Local Government Magazine
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Investing in invisible infrastructure

Telling our_story_better

CCNZ CE Peter Silcock says when it comes to civil infrastructure we all need to tell our story better.

Local authorities have an unenviable task. We ratepayers are a demanding bunch. We expect great services run efficiently and effectively, strong leadership and vision, lively communities, business-friendly policies that create jobs and investment, towns and cities that are interesting and vibrant places to live and, of course, no rates increases.

With local body elections just around the corner many voters are starting to wonder how much their rates may rise over the next three years. Whether we like it or not, the focus is often on costs rather than benefits.

For me, the realisation that local government in my area had a significant job to do, that I should be pleased to fund, came when I witnessed the 1998 and 2004 flood events in Lower Hutt. The flood waters came close to the top of the stop banks around the Hutt River. Seeing that thick brown mass rushing past well above the level of the surrounding flood plain, where around 70,000 people live and assets of $6 billion sit, was a graphic demonstration of the importance of flood protection. That experience gave a number of people a wake-up call and as a result significant work has been done and more is planned.

Fortunately these ‘near absolute disaster’ experiences aren’t that frequent and that is what creates the challenge for local government. The reality is that much of the civil infrastructure that councils are charged with providing, and efficiently and effectively operating, is invisible either because it is below ground or out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

The current proposed changes to the RMA deal with the inclusion of natural hazards in planning processes. This is a result of the liquefaction issues experienced in Christchurch but also has significant implications across the country.

Many of our cities and towns are built on those nice flat areas around rivers (flood plains or liquefaction areas) or close to natural harbours (tsunami zones and areas that will be inundated when sea levels rise). In Wellington we have found very usable seaside platforms and valley floors on which to build our transport corridors (fault lines) and our largest city sits on an isthmus dotted with volcanoes.

We live and work in a natural environment that is full of natural hazards. But like much of our civil infrastructure these are things that the public does not (and perhaps doesn’t want to) see.

It was the investment of past generations in our three waters infrastructure assets (with an estimated value of $45 billion) that councils are managing today.

We all need to address the challenge of better communicating not just about the need, but also the public benefits of ongoing investment in the maintenance and improvement of that ‘invisible’ civil infrastructure.

The size of that challenge was graphically illustrated recently in Wellington with some generally negative publicity around traffic delays caused by the improvement works on our major commuter routes. Many commuters don’t seem to have made the link between that work and a consistent, safer, faster commuter experience in the future and that the work can take some time when ongoing public use and safety are critical aspects of the job.

This coverage happened despite NZTA’s huge communications effort with regular radio bulletins, useful apps, electronic information and newspaper adverts. I know that councils are investing in better communications too. In fact, that communication / engagement with the public is now a key component of many contracts that members of Civil Contractors New Zealand enter into with councils.

This communication and public engagement is now part of what we do. We need to tell people not only what is happening, but also why, and how that will be of benefit to them. Communicating the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ is critical to strong public engagement and cooperation on the job, and also to convincing ratepayers to invest in the invisible civil infrastructure they rely on every day.

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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