Wellington City Council are not welfare maximisers

The Wellington City Council seems pretty keen to tear up Manners Mall and turn it into a bus route. As any good local body would they’ve had a round of consultation which resulted in 74% of the 722 submitters opposing the plan and 20% in favour.

You may think that would give the council pause for thought. However, they commissioned a survery of 500 constituents which suggested that 68% supported the plan. They are now using that survey to suggest that the submissions form a biased view of what the electorate wants. How can we make sense of this data and which number should we prefer?

The survey, presuming it was done properly, tells us that most people in the electorate think that having buses in the mall would be a good idea. However, remember that not all those people care greatly about the issue or have a vested interest in it. Making a submission to the council has a far higher cost than answering a phone survey question. Those people who took the time to write a submission are likely to be the ones who care most about the matter.

A welfare maximising approach would weight peoples’ opinions according to how much they value the project. In this case such an approach would seem to favour keeping buses out of the mall. Unless the council has some reason to believe that submitters are systematically biased, or misinformed about the issue then there is little reason to prefer the survey result. The council appears to be trying to circumvent the very processes which are designed to ensure that local democracy is representative of the electorate’s views.

8 replies
  1. Brad Taylor
    Brad Taylor says:

    Going with the unweighted preferences of people is more in line with the democratic ideal. I would prefer they took preference intensity into account, but I suspect most people care more about giving everyone equal say than about maximising welfare, at least on an abstract, procedural level.

    Also, it’s not clear that the aggregate welfare the submission-writing minority is actually greater than those who prefer buses but didn’t make a submission. The many small welfare gains from buses could easily outweigh the few large losses.

    The only way to know is to go with Tideman and Tullock or, better still, leave it to the market.

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    All very true Brad.

    The reason I agreed so strongly is because I’m among the set of people who would really like to keep Manners Mall – I’m letting my value judgments get in the way 🙂

  3. Rich
    Rich says:

    Just to be all legalistic, the Local Government Act talks about consulting with people *affected* by the policy. Somebody picked at random, who maybe lives in J-ville, shops at a Westfield and comes into town by car twice a year isn’t really affected by the proposed change.

    Those who made submissions will tend to be.

    Also, the “making room for buses” aim is bogus. There are plenty of streets (Dixon, Wakefield, Ghuznee, Jervois Quay, not to mention the Terrace Tunnel) that could be converted from their current all vehicle use into exclusive or shared busways. The plan is really about making room for cars by taking space from pedestrians.

  4. Rich
    Rich says:

    If you ask people “do you agree with our super plan to improve bus reliability and amenities in the CBD”, they’ll probably answer yes.

  5. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    “If you ask people “do you agree with our super plan to improve bus reliability and amenities in the CBD”, they’ll probably answer yes.”

    Damned framing!!!

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