The deafening silence around infrastructure

28 Oct 2021 8:21 AM | Anonymous

by Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate

Right now one fundamental issue is failing to ignite public debate in New Zealand.

Infrastructure is the foundation of every single community – pipes, roads, power and more. But it is poorly understood, poorly appreciated and poorly funded. We have a massive infrastructure issue looming. Yet there is a frightening gap between the investment that’s budgeted in council’s Long-Term Plans, and the money available to fund that investment. 

Nor is there yet any certainty from Government as to how Wellington may step up to help in a meaningful way. Tools like the Infrastructure Acceleration Fund will barely scratch the surface. In mid-October there was a bi-partisan announcement around housing intensification. This change will drive growth in cities like mine to put in more desperately needed housing, much faster. That’s great, but more housing needs more infrastructure. Right now, I’m not hearing too much said about that.

The implications for existing infrastructure from the latest Government announcement are yet to be fully understood but some things are crystal clear. The infrastructure costs incurred as a result of increased intensification will be huge. There is not enough money in council coffers to pay and nor is there any willingness from ratepayers to fund more.

As a politician, this issue is frustrating. Our communities simply do not understand what is coming and not enough people are talking about it. Local government has some responsibility for that. We are good at taking apart the smaller issues that people can more easily understand and even better at talking about parks and playgrounds that people can see and touch.

But when it comes to hidden infrastructure, it’s different. Out of sight, out of mind.  We are not so good at driving important conversations about massive, long-term concerns that don’t naturally sit within a three-year election cycle. We might communicate the costs of infrastructure to help explain large rates rises. But we don’t do so well in communicating the economic, environmental, and social benefits that our communities demand and that infrastructure drives.

When it comes to infrastructure the challenges for local government are huge and Hamilton is no exception. We have seen a massive increase in both the scale and value of our capital works programme as we seek to keep up with growth plus meet our legal and growing environmental obligations.

We have signalled $1.07 billion of ‘unfunded’ infrastructure in the first 10 years of our 30-year Infrastructure Strategy. That’s $145m in water, $204m in wastewater, $49m in stormwater, $542m in transport, $94m in parks and $40m for community infrastructure assets. At year 11, those costs blow out of all proportion.

Those are eye-watering figures and are unaffordable for a city which is already carrying significant infrastructure-driven debt.

Hamilton is not alone in this. All councils are under pressure to deliver more but keep rates down. Local politicians have been accused of ignoring issues – like infrastructure investment – which will come to a head in 30 years’ time, in favour of dealing with issues which are important, right now, to their communities. 

I’ve heard it said we must take the politics out of technical decisions. But one thing is stark. As the HCC Infrastructure Strategy makes clear, “…we need to change. Making incremental and minor changes to how we plan, deliver and fund infrastructure will not be enough.” 

We will not make substantive progress on this issue, and the challenges ahead, if we do not talk openly with our communities and government about their expectations and the very real funding gap we are facing.  We might be concerned within our sectors, but when it comes to a conversation about infrastructure, we are leaving the public behind.

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