Wellington Scoop

Response, recovery, and rebuilding

by Andy Foster
We are in uncharted waters. There have been many pandemics in history, but never has our modern internationalised global economy and society been quarantined in this way.

As we emerge from the lockdown and partial lockdown of levels 4 and 3, we face significant potential business failure, job and income losses. There are varying estimates as to how many jobs will be lost. What we know is that businesses in tourism, hospitality, accommodation, events including arts and sports, retail and their many support businesses are, and will be, doing it particularly hard. The economy as a whole will shrink. We will be collectively worse off overall at least for some time. There is no question we face a recovery and rebuilding task, but it is one which we can and will achieve – together.

The Wellington City Council’s initial lockdown role was to ensure provision of essential services, like the three waters, transport, rubbish and information, and to ensure initially the orderly withdrawal, and now the reopening, of the huge range of services that the Council provides. It was also to work with community welfare organisations to look after the significantly increased number of people in need of accommodation or food.

During lockdown, Wellington Water and its contractors continued doing a fantastic job with operating and repairing essential services.

In Wellington City, the focus has been on three jobs deemed ‘essential’.

The Willis Street replacement sewer was made operational and Willis Street reopened on time on 31 March. Contractors then switched to relining the critical Moa Point sewer interceptor. That is nearing completion.

The third task is the complex Mount Albert tunnel sludge pipe replacement. German firm Amex Sanivar, and Kiwi firms Hadlee and Brunton, Brian Perry Civil and Stantec are doing an outstanding job. As I write, the first new polyester pipe is now in place and will be operational within a few days. I expect to report more on this later this week.

Your Council is now very much focused on resuming services, and on helping our city reopen and return to life. We are focused on recovery, while not for a moment forgetting the ongoing longer term transformation of our city. We are resuming recycling collection, reopening public access to the landfill, and reopening a host of community services that the Council provides – from libraries to sportsgrounds, pools to community centres.

Financially our immediate response was to allow for deferral of rates and many commercial/ community rentals, as well as freezing fees and charges in the current quarter (April – June). The Council as a business will lose up to $70 million in revenue from parking, recreation facilities, venues, rentals, airport dividend (etc) between 2019/20 and 2020/21. This is the rainy day, and we will debt-fund that, because that revenue will progressively recover. It will impact on future rates but spread over time. It is not so possible to make the case for debt funding the ongoing ‘groceries’ – that is, the Council’s operating expenditure.

Consultation is underway on the 2020/21 Annual Plan. Most importantly we are allowing for targeted rates deferral, which could allow ratepayers particularly badly affected by the Covid-19 lockdown to put off rates payments without the usual penalties.

Rates themselves will be a challenging balancing act. Our starting position for the next four years was agreed in the 2018/28 Long Term (10 year) Plan at increases of 7.1%, 6.8%, 6.2% and 7.0%, and that didn’t include Let’s Get Wellington Moving, Civic Square/Central Library, temporary CBD libraries, additional three waters funding or, of course, Covid-19 impacts. We’ve started the engagement with 5.07%, achieved largely by capitalising the above specific additional costs for a year. I will be really interested in the feedback, and the ideas we get.

In my view, we need to carefully examine every aspect of Council spending, both for this Annual Plan and for the Long Term Plan for next year. The Chief Executive has been tasked to do that, while elected members have agreed to make input too.

In my view, holding back operating costs (which need to be rates-funded in the current year) while increasing capital expenditure (the cost of which is spread over the lifetime of any given asset) is the right balance. There will certainly be a variety of views about that.

The most important actions though are all about recovery. We expect that only a proportion of the workforce will immediately return to downtown Wellington. We know that physical distancing rules under Level 2 will reduce the capacity of most service businesses including retail and especially hospitality. We are engaging daily with businesses and community organisations across the board. There is no substitute for that coalface intelligence to help guide our actions.

