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Frontpage News - February 2019

We put sea level rise in the headlines with the release of 'Vulnerable: the quantum of infrastructure at risk of sea level rise,' sparking nationwide discussion.  In January, LGNZ President Dave Cull's oped on the proposed Urban Development Authority hit the proverbial RMA issues nail on the head, while LGNZ's position on water continues to provoke discussion ahead of the Three Waters Reform happening throughout the year.

Greetings from LGNZ

Considering that 65% of our population lives within five kilometers of the ocean, it wasn't surprising that our 'Vulnerable: the quantum of infrastructure at risk of sea level rise,' report sparked nationwide conversation.  We made four recommendations to address sea level rise - read on to find out what we're proposing.  

LGNZ President Dave Cull also commented on the proposed Urban Development Authority, and hit a number of RMA issues on the head, and he also called for more support for online voting, while LGNZ's position on water continues to provoke discussion ahead of the Three Waters Review.

In this issue:

  • $14 billion of council infrastructure at risk from sea level rise
  • Cull: Don't leave councils with the claw hammer
  • LGNZ welcomes drinking water reform, not silver bullet policy making 
  • Local voters stuck between a rock and a hard place 

$14 billion of council infrastructure at risk from sea level rise

As much as $14 billion of local government infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise, according a new LGNZ report, which calls on central government to urgently develop policies to help minimise the impact of climate change on New Zealand’s communities.

The research, developed in conjunction with environmental and engineering consultancy Tonkin + Taylor, modelled various sea level rise scenarios using LiDAR and other topographical data from 62 councils.

It showed that $2.7 billion of roading, three waters, and building infrastructure is at risk from as little as a 0.5 metre rise in sea levels.  The value of at risk infrastructure ramped up sharply at each increment of sea level rise, with the data showing:

  • $5.1 billion is at risk at 1m,
  • $7.8 is at risk at 1.5m, and
  • $14.1 billion is at risk at 3m.

“Many councils are already experiencing the impact of sea level rise, most notably in Bay of Plenty, the West Coast, South Dunedin and Hawke’s Bay, but we haven’t had an accurate nationwide understanding of the community-owned infrastructure that is at risk, until now,” says LGNZ President Dave Cull.

“Using sea level rise scenarios that are based on the best local and international scientific advice, our research paints a really stark picture for local communities.  That’s not even factoring in the total value of assets at risk from sea level rise, which skyrockets when you start factoring things that sit on top of this infrastructure, like highways, homes, businesses, office buildings, hospitals, factories and schools.”

“That’s why we need to urgently ramp up work on New Zealand’s adaptation framework. As a small country our efforts in the mitigation space – while necessary – are not going to meaningfully move the dial on global carbon emissions.  But changes in the climate will definitely impact us, principally in the form of rising sea levels as two-third of all New Zealanders live within five kilometres of the sea.”

The report makes four key recommendations, namely that:

  • Local government leads a national conversation about the level of local government services currently provided and what can be maintained in the short (1 – 10 years), medium (10 – 30 years) and long term (30+ years) as sea levels rise.
  • Central and local government partner to establish a National Climate Change Adaptation Fund to ensure that costs of adaptation are shared equally, and do not over impact lower socioeconomic households.
  • Establish a Local Government Risk Agency to help councils understand and factor climate change risks into their planning, decision-making and procurement frameworks.
  • Local government team up with owners and users of exposed infrastructure to create a National Master Plan, setting out options, priorities and opportunities for responding to sea level rise.

“Local councils have for many years led the policy debate around climate change adaptation in New Zealand.  We are literally on the front line, and have been engaging with residents, iwi, and businesses who are exposed to rising sea levels, but the threat is too big for us to fight alone.”

“As a country, we cannot continue to respond to climate change related events on a piecemeal basis. We need to put a robust policy framework in place to ensure we minimise the disruption and harm to communities, and we only have a relatively narrow timeframe in which to do it before the scenarios in our report become a reality.”

