Wellington Scoop

What they say and what they do

Many of wellington.scoop’s erudite commenters seem to be a bit frustrated at the lack of direction from the Wellington City Council on key issues: the airport, climate change, Let’s Get Wellington Procrastinating, and more. Some of the frustration appears to stem from a basic misunderstanding of what the council does, so here’s a short public service announcement to try and clear up the confusion.

It’s all about the infrastructure

Most councils spend most of their time and effort making sure the pipes work, the excess rain drains into the harbour, the toilets flush and the roads don’t have too many pot-holes. Some extra effort goes into picking up the rubbish, recycling a few bits and chucking the rest in a hole in the ground. Once the rates have paid for these basics, there’s not a heck of a lot of money left over for all the glitzy stuff, like painting pedestrian crossings in rainbow colours. But as the vast majority of people think infrastructure is a pretty boring subject (fair enough), most of the debate is about the glitzy stuff, not the boring stuff. Wastewater and stormwater are only interesting when they don’t work – and interesting in the bad way, rather than the good way – but it’s always helpful to realise that this is the iceberg below the surface of the council; big, expensive, and problematic if not managed carefully.

Infrastructure geeks don’t get elected

Because no-one cares about the city’s plumbing unless it goes wrong, you won’t find a single candidate trying to get elected on a resounding platform of innovative wastewater efficiency. Largely, candidates and councillors want to talk about the glitzy stuff – specifically, the glitzy stuff that matters to them. Some people care about climate change, some about social housing, others want shorter driving times to the airport, yet others just want a secure job and a bit of public kudos for three years. But in the context of what the council needs to spend money on, like digging up the old pipes that leak and putting new ones that don’t, the enthusiasms of individual councillors are typically a long way down the priority list. So there’s very little linkage between the issues that candidates campaign on, and what the council subsequently spends money on.

Councils are about the talk, not the action

Partly because there isn’t that much money to spend on the glitzy stuff, partly because of the inertia of the council bureaucracy, and partly because of the predilections of the individuals we’ve been electing to council for the last decade or so, there’s always much more talk than action. Simply having meetings, consulting the public, writing reports, considering reports, debating reports, sending reports back to be re-written to fit with another set of ever-changing strategies, and failing to resolve what to do about the reports has now become an end in itself. The whole endlessly repeating meet-consult-report-procrastinate loop is the council operating as designed. The poster child for this behaviour is, of course, Let’s Get Wellington Yawning, an example of the pointless yap that’s intended to deflect the need for a decision for aeons to come, and which will probably be held up as a textbook case of governance dither to future generations.

Action is always the responsibility of other people

If councils get around to deciding about anything, the responsibility for taking action will almost always be delegated to someone else – and the two favourites are generally property owners and central government. The recent mayoral taskforce on insurance in the capital is a prime example of the behaviour: looking at the recommendations from this august body that spent months talking and agonising, the short summary is that (a) apartment owners will just have to suck it up, and (b) the government should do something! Whatever you might think of the outcomes of this particular talk-fest, it’s pretty clear that the council is playing to type – whatever needs to happen, it won’t involve the council spending a dollar or lifting a finger. Again, this is the council operating as designed.

Councillors oppose, they don’t propose

Partly because they only care about the glitzy stuff and partly because we’ve elected a few too many ideologues, most councillors tend to vote things down rather than try and improve the city. It’s very difficult to get re-elected on the basis of the toilets continuing to flush and the quality of the roads being about the same as they were a few years ago, so councillors need to demonstrate a win or two to their constituents. Given that none of their pet projects are likely to get underway, the best way to do this is by opposing things – such as Shelly Bay, perhaps. After all, it’s easier to vote against a proposal than to do any of the hard work associated with building a coalition around the council table that will push an initiative forward. That’s possibly why we now have a mayor who is opposed to the Shelly Bay development without ever presenting a coherent plan for what would happen instead – except, of course, for the usual meet-consult-report-procrastinate loop.

The problem isn’t them, it’s us

Obviously we keep electing people who exhibit the behaviours that are ensuring the capital is slowly stagnating. That’s on us. But part of the problem is that when candidates say they can sort out social housing/make the city more inclusive/cure climate change/achieve world peace, we make the mistake of believing them. If we were all a bit more skeptical – and perhaps asked them what they know about how to keep the city’s pipes running efficiently – we might end up with a bunch of councillors who were less interesting on Twitter, but who might have the skills and enthusiasms for running the city effectively.

Maybe that’s worth thinking about over the next three years.


  1. Conor, 8. November 2019, 10:27

    Good piece. A city can choose to do what it likes within reason. But yes it seems like almost everything in Wellington is a third rail issue. Including third rail issues. No-one is going to argue against the pipes working though, which I guess is why that doesn’t change? I would add transport and planning to the absolute core part of local government which everyone accepts. And there is more room for debate in these areas. Transport was a big one this election, though there was massive misrepresentation of what council can do here too from probably all candidates, some more than others.