Immediate actions

The key is drawing people back to support businesses, especially in the central city. The collective spending of a region of nearly 500,000 will have far greater impact than anything the Council or even Government can do. Now is the time that our businesses need that team of 500,000 backing them.
Emerging into Level 2, it is essential we do this safely – and we all have to play our part. The Prime Minister has talked repeatedly about a ‘team of 5 million.’ This is still very much the time to be about us and about ‘we’.

‘We Wellington’ safety advice and decals are going into venues and businesses. We want our city to feel – and be – welcoming and safe.

The Council and WellingtonNZ this week launched a new Wellington-developed contact tracing app called Rippl, an essential tool for reopening safely. We are making it available free to all businesses and community organisations such as sports clubs.

We are working with hospitality, Police and transport providers to try to ensure our entertainment district reopens safely. The initial focus is on trialling closing Courtenay Place between 11pm and 4am, next Friday and Saturday night, to try to ensure safe physical distancing.

We are working with attractions and venues on plans to open up under Level 2. Obviously the significant health limitations will affect venues to different degrees, but it is exciting to be reopening.

Events are so important in drawing people to Wellington. The limitations of Level 2 are more severe than originally anticipated. (100 people outside was not expected – originally it was 500 – and neither was the maximum of 10 people in a group) That means that any major relaunch is largely focused on Level 1. The expectation appears to be that this will be late winter – early spring. We are looking forward to showcasing the best of Wellington all the way through to Christmas. Winter events such as Matariki are being rethought potentially as we did Anzac commemorations. Extensive, collaborative work is being done on all of this.

Tourism clearly has to be domestic for some time, though we all hope our bubble will extend to Australia and the Pacific nations at some point. Wellington is relatively well placed as we were more domestic and Australia-focused than many parts of the country. Tourism marketing resources will focus on encouraging tourism back to Wellington when we approach Level 1.

The more we can all support our local businesses through this the better. Businesses employ us, sponsor events and organisations. This is their hour of need. That’s why through WellingtonNZ we launched the ‘Love Local’ concept, and then supported Visa Wellington on a Plate’s ‘At Yours’ initiative. WellingtonNZ has provided business advice assistance supported by NZ Trade and Enterprise to many hundreds of businesses already. WellingtonNZ offshoot Creative HQ is running a series called ‘Thrive’ to help businesses rethink their business models if required.

Sports reopening has been one of the more confusing areas. We will look forward to seeing our professional sports teams returning soon to the field or court albeit without spectators. At community level the 10-person limit obviously and frustratingly prevents team sports in particular resuming for now. The four local city councils will do all we can to make field and court space available to allow a decent winter code season for as long as is required. Our artificial turfs get heavily used during normal winter seasons, but much less during summer so that space in particular will be made available. I am also making what’s left of my Mayoral Relief Fund available particularly to help sports organisations financially impacted by Covid keep participants safe when sport resumes.

Jobs are critical. We all need constructive purpose too. The Budget included $1.1 billion to support employment in environmental restoration work. In recent weeks I have been talking with the Department of Conservation and others, and have written formally saying Wellington City wants to participate. The idea is to provide meaningful work while delivering an environmental legacy. We have been on a remarkable environmental restoration journey since 1992, and this would allow us together to supercharge the next steps.

Construction work is also important in keeping jobs. It is also critical in rediscovering our civic confidence. Absolutely Positively Wellington worked because it was built on the substance of Te Papa, the Stadium, a fantastic downtown hospitality economy and nation-leading events programme.

Construction is back underway on the Council’s Town Hall, St James, and Convention and Exhibition Centre projects. We’re supporting heritage restoration and strengthening projects including St John’s and Wesley churches and the Athenic, National Bank and Hooson’s buildings at the corner of Tory and Courtenay Place. Karori’s Events Centre fitout is to finally be completed. We’re also investing in resilience, for example strengthening a major road wall on Grant Road, while the complex Ngaio Gorge project is about to start. We will discuss a paper on the Omaroro Reservoir next week.

