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Rating the “shovel-ready” projects

Mayor Andy Foster has announced that funding for ten shovel-ready projects [1] has been sought from Crown infrastructure Partners, with the aim of helping the capital bounce back from the worst economic effects of Covid-19. Some of these seem like a great idea, and some … well, rather less so. Let’s take a look and see how they measure up.

Omāroro Reservoir, Mt Cook
They say: This $52 million quake-resistant reservoir is fully-consented. When completed it will hold 35 million litres of water to supply 70,000 people in the CBD and adjoining low-lying areas.
We say: Total no-brainer. It’s already consented and will make a big difference to our earthquake resilience. Let the shovelling begin!

Flood-protection schemes in Hunter Street (CBD), Kilbirnie and Tawa – $47 million total
They say: These projects aim to stop flooding in low-lying areas – the Hunter Street and Kilbirnie areas are also facing problems associated with sea-level rise.
We say: It’s not clear from our friend Google how advanced these projects really are. The only information on the city council’s website is the announcement that they’re looking for funding from the government, but hopefully it’s a bit more than a gleam in the eye of a city planner. And irrespective of its apparent usefulness, the question has to be asked: why are we spending $47 million patching up the effects of climate change rather than – say – spending $47 million on preventing it in the first place?

CBD wastewater upgrades
They say: This $31 million project aims to strengthen the wastewater network in the Te Aro area and take into account its rising population.
We say: Translated into English, the announcement really means “This project attempts to make up the spending deficit on our ageing pipes, and helps cover up the fact that we directed the essential capital into vanity projects instead.” Probably shovel-ready since about 2005, and procrastinated about ever since.

Wellington Convention & Exhibition Centre
They say: Preliminary work on this $180 million 5-star green-rated building has begun.
We say: An entirely stupid idea whose time has passed, given legs because there wasn’t a single politician in Wellington with the brains and the moxie to actually stop the damn thing. It will serve no useful purpose and will be a burden on ratepayers for aeons to come. But hey – let’s not be negative. If we really want some employment benefit out of this misbegotten disaster of a project, our suggestion is to go ahead and build it to keep the tradies occupied, then burn it down on the day it opens – and collect the insurance cheque.

St John’s site redevelopment (Karori) – $25 million
They say: This could feature a mix of housing units and commercial space.
We say: The use of the word “could” is a bit difficult when the projects are meant to be shovel-ready. We presume it “could” be designed, it “could” be consented, and construction “could” start by May next year (the criteria for the funding) if all the stars aligned, and … hey, did you just see that whole squadron of pigs fly past?!

Harrison Street and Nairn Street social housing developments
They say: Two new-build projects, worth $17 million in total, to provide 47 social housing units (232 bed spaces).
We say: Again, it’s hard to tell how shovel-ready the project is. If the designs and consents are in place, then fine – but if not, it looks a bit like the St John’s development; a perfectly fine idea in theory that’s nowhere close to being a perfectly fine idea in practice. The council’s website says that options are still being considered, so the consideration part of the process is going to have to accelerate a lot to meet the required May 2021 start date.

National Music Centre – in Te Ngākau Civic Square
They say: This will involve the $84 million strengthening and reconfiguration of the 1950s Municipal Office Building to provide teaching and office space for the NZSO and Victoria University.
We say: Another demonstration of how slowly the wheels move around the council. The announcement about the music school moving into the old council building was made back in June 2019 [2] and there haven’t been any updates since. Perhaps engineering and design work has been completed, perhaps consents have been applied for, or perhaps it’s all in the same too-hard basket as the decisions about the Library. It would be great if it did get started, because bringing some life back to Civic Square is long overdue, but we would caution against anyone holding their breath on this one.

Wellington Museum (Queens Wharf)
They say: $31 million strengthening of the grade 1 heritage-listed Bond Store and internal revamp to transform the museum visitor experience.
We say: A fabulous idea, but there’s nothing about the project on the council’s website nor on the Museum’s website, and our friend Google isn’t being much more helpful. Perhaps the engineering work and the plans and the consent drawings are sitting on top of a dusty cupboard somewhere, and the tradies can get to work as soon as, but right now this appears to fall into the charitably-described “aspirational” category.

City Housing upgrade programme
They say: $180 million over 10 years. This will continue the ongoing upgrade of the Council’s social-housing stock, by improving kitchens, bathrooms, insulation, heating and ventilation.
We say: It’s pretty much announcing what’s already been announced, but with the government picking up the tab. You’ll recall that the council agreed on a 20 year programme to upgrade the capital’s social housing stock, worth $400 million, back in 2007. The government was contributing $220 million, and the council was meant to come up with the other $180 million … so the request is basically the WCC asking the government to pay for the whole thing. And it’s not really clear if this will create a single new job, because wasn’t this work going to happen anyway?

Island Bay cycleway
They say: $14 million project to further improve the cycleway with an emphasis on safety for cyclists, residents and pedestrians.
We say: If we’re going to throw more cash at the Island Bay cycleway, at least it will be someone else’s money.

Our verdict: On balance, the project list from the city council has some good bits and some less good bits – but more concerning are the requests for funding where the projects clearly aren’t ready for prime time. (And the absence of projects that should be fast-forwarded – yes, I’m looking at the Central Library.)

For an organisation with as many staff and as many resources as the council, what’s most disappointing is not the choices they’ve made, but how few choices there really are. The city lacks vision and leadership, and the project list the council has submitted to the government simply underlines this.

Post-COVID, we need to do better.