quite cunning and quite strong. And also do a lot of damage.


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