We have sought Government support for a wide range of shovel-ready projects. This includes, with our Regional Council and NZTA partners, accelerating some $350 million of transformative safety, walking, cycling and bus priority projects. This week we heard submissions on safer (30kph) speed limits for the central city by Zoom. We want to get things done! Submissions on the citywide Parking Policy close at the same time as the Annual Plan (8 June). Work is also proceeding at pace on the business cases for State Highway and Mass Transit investment.

Among the shovel-ready projects we’ve also sought support for core water infrastructure investment and building projects like Te Ngakau Civic Square. On 27 May the Council will discuss a public paper (at last, I hear many people say!) on our Central Library. You’ll be able to look at the engineering information, and think about the opportunities for a 21st Century library, and the wider context of Civic Square.

Those are just some of the multitude of areas of work done in this Covid-19 environment to help our city get through, recover, and rebuild. There will be some tough times ahead, but we will get through, and if we learn the lessons from lockdown, we will come out kinder, stronger and better. He waka eke noa.

Andy Foster is Mayor of Wellington


  1. michael, 16. May 2020, 10:23

    Looking forward to seeing the engineering report on the Central Library, as post-covid, the library closure is going to have one of the biggest impacts on Wellingtonians who see this as the hub of our city. It is disappointing it has taken so long.

  2. Helene Ritchie, 16. May 2020, 11:53

    Can you please release the engineers’ report on the library now.

  3. Tim Jones, 16. May 2020, 12:48

    Thank you for this summary of what’s been going on. Like many people, I’m looking forward to seeing the proposals and rationales for the future of the Central Library, including how it can be located and built in a way that makes it resilient to both earthquakes and sea level rise.

    I’ve been impressed by Councillors’ enthusiasm to make big gains for people on foot and people on bikes during this period – and the environmental restoration fund is great news too.

    There are some big questions still to address: for example, I think Wellington needs to have conversations about the future of the airport, and about whether we want the cruise ship industry back in our port.

  4. Al, 16. May 2020, 13:03

    The community really wants the Central Library fixed.

  5. Joanne Perkins, 16. May 2020, 13:22

    You really don’t seem to understand what the people of Wellington are saying it seems to me. The people’s priority is fixing the Central Library while you just give it a passing mention. Why have the engineering reports – I know there’s been more than one – not been released to the people who actually paid for them. Because Mr Mayor, everything the council does is paid for by the ratepayers in one way or another and they have consistently said no to the conference centre which will be a huge white elephant and a drag on ratepayers for many years with no returns for said ratepayers. They have just as consistently called for the library to be fixed because even if it costs, there is a return in the library for the ratepayers, a building that used to have up to a million visitors per year and that is loved by us all.

  6. James, 16. May 2020, 13:36

    Why can’t the report on civic square be released before 27 May so members of the public have a chance to comment and councillors can hear what ratepayers think before they make decisions.

  7. John Klimenko, 16. May 2020, 13:54

    There are some interesting items in the annual plan document. If these go through, it would appear that the Central Library will no longer fulfill that function and that temporary libraries will become the norm. As we have not seen the report on the Central Library building, I begin to wonder if this building is a serious risk as an Earthquake Prone Building. Please involve the ratepayers and citizens and DO NOT allow officers to make the policy and decisions for you.

  8. judy siers, 16. May 2020, 18:04

    An excellent article Andy, containing hope for real progress on so many problems facing the city, and in particular the Central Library. The public’s relentless call for action must not be ignored any longer. I optimistically read that it could be aligned with the shovel-ready Civic Square project resulting in fast action. I hope I am not dreaming, and that the meeting of 27 May will be a release of full information and the way forward to restoration and reopening.

  9. Benny, 16. May 2020, 19:00

    Where is the climate emergency declared last year by the council? There’s lots of evidence that the next big crisis will be the climate one.

  10. BrooklynBrooklyn, 17. May 2020, 10:04

    Central Library is incredibly important to the community. It is heartbreaking that there are no plans to fix it. The lack of urgency speaks volumes.

    Also, if you’re going to close Courtenay Place between 11pm-4am, people will just head to the bars on Cuba.