“The costs of and preparing for sea level rise will be significant, but we need to recognise that the costs of doing nothing are even greater.  We hope that this information provides our decision makers with a greater sense of urgency to prepare for sea level rise.” 

The full report, ‘Vulnerable: The quantum of local government infrastructure exposed to sea level rise,’ is available here

A summary of the report is available here.

Cull: Don't leave councils with the claw hammer

Here’s an easy bet for you. You’ve got two builders competing to put up a house.  One is using a pneumatic Makita GN900SE gas framing nailer, and the other is using the same well-worn claw hammer that they’ve used for the past 28 years.

It’s a no-brainer who is going to win.  Clearly the builder with innovation, technology and modern manufacturing on their side.

This is the same bet that we are at risk of promoting in our housing market, and it’s something we’re urging Minister of Building and Housing Phil Twyford to fix.

On one hand we have the Urban Development Authority (UDA), the agency that will be responsible for delivering on the Government’s ambitious KiwiBuild programme.

To build at scale, the Government is looking to give the UDA the power of compulsory acquisition to assemble large parcels of land and the ability to shortcut the onerous public consultation processes required under the Resource Management Act (RMA). In other words a Makita gas framing nailer.

On the other hand we have non-UDA projects, which still have to go through the RMA process – the trusty old claw hammer.

Make no mistake, this is a good thing. The answer to New Zealand’s housing crisis is to remove the hurdles that have prevented us from building homes.  LGNZ has worked closely with Government on the UDA policy to ensure it works with local government structures as seamlessly as possible.

But there is a risk that if we stop reforms with the UDA we could be entrenching the housing problem, not fixing it.

Here’s why:

By seeking a series of RMA carve outs for the UDA, the Government is effectively admitting that our planning system is broken, particularly when it comes to urban development.

It is an acknowledgment that the RMA is too consultative and encourages a tragedy of the anti-commons. This is where everyone gets a say in a development, not just affected parties, and as a result many worthwhile projects never get off the ground.

The Act’s consultation requirements also vastly complicate the already fiendishly difficult matter of assembling land for urban development.  Why do you think Auckland has such a dearth of medium-rise buildings compared to almost every other city in the developed world?

Unfortunately early signs suggest the zeal for building reform seems to be limited to the UDA, which will focus on a handful of really big projects, the kind that only the likes of Auckland, Hamilton or Tauranga could reasonably take on.

The rest of New Zealand will have to struggle on with RMA –a claw hammer with a cracked handle and wobbly hammer head.

But New Zealand is made up of more than just seven high growth councils.  A development of 50 houses is a drop in the bucket for a city like Auckland, which has seen its population explode in recent years. But 50 houses is big deal for a place like Cromwell, which is also in the grips of a housing affordability crisis.

New Zealand simply has too many Cromwells to stop planning reform at the UDA stage.

This is why LGNZ is strongly urging the Government to follow through, and urgently put wholescale planning reform on the agenda.

We acknowledge the focus on the high growth councils as this is where our housing problem is most acute, but we can’t leave the rest of the country behind. To do otherwise is to create a two-tier system development system that effectively sows the seeds of the next housing crisis. 

If we want to tackle housing affordability across the whole country, and not just in our big cities, we need to reform our national planning legislation to enable more residential building to take place, whether it be in Gisborne or Gore. 

In short, we want to see everyone equipped with gas framing nailers.  That’s the kind of exciting contest that we want to see, an even playing field that results in more houses, where we all end up winning.

LGNZ welcomes drinking water reform, not silver bullet policy making

Local Government New Zealand welcomes the Government’s focus on drinking water reforms, but is urging officials not to shut the door on innovation by pursuing a policy of mandatory aggregation as a silver bullet fix to challenges in the three waters space.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta released a Three Waters Review cabinet paper which looks to reshape the drinking water regulations and explore different water service delivery options.

LGNZ President Dave Cull has welcomed the initial focus of the Three Waters Review paper, saying it provides a pathway to better drinking water regulation, but noted that further discussion is needed around the service delivery options.

