Wellington Scoop

Paying (or not paying) for pipes

aro st geyser edited

by Lindsay Shelton
Last year Wellington had turd taxis. And a poo-nami. This year we’ve had sucker trucks and a geyser. Different responses each time that more of the city’s old pipes collapse. Pipes that are often over a century old.

Has anyone noticed that the council-owned Wellington Water has turned to out-sourcing as one of its ways of coping?

In 2019 it contracted Fulton Hogan to deal with its problems for the next ten years …

…. to improve customer service delivery and customer experience, create efficiency and value for money around the delivery of network maintenance work … The contract will look after the day-to-day maintenance and operations we carry out on the three water networks (drinking water, stormwater and wastewater), such as assessing leaks, fixing mains bursts, flooding, etc.

Did Fulton Hogan take on more than they were expecting? You can hardly say that the customer experience has improved. In the DomPost on Monday, news that

more than 2000 wastewater pipe bursts [were] recorded in Wellington Water’s latest annual report – or more than 40 a week.

The DomPost report goes on to say:

… the problems are the result of decades of under-investment. The council estimates it will cost between $2.2 billion and $4.5 billion over the next 30 years to bring the sewerage infrastructure up to scratch.

Mayor Andy Foster set up a task force to tell us what needs to be done. Here’s what he wrote in December, introducing the report from his task force:

Although WCC has been fully depreciating its water assets for many years, and providing the funding requested, the actual level of renewals investment has consistently been significantly lower than the depreciation collected. Significant funding has been directed to other projects. The result is that the network is ageing and deteriorating, leading to increases in pipe breakages and increasing water loss and wastewater leakage.

This wasn’t what we were being told a year ago. February last year was a bad month for broken pipes. But those in charge wanted us to believe it was only “bad luck.” A message that pretty quickly lost credibility. And now everybody knows – for years, we’ve failed to spend enough money on the pipes.

If there’s no longer any problem identifying the cause of all the bursting pipes (though denials from past mayors are still being heard), the next step is to start replacing them, before they burst. The challenge is this: when will we find the money?

Having outsourced all maintenance, Wellington Water has also tried to distance itself from the sewerage breakdowns, with a $170m contract for a French company to run its wastewater treatment plants. The deal with Veolia was also signed in 2019. But in spite of the international company taking over responsibility, problems have continued – most recently last week at Titahi Bay.

So many levels of delegation. Our councils set up a committee and the committee oversees the delegation of responsibilities to Wellington Water. Wellington Water has then been delegating responsibility, expensively, to private companies. Creating how many degrees of separation between our elected representatives and the bursting pipes. So far, it’s been a matter of fixing each burst as it happens, without any programme to get pro-active and replace pipes before they break. When that programme emerges (when?) our councillors – so far removed from what’s going wrong – will have to decide how it’ll be paid for.

DomPost: Mayor announces plan to revamp wastewater network by spending $40m over five years. There is no information on the Wellington City Council website or the Wellington Water website about the plan.


  1. Wild Beast, 3. February 2021, 10:55

    Bring back the days of in-house maintenance. When people knew what they were doing and what needed doing and it was not for profit. Now it’s all ass covering, buck passing, ticket clipping and deferred maintenance. Sure there will be howls of how it wasn’t efficient or you can hold contractors to account now but I’d defy anyone to explain how this is a better system. There also needs to be a review of where the money that was meant for the pipes went and who signed off on it.

  2. Local, 3. February 2021, 10:57

    Lindsay a good overview but I take issue. We the ratepayers (not the councillors) will have to decide how to pay for this. I will have to set up a special account … and start saving. I wish I could be insured against Council’s ineptitude.

  3. RH, 3. February 2021, 12:09

    And every level of delegation from the councillors down clip the ticket on the way through. The art of delegation seems a thriving industry. All paid for by us ratepayers. These SERVICES need to be bought back in house, giving the Councillors something to spend their time overseeing.

