Nowhere, in recent times, has it been more clear that something – okay lots of things – has got to give if local authorities are to stand any chance of helping resolve some of our country’s most pressing problems. The call for change at Infrastructure New Zealand’s recent Building Nations Symposium in Wellington was loud and clear. Poll after poll showed a hearty appetite for a major rethink of how councils are structured, funded and mandated.
In this, part one of a three-part series, we first look at the polls in more detail and what they mean for local government.
Then, in ‘Moving Mountains‘ we mull over a warning note from Elizabeth Longworth that our country must switch from building back infrastructure after an event – think earthquakes, storms and floods – to making it more resilient in the first place.
In the final part, ‘Let councils write their own menus‘ we look at Wellington City Council CEO Kevin Lavery’s repeated call for a city deal that would give Wellington far more autonomy to create its own destiny. Hard-headed pragmatism or heresy? You be the judge. New central government: are you listening?
A recent Beca poll undertaken at Infrastructure New Zealand’s Building Nations Symposium, revealed an appetite for change in the way we approach several key infrastructure challenges. Stephen Selwood, chief executive at Infrastructure New Zealand, summarised after the poll, “There is increasingly broad consensus across the industry that we cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century using the same approaches we developed in the 20th century.”
He noted that around 90 percent of respondents supported change to the status quo on resilience management, water structure, planning and governance reform, assets sales, road pricing and Auckland growth management.
“These are industry leaders calling for big changes to their businesses. They don’t take these decisions lightly. They do so because they know there are significant underlying challenges.”
A snapshot of sentiment at the time, the polling results demonstrate the complexity of the discussion and suggest that we need to build upon what we already have, to ensure resilience in the future.
“It was unexpected that the need for increased resilience would come through so strongly,” said Matt Ensor, Beca’s smart cities leader. “In fact, it polled the highest of all infrastructure priorities suggested for the incoming government. Increased resilience can sometimes be provided by smarter thinking, but often it comes with a price, and the poll results show that infrastructure professionals think we could invest more.”
So what does this mean for local government?
Stephen suggests the results demonstrate that industry understands the immense pressure on local government. Many of the respondents to the poll were local government employees, and almost all of the companies represented contract to local government in one form or another.
“This is a group that know that decisions being made in local government are being made within a context of financial constraints, political pressures, resourcing issues and other macro factors,” said Stephen. “These are deep systemic challenges and require major reform to local and central planning, funding and governance.”
Matt Ensor agrees, focusing on the funding issues. “There is a growing appetite to look at different mechanisms to fund infrastructure, to learn from best practice and to get on with it. The results reinforce that it’s a national not a regional issue, which could be addressed by setting up a national body, packaging up projects to give scale, and setting up a forward pipeline of work. There’s still a view that leveraging private investment into council-owned commercial corporations could release funds for other infrastructure.”
With resilience one of the major themes emerging from the poll, it’s clear that we need to improve our understanding of the risks, costs and benefits of resilient infrastructure at a local, as well as national, level.
But where to start? Stephen points to the polling and suggests that we should look to establish an expert body to identify national infrastructure challenges and monitor performance. This body would pick up some of the institutional barriers to evaluating resilience, for example, funding and capability constraints across local government, and recommend changes.
Stephen continues, “If this activity could be combined with specialised procurement expertise, we could tie the policy priority of resilience to actual implementation. A specialised procurement arm of a national infrastructure commission could assist all infrastructure providers in applying a consistent and rigorous approach to resilience.”
Matt suggests we need to look outwards and learn from other nations with experience in similar issues. He points to the polling results supporting the sale or corporatisation of assets to fund infrastructure projects.
“The support is now so high because we have been able to see examples overseas, particularly in Australia and in the UK, where full or partial asset sales or at least corporatisation of assets have led to better outcomes, more infrastructure, better resilience, and a better customer focus,” he says.
“We’ve learnt that we need appropriate regulation and high levels of consultation and buy-in across local regions to be successful in this process. Infrastructure is long-term in almost every sense, so we need to think about how we move forward in a way that doesn’t rely on a particular political cycle.”
Bryce Julyan, planning leader at Beca, continues this theme. “We need long-term strategies that transcend political terms,” he says. “The majority of people who responded to the poll wanted to see a review of funding, planning and local government structure.
“This is a positive result because it recognises the burdens currently placed on local government. What we’d like to see is a New Zealand-wide strategy that covers infrastructure investment, provides better direction and delivers a national policy framework.”
The results of the poll are the product of a lively debate about our national and local infrastructure, but do they give us a tangible view of the strengths and weaknesses of our current system?
Stephen thinks so. “We receive anecdotal evidence from literally thousands of industry professionals and leaders that we, as an industry body, engage with every year,” he says.
“Only once a year do we get the opportunity to turn this anecdotal feedback into something measurable which others can see. The polls give us direction as to the priorities of the sector and play a big part in determining our organisational areas of focus over the next year.”
Matt agrees, “The Building Nations Symposium is unique in the range and calibre of people it attracts, all of whom are experts in some area of infrastructure or funding.
“The live polling approach is great because it’s anonymous, and people are free to provide their honest personal views. It is important we take the results seriously.”
This article was first published in the December 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.