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A once in a generation chance

By Hon Shane Jones, Minister of Infrastructure, Regional Economic Development and Forestry.

While I’m told quoting Machiavelli on the radio did no favours to heart rates in my office, the point I made, namely that opportunity borne from crisis should not be wasted, will not be lost on the local government sector.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, a group of industry leaders led by Crown Infrastructure Partners’ chairman, Mark Binns, are working to bring to Ministers a list of infrastructure projects that will form a solid start for our post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

I would like to take this chance to thank the councils that have worked hard to bring lists of projects together at short notice.

In an environment in which council finances are under pressure, and core infrastructure in both urban and provincial areas is creaking due to years of under-investment, there is indeed now a once in a generation chance for major projects such as three waters infrastructure to be expedited.

This should give you all a sense of the projects Ministers will look favourably upon – those that not only provide an economic and employment boost in the short term and give certainty to our construction sector, but will have a positive and enduring impact on the lives of everyday New Zealanders.

It is difficult to overstate the potential economic impact if our recovery fails to fire on all cylinders. The human cost would be unthinkable for a modern, well-governed, first world country. That is why this is no time for the usual labyrinth of red tape to frustrate the plan to propel us from the economic doldrums.

My colleague, Environment Minister David Parker, is considering how we can tame the RMA and consenting process to allow good projects to get underway fast, and I have engaged constructively as Infrastructure and Regional Economic Development Minister, as well as someone tasked by Cabinet with helping to leading the Government’s economic response.

As I have said publicly, we need to embrace innovative new ideas, like self-consenting powers for some agencies to deliver projects at the lower end of the risk scale.

I would implore all those involved in consenting at a local government level to assist Ministers in this process.

Engage constructively, consider how you can reduce the regulatory burden, and always bear in mind the bigger picture. Our ability to get back to normal and tackle the full range of issues the country faces in the long term, none of which have gone away, is dependent on a singular focus in the short term. Without this, we risk failure on both fronts.

This work is inextricably linked with the Provincial Growth Fund which, as announced last month, is being repurposed to prioritise our economic recovery. Some projects, particularly in areas such as tourism, will sadly no longer be a priority for regions.

While there has been some consternation about the prospect of projects on the chopping block, I have no interest in overseeing a top down, opaque, Wellington-led process here. From day one, the PGF has prioritised engagement with, and understanding of, our regional economies and their people, resources, and priorities. While some will undoubtedly be disappointed, these tough decisions will be made with the long term economic interests of our regions in mind.

As further announcements are made in coming weeks and months, you will see the PGF prioritise immediate support for displaced workers, programmes like apprenticeships to promote future employment, business investment that promotes economic and employment growth, and infrastructure investments.

Again, success in this area will be dependent on the ability of those behind projects to quickly navigate the regulatory maze, and stay true to the refrain of shovel-readiness.

I do encourage councils in our regions to engage with the Provincial Development Unit if they have shovel-ready projects of under $10 million that have no consenting hold-ups and will provide immediate economic stimulation and jobs.

It would be remiss of me to not mention forestry, a cornerstone of employment and economic activity in a number of our regions and an industry hit hard by COVID-19. Initially, the impact was on harvesting activity due to the slow-down in China. Over the last month most of the forestry and processing supply chain has been shut down as non-essential during Alert Level 4.

My goal is not just to ensure a smooth and timely restart by the sector, but for it to emerge from the current crisis stronger than ever, with a bigger focus on domestic processing and less reliance on the export of raw logs overseas. This means prioritising a supply of logs for the mills here in New Zealand before worrying about those overseas. A number of options for effecting this step change, including a log buyer registration scheme and further PGF investment, are being considered by the Government now, and further announcements will be made in due course.

My parting message to local government is this: the scale of the task at hand is near-unrivalled in our nation’s history. While central government must take the lead in responding, this is a challenge that requires all of New Zealand to work together, in a way perhaps at odds with the political and economic ethos forged in the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

I look forward to working with you as we rise to the challenge of COVID-19, and back up our decisive public health response with an even stronger economic one.

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