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Responding to serious challenges TOGETHER

By Alan Pollard, Civil Contractors New Zealand, Chief Executive

As I reflect on the increasingly challenging situation we find ourselves in – politically, economically, socially, culturally, climatically – it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all facing these same challenges, even if we approach some of them from a different perspective. 

That raises the question: what opportunities exist for better collaboration between the civil construction sector and local authorities (contractor and client)?

A number of significant reforms are being rushed through without the opportunity for robust consultation. There is widespread agreement that our water infrastructure and our natural and built environment legislation require overhaul. Both will have a huge impact on local authorities and the communities they represent, whether it is through asset ownership, governance, or regulatory oversight. 

CCNZ submitted that, while there was some merit in the work done on each of the proposals, neither should proceed in their current form.

On the water reforms, we want to see more genuine consultation, with a greater emphasis on HOW we build and maintain the infrastructure rather than WHAT we build, and to work together to develop clear transitional plans. The reforms need to recognise the practical expertise within the industry and harness this to inform the way forward, rather than focus on purely ideological change.

On the resource management reforms, we see value in the ability of the Spatial Planning Bill to plan effective regional spatial strategies that protect the environment and identify appropriate areas for development (such as mapping out and fulfilling some consent requirements of prospective cleanfill or quarry sites), and the ability of the National Planning Framework to resolve conflicts between infrastructure development and other values.

However, there is a lack of detail on how these Bills will be implemented in practice, and a lack of sector expertise within the planning and decision-making process. Plus, the details of the all-important National Planning Framework have yet to be defined.

The numerous provisions scattered through the Natural and Built Environment Bill concerning environmental limits, and the management of effects in relation to those limits are confusing and look to be unworkable for almost any land-use activity that does not qualify for an exemption from the foregoing.

All of us are facing a critical labour shortage, with the country still experiencing relatively low unemployment, with intense competition for workers across all sectors, and with the loss of talent overseas. 

Add to this, increasing wage pressures (partially driven by the consequential flow on effects of the Government’s decision to increase the minimum wage and living wage, while at the same time imposing sometimes unsustainable minimum migrant wage levels), and the outlook for the labour market remains very challenging. It is in our collective interest to have a fully functioning, flexible, and reliable labour market.

Having a well-defined, well-funded capital and maintenance programme enables contractors and clients to invest in the necessary skills to deliver infrastructure works and adopt new and emerging technologies to improve productivity and delivery. 

Before recent severe weather events, the Infrastructure Commission (Te Waihanga) estimated an investment of $210 billon was required on critical infrastructure over the next 30 years. The costs associated with the recovery and rebuild of critical infrastructure affected by the recent weather events will substantially add to this.

Storm damage may have changed the priorities and mix of investment, but the number is still huge. The storms have also brought to the forefront the consideration of the impact that more extreme weather events will have on where we locate critical infrastructure. Again, this was highlighted in the Infrastructure Strategy, with consideration needed of the logic of rebuilding communities, roads, and utilities in areas that have historically been severely affected by storms and floods.

Then, on top of all of the challenges that we are collectively facing, the resilience of our communities has been severely tested by weather events first in Northland, Auckland, Coromandel, and Bay of Plenty, and then in Gisborne, the East Coast, and Hawkes Bay. I live in Hawkes Bay, and I can say with confidence that I have never experienced a storm with the fury of Cyclone Gabrielle.

It is in our collective interest to have a fully functioning, flexible, and reliable labour market.

I am proud of the role contractors have played alongside council teams as (essentially) first responders in the rescue and response effort, and now during recovery. They will also be at the front and centre of the rebuild as and when that gets underway. I want to acknowledge the work of our local and regional councils, many working in uncharted territory. 

There are many competing demands placed on local authorities during times of crisis, and at times CCNZ has found itself acting as a conduit between communities and decision makers. This is not a role that sits comfortably with us. Our role as an organisation is to understand and represent the needs of contractors, but we were able to play our part in supporting our communities. 

There will be many lessons learned from these recent events. Having been through the Christchurch earthquakes, two things stand out for me from that response. 

First, communication is key. Every morning, then Mayor Bob Parker and his Civil Defence Controller addressed the media and the community setting out the status of the response and letting the community know what was being done and what was planned. This was not only a source of information, but provided the community with clear direction and much-needed reassurance that things were being done and their needs were being met.

Second, all parts of the response from central and local government to the business community to the general community were well connected and engaged. This allowed for an ‘all of region’ response. 

No one organisation has the capacity, capability, and strength to take on that responsibility alone. My own view is that the national emergency management framework needs an overhaul to ensure that all of these parts are connected, but (notwithstanding that view) I commend the work that local authorities and their contractors have done in response.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, there is always room for improvement. One of those areas is getting the balance right between regulatory compliance and the need to save lives and property. The new Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Legislation, provided to industry for consultation with only 20 hours allowed to make submissions, is not the answer.

To conclude, as we share common challenges and we both have the best interests of our communities at heart, we are best to work together to achieve the outcomes that we collectively aspire to. 

The civil construction sector looks forward to, and is committed to, working with both central and local government to achieve the best outcomes for all. LG

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