Tom Williams on the beautiful He Ara Kotahi bridge, one of PNCC’s most recently-completed infrastructure projects, and already a city landmark.
In late 2018, Tom Williams stepped into the newly-created role of chief Infrastructure Officer at Palmerston North City Council (PNCC) to help deliver on an ambitious Ten Year Plan. Don Martin caught up with him recently to talk about his role and the regional development programme in general.
With a pipeline of major projects on a ‘once-in-a-generation’ scale planned for the next 10 years, Tom Williams was ready to make a real difference to how PNCC built an infrastructure framework for a rapidly-growing economy.
Right now, Palmerston North is the focus of a massive amount of strategic investment, with some $3 billion in public and private capital projects currently planned for the region.
With huge roading and rail projects, major developments across the city’s defence, health and educational institutions, and substantial new capital investment from the Provincial Growth Fund, Rangitane o Manawatu (the iwi’s projects include a new hotel and housing development), and the corporate sector, the city’s immediate future is looking very exciting.
PNCC’s own 10 Year Plan includes around $800 million in capital investment, (with 70 percent of that devoted to new capital) across a broad range of projects.
The biggest of the big ticket items is determining how the city will treat its wastewater in the future, which must be completed by 2028, following an extensive consultation, options analysis and consenting process. Alongside this, the city’s multi-purpose Central Energy Trust Arena is getting a major suite of upgrades, streetscapes in the centre city are being redeveloped, and older social housing stock is being replaced with brand new modern units.
In addition, a master-planned set of enhancements will make more of the city’s riverside parks and cycleways, while there is a major commitment to roading and water infrastructure improvements across the city including the opening of Council-owned land for housing development.
Other major projects include the Manawatu Gorge state highway replacement and Regional Freight Ring Road, the new KiwiRail Freight Hub, Mercury’s 60-turbine windfarm at Turitea, and major developments at Massey University, Ohakea airbase and Linton Military Camp.
Williams says it was the ambition of Palmerston North’s programme of works that attracted him to the role, along with the chance to do things differently.
“PNCC’s leadership decided it was the right time to be proactive and invest in the city’s future. Regional development is a national-level priority, and Palmerston North was perfectly positioned to grow and transform – physically, economically, and reputationally.
“There was a remarkable energy and drive behind this vision, and so the opportunity to come on board and make a real difference to a city on the rise was unmissable.”
In fact, this idea of ‘making a difference’ would become the central theme of a nationwide recruitment campaign – fronted by a charismatic and (at the time) bushy-bearded Williams – launched by the city to attract the talent it needed to its infrastructure team.
“I wanted us to build a team that, as well as engineering skills, could bring innovative commercial thinking and approaches to the table.
“That meant breaking down some negative stereotypes of what a City Council Infrastructure unit could be like, because it’s actually an incredibly exciting and dynamic period to be working in this area, especially in Palmerston North.”
Williams claims the campaign was a huge success, with his team now including a diversity of backgrounds and skillsets, and an energetic approach to delivering on projects.
“We found exactly the right kind of people, and the mix of skills is brilliant. I’m very proud that we’ve attracted some incredibly talented folks who hadn’t really had working in local government on their radar, but who now love the difference we’re able to make to the city and people’s lives.”
Having previously worked for the New Zealand Defence Force, Air Services Australia and KiwiRail, Williams believes fresh approaches are needed to effectively deliver infrastructure needs in regional New Zealand.
“It’s a fascinating time for those of us working in infrastructure, in spite of, and in many ways because of the challenges in the sector,” he says.
While details of some of the new approaches Palmerston North is working on are under wraps as negotiations with partners continue, Williams cites procurement as a key area for adding value.
“We’ve been upfront about our desire to bundle procurement where the opportunity to do so is available. These are the kind of strategic partnerships through which we can achieve the scale that would otherwise be beyond a city our size, and enable our partners to invest with confidence to develop the required resources in our area.”
In terms of bringing residents and stakeholders along on the journey, Williams says new approaches to planning have delivered benefits that PNCC can continue to build on.
“We never lose sight of the fact we are ultimately accountable to our residents. During the Ten Year Plan process, we found that our Spatial Plan for projects across the city (which was first developed for internal stakeholders) was a key tool in illustrating the grand vision for the city that we were asking ratepayers to invest in.
“Subsequently, we’ve begun working with other Councils across the region on a combined long-term Spatial Plan, which should help any stakeholder understand at a glance what the future of development in Manawatu-Whanganui looks like,” he says.
Williams says that central Government’s investment in the city will continue to deliver returns for the region and our economy as a whole.
“Palmerston North is a literal and figurative crossroads in the heart of the lower North Island; a place where rural and urban, production and logistics, research and commerce all intersect to create value.
“We’re putting major investment into our own city’s growth and development, and central Government is recognising our strategic value by delivering critical infrastructure.
“When the private sector sees that the city has a clear plan for development, backed by central Government, the opportunities for business to invest are clear.”
Through the Provincial Growth Fund, the Government has already pledged over $40 million to projects in Palmerston North, including the development of KiwiRail’s multi-modal freight hub, which has been described as “a major step forward in New Zealand’s approach to freight logistics”.
In the meantime, Williams says Palmerston North is focused on delivering on its vision for the future, which is summarised by the slogan ‘Small city benefits – big city ambition’.
“There’s a real swagger to Palmerston North these days,” he says.
“In that people recognise something special is happening, they’re on board with where we’re heading, and they want to be part of it.”
There’s little doubt Williams and his infrastructure team are relishing their key role in ‘making a difference’ to the future of one of our iconic regional cities.