By Bruce Morris
As the steps to reshape Chamberlain Park edge closer, a central question remains: does this area of Auckland really need the extra sports fields provided for in the development plan?
When the Albert Eden Local Board first floated its strategy to cut the golf course in half and introduce open space of wider appeal to its community, the vision was for six extra fields.
Budgetary restraints peeled that optimism back over time to two artificial fields. Even without the cost of the land, standard sports fields are very expensive to build. And a step up to artificial turf pushes the starting point to $1.8m, assuming no work is needed to create the platform. For Chamberlain Park, with its contours and volcanic rock, the price will be much higher.
Whether Albert-Eden is desperately short of sports fields is a major point of contention between supporters of the local board plan and the lobby wanting the 18-hole golf course left pretty much as it is.
The local board points to statistics which show that Albert-Eden is one of Auckland’s poorest-served areas for parks and sporting fields.
Buying land to create new parks isn’t an option because there’s precious little available so close to the city. Even if a decent-sized block came up, the price would be well out of reach of a council that has huge capital works ahead of it.
So the 32 hectares of Chamberlain Park, owned by Auckland Council and under the control of the local board, offered a “solution” – more green space and sports fields for everyone to use, with a new nine-hole course and driving range to mollify the golfing fraternity.
But while the board obviously didn’t expect everyone to embrace its plan, angry golfers take some mollifying. Chamberlain Park is one of just two public courses in Auckland, with a history stretching 80-odd years, drawing golfers from across the city – and none of them fancied the idea of having their course cut in half.
The battle has smouldered for five years and the council is now on the verge of seeking resource consent from its own planners for the right to start on stage one.
That work may begin in two or three months and the pro-golf group, Save Chamberlain Park (SCP), is threatening to go to court if it is denied the right to have its say.
Just one of the areas of disagreement: whether those two sports fields are needed.
The board, backed by all the sporting organisations spoken to by Mt Albert Inc, insist they are. They say they are desperately short of fields and worry they won’t be able to handle future growth in a burgeoning city unless more are provided.
Advocates for the golfers say their sport also needs nurturing and that Chamberlain Park fills an important role for, among others, newcomers to the game unable to afford the high fees of private clubs.
To them, it’s not the lack of fields that’s the wider problem – it’s the sort of field the council has traditionally provided.
Standard “soil fields” take a hammering in Auckland’s winters and are often closed – and over half of the council’s 845 sports fields are in that category. The percentage rises when applied to the 600 full-size fields.
The pro-golfing fraternity and their supporters say it would be better to spend money on upgrades to sand-based fields that allow more game and practice time.
First say to the sporting codes…
Central United Football Club runs 65 teams and spends tens of thousands of dollars a year (supported by the local board) for access to school fields. It is excited at the prospect of having two “home” fields at Chamberlain Park.
Club representative Greg Fahey says a lack of fields is impeding the club’s ability to grow the sport.
Central and Auckland City operate out of Kiwitea St where the practice area is limited and the main pitch needs shielding for high-level games.
“If we were able to have some access to fields if they were built at Chamberlain Park, it would be a miracle for us – giving us the chance of a home-base for training,” says Mr Fahey.
The lack of fields is “a big issue – there’s a lack of green space in this area and what’s available is competitively chased by the different codes.”
Iain Laxon, chief executive of Auckland Cricket, says the sport is currently short of fields in a number of areas around Auckland, “with significant shortfalls projected for future years”.
The Albert-Eden area is short of a number of pitches for junior cricket and the problem will increase this summer as grades move from 11-a-side to either 8 or 9-a-side across four age groups.
Mr Laxon says playing numbers have grown 25 per cent over the last three seasons and the sport’s ability to provide enough pitches is reliant on schools.
“Any additional council grounds that Auckland Cricket and clubs could access would make a significant difference to our ability to deliver cricket,” he says.
“We anticipate continued growth in years to come as we modify the game further and create new social cricket options for kids and adults.”
To do that successfully, says Mr Laxon, the sport will rely on more grounds and wickets across Auckland.
Rugby, which was allocated Nixon Park ahead of soccer locally and handles over 10,000 games a year in Auckland, has made its own overtures to the council about coping in the future.
Rugby league didn’t respond to our questions so, presumably, lower playing rosters and long-standing field arrangements mean they aren’t so concerned.
Stretching the net a little wider, Auckland Sport and Recreation (Aktive) says the city is facing a shortage of nearly 200 indoor courts, netball courts, outdoor tennis courts and artificial turfs for winter sports in the medium term.
The group wants more co-operation between schools and the community.
But the lack of fields creates huge worries for soccer, the biggest field sport by player registration, and the CEO of the Auckland Football Federation, Bob Patterson, says: “I agree 100 per cent that we don’t have enough grounds and that it is a huge obstacle to growing the game.
“There is certainly a lack of grounds, and well-maintained grounds, across Auckland.”