“The prioritisation of drinking water as the first target of reform is welcomed by the sector.  We’ve long said that we need to focus on drinking water first, as that is where the biggest issue is, and that we need to get the regulation right,” says Mr Cull.

The paper also proposes that the Minister of Local Government report back in late 2019 with detailed policy proposals for service delivery arrangements, following further analysis and engagement on the following high-level options, one of which is mandatory aggregation. LGNZ opposes mandatory aggregation, as set out in the Three Waters Position Statement released last week.

“Although New Zealand is small, we’re a highly diverse country, and we need tailored policy making to tackle the array of challenges our communities face.  Mandatory aggregation is one-size-fits-all policy making that doesn’t recognise this diversity,” says Mr Cull.

“To be crystal clear, we don’t oppose aggregation. We accept change is needed – our 20th century service delivery model cannot cope with current and future population and land use pressures.  However we need to look at all the options available, rather than looking for a silver bullet fix.”

“Water provision is extremely complicated, and as the owners of the three waters assets, it’s vital that central government engage and utilise our knowledge to make sure that any decisions are affordable and will have a tangible, positive impact on water quality.”

The first tranche of work, due June 2019, will also look at the role of regional councils’ in enforcement of environmental regulation.

“Regional councils are currently undertaking work to enable national reporting on compliance, monitoring and enforcement, and we want to be involved in any discussions about moves to shift the boundaries of regional councils’ responsibilities.” 

“We look forward to continuing to work with the government on the Three Waters Review, and utilising our extensive, data-led evidence base to inform policy developments.”

Local voters stuck between a rock and a hard place

This is an election year for local government, and central government is increasingly worried about participation in this event.  We know that participation was 79% in the national election, while in local elections only 42% of eligible voters cast their vote, and this is understandably an issue.

What is less clear is whether the Government is aware of the part they are playing in this process, by making it harder for people to have their say in the democratic process.

On one hand, local government have a voting system that is reliant on the postal service for people to cast their votes.  In places like Auckland, running the operational machinery of the election is also getting increasingly complex, with a large number of wards, candidates and voters that make in-person booth voting impractical.

However, the postal system is in serious decline.  The falling number of post offices and boxes is plain for all to see, and NZ Post recently revealed a 12% drop in volume between 2017 and 2018, which they expect to halve again over the next four years.

The reason for this decline is technology.  Like myself, I imagine that you only sent a handful of letters for non-work related matter last year, largely due to the prevalence of email and other digital forms of communication.

If an ordinary letter arrives a couple of days late, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but when thousands of people have to post their votes within a tight timeframe, and it doesn’t get there to be counted, that has serious implications.

This is a problem central and local government have seen coming for a long time, and one that a group of councils, led by Auckland, have sought to fix with an online voting trial.

But while central government has paved the way with legislation to allow the trial to take place, it has not provided any financial support to a countrywide system that underpins our local democracy.  As a result, the councils who sought to run an online voting trial, including Auckland, Gisborne District, Hamilton City, Palmerston North City and Tauranga City, have had to try and fund it off their own balance sheets, which has ultimately proven to be too expensive.

This leaves us in our current predicament, where we’ve got a voting system dependent on faltering postal infrastructure, and while we know what the solution to the problem is, the likelihood of putting it in place is almost non-existent without central government support.

While I acknowledge that fixing this problem is not a silver bullet solution to local democratic participation, making it harder for people to have a say in how their community is run is surely only going to make the problem worse.

For significant projects like this, where there is a national benefit, central government financial support is clearly warranted.  And it’s not as if they won’t benefit.  Central government stands to gain from the further development of online voting and the local body election trial as it will contribute to any future use of the system at a national level.

However, local government isn’t abandoning all the hard work that we’ve put into the online voting project.  We’ve learnt a lot by getting to the tendering stage, and balancing the competing constraints around security, identity, and keeping the democratic process safe in a digital environment, and we think we can strike the right balance.

We will be maintaining the case for an online voting trial, but what we really need is for central government to truly partner with us in a more meaningful way. After all, an engaged voting public at the local government level is vital to ensuring a strong democracy, whether it is at a local or national level.

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