Infrastructure New Zealand chief executive Stephen Selwood has an eye on the future. As the organisation heads into its 14th annual symposium, he talks with Ruth Le Pla about how infrastructure decisions should be made and delivered, and about strengthening the role of regional government.
When Stephen Selwood tells me he’s hungry for change, it’s nothing new. I’ve enjoyed long, wide-ranging conversations with him for years. He’s invariably generous with his time and not a bit harrumphy when I poke and prod him on his views.
Like many others he’s got his main messages. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s done his ‘now is the hour’ spiel on me. We both laugh when I remind him that last year was the same. And the year before that.
So, it’s no surprise when he launches this latest series of chats with “we’re on the cusp of a major change in New Zealand about how we plan, fund and deliver infrastructure”. Then, as usual, he goes on to say this necessitates a long hard look at the role of various central and local government agencies.
This time around, though, there’s a more personal vibe to the conversation. After 14 years at the helm of Infrastructure New Zealand (INZ), Stephen is stepping down in search of pastures new.
Stephen hasn’t just been INZ’s long-standing CE: he’s been it’s only one ever. The group’s chair Andrew Stevens credits him with turning “an idea for a new business advocacy group” into “one of New Zealand’s most respected thought leadership organisations”.
Andrew might well say that: as chair, that’s his job. But there’s plenty of evidence to back up his assertions. (See the box story What a difference 14 years makes.) More to the point, Stephen has done all this in an affable manner that, as much as possible in our changing times, builds consensus rather than division. That’s no mean feat.
Meanwhile, Andrew has just announced that former BNZ general manager of institutional banking Paul Blair will pick up the reins from Stephen later this month.
Paul used to be on the INZ board so will be well able to straddle the huge array of sub-sectors that form part of our country’s infrastructure landscape.
Stephen will stay on at INZ to see it through its annual powwow, this year being held in Rotorua from August 21 to 23 (see box story Building Nations – Building Regions).
He tells me he’s got his eyes set on “some sort of role” in the new NZ Infrastructure Commission. Announced by Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones back in August last year, this autonomous Crown entity is in the throes of being established.
Once up and running, it will be charged with working with central and local government, the private sector and other stakeholders, to develop a nationwide 30-year infrastructure strategy.
Stephen says he hopes he can make a contribution there and to broader governance in the sector.
“My heart and soul are in the public sector and lifting New Zealand’s performance,” he says, “so I’m looking at governance roles and, potentially, CCOs and central government agencies that are largely in the infrastructure world.”
Look to the regions
This year’s symposium bears down on the role of the regions and plays right into ongoing conversations about the possible future role of local government. Hand-in-hand with that, inevitably, comes talk about funding and financing.
INZ plans to launch a paper at the symposium proposing change to our country’s planning system, local government structures and local government funding.
It will also front up with research based on findings from its most recent international delegation. This latest one was to Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The previous one hit Switzerland, looking into that country’s version of localism. It’s interesting to note that Oliver Hartwich, one of the champions for the adoption of localism in our country, will be speaking at this year’s INZ symposium too.
Here’s where INZ’s focus on the regions kicks in. “In our view, regional government needs to be strengthened,” says Stephen. “At the moment, regional councils are largely environmental regulators with a bit of a transport policy bolt-on. District councils are, obviously, the investors and the planners at the local level. But you don’t see coherent regional social and economic development plans.”
He concedes that some regions such as the Waikato and Bay of Plenty are very active in that regard. “But often you find that regional spatial plans, for example, struggle for want of funding and consistent support from district council subsidiary members.”
Stephen says INZ sees a “real opportunity” for the Provincial Growth Fund to provide an incentive for change and growth at the regional level, “rather than take the piecemeal approach that has been adopted to date”.
He argues that a centralised fund could be used to incentivise the regions to develop credible long-term plans. Regional entities – he reckons 10 to 15 would be a good number – would identify the infrastructure and other investment needed to support those plans and use the fund to contribute towards their delivery.
All of which leaves local councils to focus on improving local democracy and placemaking.
“If more local government rates funding could go to local community issues – with greater funding at the regional level for the more macro issues – there’s an opportunity to reconcile the localism view with the regionalism view and then you have alignment between national, regional and local government.”
Stephen sees as unhelpful discussions that make rural New Zealand square off against urban zones. He argues we should be promoting an understanding that the cities are vital to the productive hinterland of the provinces and, equally, the hinterland is vital to the future well-being of the cities and the very reason that they exist.
“How can we think in a more holistic way rather than in a provincial / local way about harnessing the benefits of both? That’s where I think the more regional approach is beneficial. It encourages, and in fact enables, that wider, more strategic, discussion that is getting lost in the local debates right now.”
This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.