Thursday 25 January 2024

Whatever happened to the idea that building and maintaining infrastructure is council's core business?


YESTERDAY MORNING, THE RESIDENTS OF Waipukurau were awoken to loudspeakers in the street "spreading the message of immediate and vital water restrictions" after a "major leak."

South Wairarapa residents endured water restrictions two weeks ago due to leaks in their water infrastructure.

All summer, water and sewage has continued to pour downs Wellington streets, while water restrictions are imposed in Wellingtonian's homes and the council starts planning for a state of emergency. (An announcement this morning says Wellingtonians should prepare for "Level 3" restrictions, and the declaration of a "drinking water emergency.")

And on Boxing Day in Auckland, thirty-six of Auckland's beaches were off limits because they were contaminated with poo.

It's all a bit shit at the moment, isn't it. All too literally.

Billions of dollars are supposed to be needed to fix New Zealand's threadbare infrastructure after what's said to be decades of underground under-investment.  Local Government New Zealand (a lobby group for the very people who under-invested) reckons we are "heading toward a tragedy if more is not invested in council infrastructure, and that people need to get used to double-digit rates increases." Infrastructure New Zealand (a lobby group who chases government dollars for its members) reckons the number of billions needed is somewhere near 200 billion.

The solution from both lobby groups is supposed to be lots of central government cash.

Meanwhile (to pick one council just at random, since it's where I live) Auckland council's rate this year are going up another 7.5 percent this year. And that's with a mayor supposedly reluctant to raise them. And to pick another (let's use Wellington since it presently has the highest-profile mayor) they've just voted to "invest" $330 millions dollars in a tumble-down town hall —on the back of a 12.3 percent rate rise which still doesn't cover what could be a billion-dollar hole in their accounts.


May I ask a polite question?

Just what the fuck is the primary purpose of local fucking goivernment? 

Whatever happened to the idea that building and maintaining infrastructure is council's core fucking business?

If I refer to my handy copy of G.W.A Bush's history of Auckland Council (if you just give me a moment to find it) we find that the clamour for setting up the damned thing back in the 1840s was because sewage was flowing in the streets. Specifically Queen Street. "Auckland," wrote the 1847 editor of The New Zealander, while it is "erected in the healthiest country in the world, has enough filthy lanes and dirty drains to keep up a virtual plague, had it been situated in a less airy country." Set up finally in 1851, its core business (reflected in its six committees) was Bye-Laws, Roads, Public Works, Public Health, and Charitable Trusts. This reflected Lord John Russell's instructions to Governor Hobson back in December 1840 that "district governments" should be set up "for the conduct of all local affairs such as drainage, bye-roads, police, the erecting and repair of local prisons, court-houses, and the like."

Much responsibility has been taken away from councils since (bye-roads, police, the erecting and repair of local prisons, court-houses, and the like) so from the Lord's list we're left, as core business, just drainage.

Fucking drainage.

You know, the stuff that's supposed to contain that stuff that's running down our streets.

This is what Labour's Three Five Six Waters was supposed to solve, taking away this the core business of council. National has binned that, but continues to dangle to councils a somewhat similar carrot. Because some councils were, and still are, keen to off-load the job of drainage to someone else. 

But if I may again ask another polite question: Why the fuck aren't councils doing the fucking job they were specifically set up to do?


It's not like they've been keeping rates down while they've under-fucking-invested.

New water infrastructure is desperately needed around the country because, for the most part, for at least two decades, council's haven't been doing their core work.

Why do I say two decades?

Guess why: just over two decades ago, in 2002, the then-Local Government Minister was the hard-left Alliance Party's Sandra Lee. And it was then that local government debt began to rise dramatically — not because councils around the country were over-investing in infrastructure; not because they were going hard on their core business; not at all because they were building, maintaining and upgrading roads, bye-roads, drains, pipes and parks as they were damned well supposed to. For the most part, instead, with some significant exceptions, they weren't. What they began building instead was a lot of expensive fucking monuments

Monuments mostly to themselves.

The culprit here was Sandra Lee's Local Government Amendment Act 2002, which granted to city councils, district councils and regional councils a "power of general competence" (I know, right?) which would enable them to enter into any activity they wished, with the only limit being their imagination and the pockets of their ratepayers.

Prior to Sandra Lee's Local Government Act, councils could only do what they were legally permitted to to, i.e., to carry out their core business. After Sandra Lee's Local Government Act, however, the leash was off. And council credit cards started straight away racking up debt for vanity projects everywhere. 