    Planning really should have been a talking point, and the fact that none of the three frontrunners elaborated where they stood on Planning for Growth was a shocker. And yes the consultation seems extremely OTT. Pretty sure it’s deliberate from some councillors. “Consult” is basically a dogwhistle for not making any changes.

    I doubt Twitter had much to do with anything. Justin Lester is about the only Wellington local body politician with much of a following.

  2. PCGM, 8. November 2019, 11:38

    Conor – Keeping the pipes working is obviously a key responsibility of councils, and in my experience it’s managed pretty well by the largely unsung engineering and infrastructure teams, who in the case of some council officers have been making good decisions on behalf of their councils and communities for literally decades. Those hundreds of millions to billions of dollars of assets on council balance sheets are built, maintained and renewed by people who are largely ignored by the public, which does seem like we’re not giving credit where it’s properly due.

    Transport is a core part of local government, but obviously the key bit is the public transport network – which is GWRC, not WCC. And for the record, their public transport responsibilities amount to about 80% of what the regional council does, so the fact that they can make such an unholy mess of their primary responsibility simply boggles the imagination. It’s like having a construction company that routinely puts up buildings that cost a fortune but fall down as soon as they’re completed. If they were a private sector organisation, GWRC would have been bankrupted years ago, and probably prosecuted into the bargain.

    The key issue with WCC is that it’s all talk and no action. But perhaps GWRC should adopt the same approach, because every time they take action it turns into a fiasco!

  3. michael, 8. November 2019, 13:07

    Conor, absolutely agree. Just think, if GWRC hadn’t taken any action on transport in the past couple of years we would still have the trolley buses and a transport system that works.

  4. Conor, 8. November 2019, 15:39

    Glad to hear the pipes mostly run well. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it I guess.

    Yes, totally understand GWRC run the buses. Roads are a biggie too though. At candidate meetings, allocation of road space was important for people. Bus lanes and priority, cycle lanes, weekend parking, streets too narrow for buses, safe speeds, accessibility issues, how many carparks new developments should have (which may have a downstream effect) etc. Collectively this made up the largest portion of questions we were asked. Both the big things and little local ones.

    One other thing I would say is where you stand on climate change should be a good indicator of your approach to important city issues. What transport solutions you favour (including around roadspace allocation) and whether you support an up or out growth model.

  5. PCGM, 8. November 2019, 17:02

    Conor – You make a good point about the road allocation issues, but I think it illustrates the whole meet-consult-report-procrastinate loop perfectly. For instance, the council has been ruminating about getting private cars off Lambton Quay since Kerry Prendergast was mayor and/or dinosaurs still roamed the earth, whichever came sooner. And despite practically every councillor changing over that time period (with the notable exception of Andy Foster, who held the transport portfolio for many years), there’s a reluctance to actually make a decision. And so we’re at it again, despite a fair number of the councillors who have come and gone during that period stating during campaigning that they would push to pedestrianise it. Apparently, what happens on the campaign trail stays on the campaign trail, and need never make it to actual council policy.

  6. Conor, 8. November 2019, 20:20

    Oh I completely agree with you on consultation. As one of those twitterers you reference, I expressed my extreme frustration at that being put out to consultation again. It’s possibly the only policy that Bob Jones and the Greens agree on. Do it already. The speed limit is even more ridiculous as a consulting piece. There is nothing to consult on.

  7. steve doole, 8. November 2019, 20:55

    Wooden Pipes! Agreed – it is not a glitzy topic. My brother worked replacing 100 year old drains and sewers across Te Aro. I assume there are none left now.
    Footpaths and steps might be similar for councillors, as the WCC teams do pretty well sweeping and maintaining them. Not so sure about the council town planning team approach as new stairs to new streets in our hilly suburbs seem few. A change in planning emphasis toward walkability of suburban streets might mean residents making fewer car trips.

  8. Russel D, 9. November 2019, 7:47

    Seriously “the problem is us not them”? We did not elect the CE and we did not choose the LTP or agendas. The Council closed the Library and refused to reopen the Town Hall despite our protests. I could go on and on.
    The Council indecision making when it comes to ” what they should do” is mind boggling. Yet in declaring a emergency in a non emergency area (the climate) they excel.

  9. luke, 9. November 2019, 9:50

    Far too many councils in the region and consequently nothing actually happens. As the supercity was rejected, i’d like to see some merging of the councils. From nine down to five or something.

  10. Henry Filth, 9. November 2019, 14:03

    Yes. Wellington needs better politicians. When was the last time that anyone retired from Parliament to stand for the Wellington mayoralty?

  11. Dave B, 14. November 2019, 14:44

    @ Henry Filth. Fran Wilde I think. But I wouldn’t advocate going back to her style of mayoralty.