Saving money on children, but not on roads

For a moment, it might have been possible to think that Bill English was talking this morning about why his government can’t afford the Basin Reserve flyover and the Kapiti Expressway. But no. His statement about the need for financial caution was all on the subject of child poverty.

Net core Crown debt has risen from $10 billion four years ago to more than $50 billion today and, in difficult financial times, the public expects policies to be costed and evidence-based. New programmes are worth funding only if they change people’s lives for the better. Too often, governments have, for political reasons, persisted with programmes that have been ineffective and expensive.

That’s his explanation why the government can’t afford to pay for all the recommendations in the report on child poverty from the Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group. But the government should now be applying the same judgements to the millions being spent by its Transport Agency.

For example, let’s apply the “expensive” argument to the Agency’s insistence that it must build a flyover at the Basin Reserve. Here’s what Christine McCarthy of the Architecture Centre wrote in September:

Option X will be approximately $10 million less … because it will maximise the benefit of the Memorial Park tunnel. This saving does not take into account the additional … cost of including an $11million grandstand for the Basin Trust, which would increase the cost advantage of Option X to more than $20 million. Not only is … Option X cheaper, it will also provide better green connections across the city from Memorial Park through to the town belt. It will provide more recreational spaces and safer routes for the children going to the many schools in this area.

Save the Basin convenor Kent Duston is another who has pointed out that savings could be made if the Transport Agency would stop being stubborn about the flyover. In August he detailed the extraordinary inflation that has been involved with the project.

In 2007, Wellingtonians were promised an iconic design for a crucial heritage precinct, at a cost of $27 million. Instead we’ve been handed an ugly motorway on-ramp for $90 million that will destroy much of what our city values at the Basin Reserve. The flyover is on track to be the most expensive road in New Zealand’s history. The Transport Agency is intending to spend $90 million to build just 400 metres of road, plus the inevitable cost over-runs. It’s clearly a lousy investment for the country, and represents a degree of fiscal irresponsibility that hasn’t been seen since the Think Big era.

Another way the Transport Agency spends the government’s money is by hiring consultants to support its plans. It has paid for 24 reports supporting the flyover. It also commissioned a report which attacked Option X. As Kent Duston wrote last year, the report found four reasons to oppose the green spaces in the plan:

Opus could think of only one reason why green space stretching from Government House, in front of local schools, and across to the Basin Reserve would be a good idea. But they could think of four reasons why the green space would be a bad idea. And one of those is that a park would be “under-utilised, dis-functional [and] potentially unsafe” – presumably in contrast to the highly utilized, attractive and cosmopolitan urban environments in the shadows underneath their preferred flyover… Most of the negatives they claim – to boil it down, the inability to drive to the door because of the presence of a beautiful park – would be regarded as a huge benefit in practically any capital city in the world

Saving money. Changing people’s lives for the better. There are many more reasons why the government should be reconsidering the need for a flyover. Christmas should be a time for it to re-set its priorities.


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