I'd like to say I told you so. I'd like to, so I will. Because I was as outraged then as I am now:

Libertarianz Leader Peter Cresswell is outraged at today's announcement by Helen Clark and Minister of Local Government Sandra Lee to grant local authorities "a power of general competence" in order to "enhance the well-being of their communities." "The well being of everyone in a community is more likely to be enhanced by retaining a tight leash on councils," says Cresswell, "since most councils have already well demonstrated they struggle for competence."
    "Local government throughout New Zealand's history has demonstrated its utter incompetence in handling the loot they confiscate from ratepayers by wasting it on such idiocies as the New Plymouth Wind Wand, the Auckland Britomart edifice, and the Palmerston North empty civic building." he said. ...
    "More substantially," says Cresswell, "there is a crucial constitutional principle at stake -the constitutional principle that citizens may do whatever they wish, apart from what is specifically outlawed, whereas governments and councils may only do what is specifically legislated for. The main purpose of this constitutional principle is to keep a leash on government, both central and local. It is this leash that is beginning to gnaw at local governments, and it is this leash that Clark and Lee propose to untie."
    "It is a dangerous step to take," warns Cresswell, who points out that councils are being given more 'freedom' at he same time as the Resource Management Amendments Bill threatens to take away even more freedom from New Zealand property owners. "The constitutional principle is being reversed," he says. "Even as they propose giving local government wider powers to act, they are taking away the power of individuals to act for themselves," says Cresswell. "Every property owner should rise up in protest," he says.
    "Libertarianz will be making a strong submission on the consultation document," says Cresswell. 

Which we did. For all the bloody use that it did: The Clark Government passed it, a succession of Local Government ministers since since has kept it, and every bloody local councillor ever since Sandra's "permissive" Act has spent like a drunken sailor on shore leave with a start-up founder's credit card.

The New Zealand Local Government Funding Agency (LGFA) supplies around two-thirds of that council debt, and last time I looked their tab was just over $18 billion. That's about $20,000 for every ratepayer. Add to that an existing $5 billion of Auckland and Christchurch council debt. And those numbers are every year by around a billion a year as ballooning rates rises fail to keep up with even-more ballooning council spending.

And as you can now see, it's not like they've been spending much of it underground.

In Christchurch they've been turning the city into "an innovative and modern community with major facilities from Akaroa Wharf to Te Kaha Canterbury Multi-Use Arena." In Wellington they've been watching the city's infrastructure crumble while they vote to spend hundreds of millions on earthquake-prone inner-city monuments of questionable value. And here in Auckland, council have allocated yet another billion dollars (plus fuck-ups) to pour down the ever-expanding black hole of Len Brown's train set, plus several hundreds of millions more to continue transforming the place into "one of the world's most liveable cities."

A shame there are very few plans to make it an affordable one.

What on earth is to be done?

You know, here's an idea.

Instead of keeping Sandra Lee's Local Government Act and binning Three Waters, which is where this new Coalition Government is at the moment, how's about — and hear me out, now that you've all heard the story —how's about we bin Sandra Lee's act and tell fucking councils to stop over-spending, to close down their PR departments, and to get back to their core fucking business.

Maybe you could suggest something like that to Simeon Brown, who's the current Local Government minister. 

But you'll have to explain to him first who Sandra Lee is, and what she did back then to stuff things up. Because I don't think he was born then.


Ele Ludemann said...

Councils ought to be audited for infrastructure as they are for finances. It's far too easy to spend ratepayers' money on shiny things at the cost of the basics like roads and water.

Tom Hunter said...

I too was opposed to the bloody LGA in 2002 although I saw it a little differently, as a way for the Left to push their crap ideas and policies even when they were out of power in Central government.

And as you say, the solution is not more and better management, including new types of audits, but to dump the LGA and bring back the local government legislation that it replaced. Just cut back the scope of their powers and responsibilities and all these problems of over-spending and under-investment will solve themselves.

But I've never heard a word about doing so during the nine years of the Key government or in the policy proposals of this government - and that includes ACT.

MarkT said...

You are absolutely correct on what local government should be limited to.

On a technical note though, it's very hard to avoid unplanned discharge of sewage on all occasions. Many old areas combine stormwater and sewerage, so the system gets overloaded during peak rain events, and unplanned discharges happen. Even if there's a separate sewer and stormwater, people make illegal connections of stormwater to sewer, or cracks in the pipes allow water in. The only thing that would guarantee it never happens is to reconstruct all the older sewer/stormwater systems to separate them, police illegal connections vigorously, and regular CCTV inspection of the sewer pipe to check for cracks and quick repair. It's something that's gradually getting better, but I suspect would be cost prohibitive in the short term even with Councils sticking to core functions.

Anonymous said...

Very illuminating. I was busy with a career and a large mortgage back then and not paying much attention to politics. Now I understand why we have so many playgrounds, shared paths, “over-civilised” parks and the like, while core services continue to decline and rates keep right on rising way beyond the level of inflation and ratepayers’ incomes. I’d love to see local govt reined in to focus on essentials again. They’re living in la-la land on our dime.

Libertyscott said...

I'm VERY tired of local government claiming it's responsible for "infrastructure" when it's responsible only for water/sewer/stormwater, local roads and planning/part subsidising some public transport. Sure they matter, but it is very much nothing to do with electricity and gas lines, broadband and other telecommunications systems. Certainly little to do with distribution of motor fuels, or indeed food.

Ports and airports may in a lot of cases have some local govt ownership, but are all required to operate as businesses. That's the clue, all the infrastructure that generally works well is run as businesses, paid for by users. Politicians don't decide how much money goes into power lines, or airport terminals or mobile phone towers. We can all be grateful for that.