Mr Patterson says clubs already make the most of schedules to accommodate programmes/matches and are as flexible as they can be.
Better turf management would help and artificial pitches, too, but they are very expensive, he says.
“We are very restricted in what we can do and rely on the council’s support. It is a huge issue for us as the city grows and as more kids turn to soccer.
“Two extra fields at Chamberlain would be tremendous.”
When he hears that, lawyer and statistician Will McKenzie shakes his head.
Mr McKenzie, who provided a supporting submission to the Save Chamberlain Park group, challenges the assumptions of sporting codes and council reports.
Auckland, he says, is brimming with sports fields and the issue is not about getting more but rather upgrading existing ones.
“If you go to a sporting club and ask if they need more fields, what do you expect they will say? Of course they will want more fields. It’s like asking them if they’d like to win lotto.”
His contention: if every sporting field in Auckland was sand-based or upgraded to a hybrid surface using “carpet” – and with the big outer subdivisions providing, as they do, new playing fields to cope with rising populations – the city will not need further fields in the future.
Mr McKenzie says the council would do much better to spend money on the city grounds that offer limited use because of their deteriorating condition during Auckland’s winter.
The remaining 40 per cent of grounds have sand bases and give much better returns to sporting codes. A properly constructed field with a sand base will cope with around 20 hours a week, he says, as opposed to 8-10 hours for a standard field.
What does that mean? Well take the average football code – rugby, soccer or league – and work out the number of field hours used by each team. It will generally come down to something like six hours a week, with practice on Tuesday and Thursday and match day on Saturday.
A sand-based pitch will comfortably cope with three teams on that basis (with juggled times and days-of-the-week); a standard field would not support two teams.
Artificial-turf fields, needed for quality hockey, can provide as many hours as needed but are not as aesthetically-pleasing and are very expensive.
Hybrid fields – where a light-weight “carpet” of fibre over sand adds bulk to grass – are a good solution, giving more playing time a week than could generally be used.
Mr McKenzie believes that rather than clinging to the belief Auckland is short of playing fields, the council should be advancing its sand-based programme to give more playing time per field and swallow up the perceived shortage.
The local board plan to create two new grounds at Chamberlain Park would be a very poor investment costing millions of dollars when a much better result for sporting codes could be achieved by using the money to upgrade existing fields.
Mr McKenzie disputes council consultant reports looking at park use and projections. They are miscalculations, he says, varying wildly from report to report, and do not stand up to scrutiny. A 2011 report showed a city surplus of 697 hours, but that suddenly dropped to a deficit of 1924 and, now, a 3000 deficit is projected for 2021.
It’s presented like “Chicken Little” – the sky is set to cave in, he says, but nothing could be further from the truth. The central Auckland suburbs have quite enough sporting fields. The issue is not about wasting money on more of them but, rather, expanding the programme to spend money on existing fields – introducing more sand-based and hybrid surfaces.
Interesting facts (courtesy the council’s Kris Bird):
- There are 845 sports fields in the city of which 603 are full sized.
- Around 54 per cent of the total are standard soil fields; 43 per cent are sand-based; 2 per cent are artificial and less than 1 per cent are hybrid.
- It costs around $400,000 to “elevate” a standard sporting field into a sand-based field; to upgrade a soil field to hybrid costs about $800,000. (There is considerable variation between sites, and costs are approximate.)
- Assuming no works are needed to create the platform , it costs around $1.8m to produce a green-field artificial field (not including the cost of the land).
- As a very rough guide, annual maintenance costs per field are soil, $25,000; sand, $42,000; hybrid, $38,000; artificial, $31,000.
- Sand-based and hybrid fields would need to be “rebuilt” around every 10 years.
- $3.7b has been allocated to Parks and Community in the 2018-2028 Long Term Plan. Building and maintaining sporting fields comes out of this budget and the exact amount is confirmed via the annual plan process each year.
Asked if there was a programme in place to upgrade standard fields to sand-based over the next 10 years, Mr Bird said that before 2015 a large number of soil fields were converted into sand-based across the region to reduce the number of closures.
From mid-2015 the funding for sports field upgrades changed to be mostly funded from development contributions rather than from rates. This meant that investment was now more aligned to areas of population growth.
Soil fields would continue to be upgraded to sand fields where demand warranted the investment.
Based on the latest supply-and-demand analysis, in a lot of areas the greatest demand was for sports field lighting and this was one of the focus areas for the council in the next 10 years.
Mr Bird said studies were commissioned every three years to examine the capacity and use of the sport field network.
The study’s findings were used to inform the Long Term Plan that, in turn, guided investment decisions.
The aim was to increase capacity where the need was greatest – through development or by optimising existing assets.
“This means that the objective is to invest in areas that have significant shortfalls and that will produce the greatest increase in the numbers of people participating in sport,” said Mr Bird. “The objective is not necessarily to evenly distribute resources across the region.”