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Getting what the government will pay for

by PCGM
With the country squashing the pandemic curve and the government concerned about rebooting the economy, attention is now turning to funding the recovery. In practical terms, that means throwing cash at projects that can be started right now – in the vernacular, they need to be shovel-ready. Sadly, Wellington is risking being the biggest loser when it comes to the impending avalanche of money from a suddenly-generous government.

Here’s the announcement from Crown Infrastructure Partners [1] from last week, shopping for all the things that can be started in the here-and-now:

Crown Infrastructure Partners Ltd is assisting the Infrastructure Industry Reference Group to advise the Government on issues affecting the construction industry, as a result of the COVID 19 crisis. As an initial task the Reference Group has been asked to prepare a list of infrastructure projects/programmes that are ready for construction and could, if the Government deemed it appropriate, be deployed as part of a stimulatory package.

For the record, the government is looking for the big stuff – construction projects with a price tag of $10 million or more, which can have a decent impact on the economy and which will get people back to work. And the list includes much of the stuff that is important to local government, such as three waters, local roads, community facilities and the like.

The application form for project funding groups proposed projects into three categories:

Category A: Projects which currently are (or were) in the construction phase but have been put on hold due to COVID 19 and are likely not to progress, or to progress at a much slower rate or scale/scope, if not supported post COVID 19
Category B: Projects which have a high expectation of commencing the construction phase within the next six months (by 31 October 2020), but are unlikely to do so due to COVID 19
Category C: Projects which could have been expected to commence the construction phase within the next 12 months (by 30 May 2021), but are unlikely to do so due to COVID 19

And in that innocuous looking list lie the problems for the capital.

Bluntly put: because of the penchant of our local body politicians to talk rather than act, next to nothing is “shovel ready” in any category.

Let’s look at some of the possible contenders for major project funding in Wellington:

The broken water pipes: OK, this one is totally shovel-ready … in fact, it probably was a decade ago. There’s no reason why government money couldn’t flow into the pipes (pun intended) and maybe do something about sewage on the beaches. It’s expensive, time consuming, takes plenty of people – it’s probably an ideal post-COVID infrastructure project. If the council can’t succeed in getting this one across the line with Crown Infrastructure Partners they probably need to resign en masse. But just for the record, the only reason this project is even needed is because the WCC and Wellington Water have stumbled their way into a debacle.

The library – all talk, no action: There’s still no agreed plan for what should happen to the library, so there’s no tenders from construction companies and no shovels standing ready. And does anyone seriously believe that the whole thing can get agreed and designed and consented and tendered so that energetic folk could put their shovels to work by May 2021? Based on the track record of the council, there’s not the slightest chance such an ambitious deadline could be met. (See also: the near-decade it took to get the Town Hall underway). So the much-needed library is pretty much a non-starter.

The airport extension – dead in the water: You’re kidding, right? In a week when the council is actively mulling whether they should provide a financial bail-out to a facility where the revenue has basically stopped overnight, the odds of anyone thinking this would be a good idea are effectively zero. It’s such a dodo of a project that if the government were actually contemplating the runway extension, it would probably be cheapest to build it out of $50 notes bulldozed into the ocean.

Let’s Get Wellington Snoozing – the granddaddy of debacles: About this stage, someone is bound to point out that some fiscal stimulus would be a real help for improving our roads, building light rail, making the buses work better and all the other visionary goals of LGWM. Agreed. But to state the obvious, unless someone has it in mind to pave the Golden Mile with consultants’ reports, not a single element of this never-ending saga is ready for shovels. And there’s plenty of blame to go around for that – from a divided city council to an inept NZTA to a clownish regional council to the constant stream of inter-agency bickering and political grandstanding, Wellington has plenty of people to point the finger at. LGWM should be all ready to get moving and get some essential infrastructure built, but thanks to incompetent local leadership stretching over years-to-decades, not a single shovel is ready to be lifted.

The outlier in all this doom-and-gloom is that truly wonderful development that Wellingtonians have been lined up in the streets cheering about, the convention centre. As it turns out, the diggers are onsite, the shovels are lined up and ready, and the hard-working tradies can spring into action as soon as the lockdown lifts – so it’s a dead ringer to be funded by the government.

The tragedy is, nobody wants it [2], the benefits of a large-scale convention centre in a post-COVID world are entirely mythical, and the finished result will be an albatross around the necks of ratepayers. The one project – other than the pipes – where the capital has a reasonable chance to get a significant injection of cash is a white elephant, fated to be a major contributor to climate change if it works and a dumpster fire for ratepayers if it doesn’t.

You’d think there should be plenty of other projects in the capital where a sudden influx of government cash could be put to good use. But thanks to a long track record of endlessly talking and procrastinating and calling for reports, there’s next to nothing in the pipeline. The few items we do have are either because councillors took their eye off the ball (the pipes) or because councillors took their eye off the ball (the convention centre).

It’s a shameful state of affairs, and one that needs to be laid firmly at the feet of all the councillors – WCC and GWRC – who have collectively dithered and failed to live up to their grand election year promises. There’s a big risk that Wellington is about to miss out on a once-in-a-generation rebuild, to the detriment of our jobs, our economy and the liveability of our city. And if that occurs, calls for the resignations of the guilty and inept must surely follow.