  11. Jill Ford, 17. May 2020, 10:04

    Climate change will have a huge impact on our city, and we as a city need to do our bit, yet reducing our carbon emissions is not mentioned. Our biggest emissions are transport, yet what’s proposed so far by the council is going to make very little difference. Having more dedicated bus lanes and building bike lanes is way less expensive than a music centre, which is hardly essential. And will help us reduce our carbon emissions and help make the city more sustainable for the future at little cost. Compared to some of the big ticket items.

  12. Conor, 17. May 2020, 14:01

    What does this mean in practice: “… holding back operating costs (which need to be rates-funded in the current year) while increasing capital expenditure (the cost of which is spread over the lifetime of any given asset) is the right balance.” Could this mean firing people who work in Libraries, Pools and Parks and Gardens so that roading engineers could be paid to design a second Mt Vic Tunnel?

  13. Pauline Swann, 18. May 2020, 11:10

    I would remind Mayor Foster that on the 21st January he said that by the end of March among other things he would reintroduce free central city parking on Sundays. A number of Sunday Concert and Circa patrons who live in Kapiti and the Hutt Valley are telling me they are seriously considering not renewing their bookings but will support similar concerts in their regions where they can enjoy not only these outings but a relaxed coffee/tea and shopping visit before or after their entertainment. And of course they love to visit our Central Library and the wonderful café upstairs, as do we Wellingtonians.

  14. Concerned Wellingtonian, 18. May 2020, 11:43

    I am unnerved at the above mention of “several” engineering reports. Is this because the first one didn’t suit the officers? Is it being suppressed on grounds like it is “a draft report”? What massaging is going on behind the scenes? Have any of these reports been discussed with councillors?

  15. Shaun, 19. May 2020, 10:50

    “think about the opportunities for a 21st Century library, and the wider context of Civic Square”. This reads as code for not reopening the Central Library and whatever utterly inadequate non library that is eventually provided being a decade or two in the future. Shame on you Andy Foster, you promised us the Central Library repaired in the election run up.

  16. Andy Foster, 19. May 2020, 19:54

    Thanks for the comments everyone. My article was about recovery response and planning.

    You will have the paper on the library at the end of this week. It was originally scheduled for the end of March – the timetable I promised – but Covid got in the way. It has taken a bit of pushing to get it here this week. I did that because it is so important, as many of your comments clearly show.

    John Klimenko – re the Annual Plan. It merely reflects that two temporary CBD libraries are already in place, the third (in the Harbour City Centre) will open in a couple of months. They were put in place at speed to at least keep some library service in the Central City.

    Brooklyn Brooklyn – it looks like you think we are closing Courtenay Place’s bars and restaurants. Not at all – all that is being considered is closing the street to traffic between 11pm and 4am Friday and Saturday night as a trial. That is to allow sufficient space for safe physical distancing.

    Pauline Swann – submissions on the Citywide Parking Policy close on 8 June. Please make a submission and encourage the friends you mention to do likewise. https://www.letstalk.wellington.govt.nz/managecityparking

    Kind regards, Andy

  17. Sean, 22. May 2020, 17:18

    Checked the WCC site Friday after 5pm and no sign of the promised “paper on the library at the end of this week” in Andy Foster’s response above. Not under “News” or on the page about the closure. A search reveals little that hasn’t been there since 2019. We are told by one page that this engineering report was to be delivered at the end of October 2019 though. [Well, there’s been a media release from the council tonight, but it doesn’t include the engineers’ report, which seems however to have been given to the NZ Herald. But not to wellington.scoop. And there’s no commitment to save the library.]

  18. Wendy, 24. May 2020, 11:46

    Andy Foster please release the FULL REPORT on the library now! We have waited for months for you to fulfil your promise. We do not want WCC staff produced summaries, or reports on the report – we want the original report in its entirety, so we can make our own informed decisions away from WCC bias.

    For years it has become very clear that, unless there a better and stronger public representative system in place for consultation, the public voice will always remain “optional” in terms of WCC decision making, the library becoming a prime example of this.