Let’s take the politics out of infrastructure

When I think of the north west, I think of cafés, butchers, fresh fruit and veges, wineries, surf beaches, hot pools, horses, calf clubs and pet lambs.
Mountain bike and motor-cross parks are among the best in New Zealand. Cropping and livestock farming are still important businesses. And new housing developments.
Living in north west Auckland is a dream come true for first home buyers, families and life stylers. It should be a good place to run a small business, because there is plenty of business land close to where people live, and close to State Highway 16 connecting Auckland and Northland.
The region was identified as a high growth area in council plans going back decades, and in the 2015 Auckland Unitary Plan, so we rightly assume when a council zones land for housing and for business, roads and infrastructure will be provided in a timely fashion.
But local roads constructed over 100 years ago for bullock carts now carry 10-15,000 vehicles per day, and over 36,000 per day on State Highway 16 through Kumeu and Huapai.
Local roads are not only unsafe, but they are also so poorly maintained that an enterprising local lad has taken to spray painting explicit content around potholes to troll Auckland Transport into fixing them.
Flooding a few weeks ago revealed that drainage networks are totally inadequate for growth that has already occurred, let alone for the next 30 years and thousands more homes and businesses.
For decades, successive councils and governments ducked their responsibilities to this high growth area, while taking development contributions, taking fuel excise duty and road user charges, and taking GST on new building and local business turnover.
The long awaited SH16 Kumeu-Huapai bypass has no start date, the project is still in a planning phase. Plans to extend the shiny AT electric trains even to Kumeu are also years away. Old bridges and undersized culverts cause flood water to back up into businesses and homes.
So, we rightly ask, why is our community treated this way, while Government proudly announces a $780 million cycle bridge across the Waitemata, a multi-billion dollar light rail to the airport, and Auckland Council insists on painting town centres blue, while taking out precious parking?
In answers to questions from ACT about projects to relieve congestion in the North West, the Minister of Transport belatedly confirmed NZTA would extend an express bus service as far as Westgate, kindly described as “a little bit better” by the Greater Auckland advocacy group.
On 27 July 2021 there was a photo opportunity with Ministers, the Mayor and allied councillors holding shiny new spades, although they haven’t secured the land for the bus stations, they don’t have the consents, and construction has still not started anywhere on the bus route.
The token bus service won’t reach the rapidly growing communities in Kumeu, Huapai, Waimauku and Helensville, or provide capacity to connect Riverhead and Hobsonville. Nor will it address the most important issue - there is simply not enough road capacity, enough lanes, for traffic and freight, a situation which has got steadily worse for the past 20 years.
That’s because announcements about what to build, and decisions about what infrastructure to ignore, are based on political calculations, not on what is needed. The Minister of Transport confirmed to ACT that only 27% of NZTA funds will be allocated to roads between 2021 and 2024, although 100% of the revenue comes from road users.
Over 70% of NZTA funds will be allocated to maritime and rail projects, increasing to nearly 80% in the 2024 to 2027 period. This does nothing to solve the current congestion and growth problems, but it does help the Government meet their self-imposed climate targets.
This will only change when decision making is taken away from politicians.
ACT proposes a system of 30-year infrastructure partnerships between regional and central government. These partnerships would leverage the advantages of local and central government. Councils have the local knowledge to design and prioritise infrastructure intelligently. They are directly accountable to local voters and understand the needs of their constituencies.
Meanwhile, central government, through the Infrastructure Commission, would be responsible for assessing the performance of these partnerships against pre-determined and agreed metrics, like population growth, road fatality rates, and congestion levels.
The Government would also be entitled to withhold funding from councils which consistently failed to meet road safety targets or congestion reduction goals.
They also set town plans which guide how growth will happen. However, they are limited by inflexible funding rules, which make them heavily reliant on property rates and reduce their ability to cope with growth.
By contrast, the Government has access to cheaper debt funding and the ability to spread risk across a larger balance sheet. By matching Government funding with local knowledge, we can get more and better infrastructure built.
Also, the long-term nature of these plans will insulate infrastructure from political pressures. Infrastructure, with its very long-time horizons, is profoundly unsuited to decision-making by political leaders, beset by three-year tunnel vision. By setting plans decades in advance, we can avoid the on-again, off-again uncertainty created by the political cycle which deters councils and private infrastructure investors from undertaking ambitious projects.
New Zealand’s pioneering spirit has not changed since the 1970s. We have simply suffocated it under layer upon layer of government regulation and intervention in the name of ‘sensible’ town planning and other well-intentioned, but ultimately foolhardy attempts at social engineering.
We need fundamental reform in our regulatory settings to allow building and attract investment. We need sensible apolitical management of local and central government infrastructure assets. That is what ACT’s strategy for housing and infrastructure will deliver.

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