The storm and flood events which smashed the North Island in January and February reveal the best aspects of Kiwi character. People opening their homes to strangers in the dead of night, giving shelter to those who had lost everything in a terrifying torrent.
In West Auckland, the hardy folks in Piha and Karekare helped each other recover treasured possessions and pump out the mucky water from homes fortunate enough to be salvageable
The talk has now turned to what we should do in response to natural hazards like floods and slips, and man-made hazards like inadequate infrastructure. That’s because some of the places people assumed were safe to live turned out not to be.
Now this Government in a crisis response is again talking about passing laws to fix long-term problems - laws that are likely to make it harder to rebuild and recover. Central government passed laws setting up a special agency to plan the Christchurch rebuild after the February 2011 earthquake. As a result, much of central Christchurch remained a parking lot for the last twelve years. Businesses and home owners who could, moved on long ago to new suburbs, or out of town.
At Piha on a decent summer’s day, around 15,000 visitors from the Auckland region brave the hot black sand to get to the surf, walk to the Piha waterfall, visit the bowler or the RSA for lunch and a pint.
Visitors and 700 residents also brave the notorious Piha road, subject to many slips and washouts over the years. Loose rock on the road is an ever-present reminder of the risk from volcanic cliffs above. The road surface is often slick with rain and has odd geometry which can fool unsuspecting drivers, leading to serious crashes. That geometry and poor drainage reflects the original gravel road cut through the bush in the early 20th century, over a hundred years ago.
For weeks after the January and February storms this road is down to one lane, where it is even safe to traverse the multiple under slips. Children who would normally travel to West Auckland schools have missed weeks of education. For residents, getting to work and appointments has meant a long detour through Bethell’s Road, itself badly affected by slips and washouts from the same storm.
Visitors are banned until the road is repaired, and as a result local businesses are missing out on peak season revenue.
In 2018 Auckland Transport proposed a major upgrade to the Piha included concrete drainage, pathways and retaining walls. Protected pôhutukawa trees would be cut back.
Most Aucklanders wouldn’t think twice if AT offered your community an upgraded road, drainage and footpaths. They would be breaking out the cold ones and firing up the BBQs in celebration.
Local heritage activists vetoed the upgrade, claiming that “the proposal for Piha is so over-engineered and under thought-out”, and, that AT ignored its own guidelines to “maintain the overall informal character of the road” for the heritage area. The RMA allows for heritage to be a deciding factor when it comes to consenting infrastructure.
The heritage types might be regretting that now. On Friday 28 January the road failed in places where the risk of slips was known. Drainage installed decades ago could not cope. Culverts washed out and water poured from the road, over cliffs, taking masses of rock ad soil through properties and threatening lives.
Last year the independent Infrastructure Commission stated that “Project design has become a consenting issue, with many firms often not choosing the optimal design for their project but choosing designs that will provide a ‘path of least resistance’ through the consenting process. Consenting costs are 10 times higher for projects that require a public hearing.“ The Piha Road is yet another example of how that path leads to a bad place.
In November 2022 we released ACT’s solutions for building New Zealand and conserving nature - a much better alternative to the existing RMA, and to Labours proposed reforms, the Natural and Built Environments Bill.
ACT would change the focus under an EPA to how to deliver infrastructure, not whether a project should be able to obtain consents. ACT would not let heritage concerns trump the need to protect lives, property and maintain lifeline routes such as the Piha Road.