  4. Toni, 3. February 2021, 14:53

    It is not surprising Wellington is in this situation as, by out-sourcing, it has lost control of our infrastructure through the depletion of in-house expertise and management and the added layers of out-sourcing. Each layer also means more costs associated with the private companies’ responsibilities to make profits for their shareholders on limited budgets that ultimately impact on the standard of service.

    A report from APSE in the UK notes that not only do UK councils save money with in-sourcing but also it gives them a much better overview as to where money is really needed, and should be directed, rather than being stuck in ridged delivery arrangements. Insourcing can not only restore control and quality, but also contribute to new forms of income.

    To this end the report has many recommendations, two of which are:

    “Public bodies like local councils should having a rolling calendar review in advance of contract end dates or break clauses. This will ensure that adequate plans and arrangements can be put in place to ensure insourcing is a workable option rather than being forced into contract renewals either on a short term or longer-term basis. This places more power back in the hands of the client local council. Insourcing can be used to support local economies, and the environment, through jobs, skills, supply chain management and local spend. This should be evaluated when insourcing is considered and fairly weighted on any options appraisal”.

  5. nemo, 3. February 2021, 14:58

    I think we have to face the facts that the earthquakes over the last few years have done far more damage below the ground than above it. Virtually every pipe made from terracotta, brick, asbestos, or concrete must be assumed to have been compromised and needs to be replaced. Pipes made of plastic or metal are more likely to have survived. Any pipes set into reclaimed soil – ie virtually every pipe in the downtown CBD – are at risk. Plus, the pipes there are all going to need to be relaid at some stage to address sea level rise as well, suspected to be about 1.35m by the end of this century.

    What are we going to do about it? I suspect that the only realistic option is to start from one end of the city and rip up every street, and replace every single old pipe. Do it once – do it properly. Raise the rates, get it done. Stop pussy-footing about. Start digging now. Its not a “blame the council” problem – its all of our problems.

  6. Sophie Simons, 3. February 2021, 16:43

    We need a Ministry of Works. All of the issues we have seen in the capital [Aro Valley water mains burst, sinkhole in Jervois Quay, sewerage leak into the harbour, etc, etc] would be heavily mitigated/streamlined if we had one. [via twitter]

  7. Chris Murray, 3. February 2021, 23:16

    Turns out a culture of under investment in infrastructure is a bad idea. We’ve tried it for 30 years. Shame it’s essentially a core value for the Nats, and many regional authorities. [via twitter]

  8. D'Esterre, 6. February 2021, 10:12

    Sophie Simons: “We need a Ministry of Works.”

    We surely do. We have the Lange government (and Richard Prebble, as I recall) to thank for its disestablishment in 1988 or thereabouts. And it’s been sorely missed ever since. We’re among the many who’d welcome its (or a similar entity’s) re-establishment. However, as a rule, it didn’t get involved with local government issues.

    In the past, all Councils had an engineering department, headed by a city engineer. This department was responsible for all engineering works in its area. We lost all of this in the local government reforms from the 1980s onward.

  9. Keith Flinders, 8. February 2021, 10:52

    Well at least the temporary Aro Street fountain presented a powerful display, unlike the Carter Fountain in Oriental Bay currently. The Carter Fountain when it now plays, infrequently, is about as exciting to watch as a garden sprinkler, and appears as though it has a prostate issue.

    This fountain has been throttled to allow yet another repeat of the images projected on to its spray which can only bee seen from Oriental Bay, not the huge “audience” the fountain normally caters for. Oriental Bay does not attract throngs of people after the sun goes down and the viewing numbers from the band rotunda at 9:30 read. Thursday = nil, Friday 3, Saturday 4, Sunday 5. The numbers last summer were about the same.

    Perhaps CentrePort could be prevailed upon to erect a wall of containers at the edge of the port to project the images on to, and which greater numbers could enjoy.