The slow motion response to the storms and flood events which wrecked homes and lives in January and February revealed the worst aspects of government. People understand they might need enough water and food for three or more days. What becomes harder to understand is how slow and incremental the government is with its response.
I visited homes damaged by flooding in West Auckland. Wall linings, kitchens and bathrooms have been removed, and the owners are ready for builders to start repairs. Yet no repairs can start until insurers decide whether they will insure again and at what cost. Councils need to decide whether to invest in hard infrastructure, and/or the blue-green infrastructure needed to hold water during future flood events.
Neither councils nor insurers are prepared to give the go ahead until the Government decides what it will do in response to the floods and storms.
Labours first attempt at emergency legislation on 14 March was almost six weeks after floods hit Auckland, and a month to the day from when a state of emergency was declared in response to Cyclone Gabrielle.
The Severe Weather Emergency Legislation included some sensible stuff, like allowing councils to meet over Zoom, and providing an extension of time for food businesses which need regular inspections in order to maintain their food safety licenses.
There was even a slight relaxation of the RMA rules, which mean that anyone doing emergency work can apply for consents that would normally be needed, between 2 and 6 months after work starts.
With one caveat of course – if there is a culturally significant site either on the land, or simply nearby. The new laws require a landowner or council to give 20 days’ notice to what could be a large number of Mâori groups with an interest, and obtain written permission from all, before any work may start.
It is fair to assume that permission would be freely given. However instead of making this a simple requirement to consult, identify any wahi tapu or sacred sites to steer clear of, then get on with the job, Labour created a new opportunity for division.
The emergency laws also try to fix a problem caused by the 2022 Three Waters legislation. The Water Services Entities Act limited councils to only routine maintenance on their water networks. Floods and storms caused severe damage to three waters assets, which now need to be repaired and replaced. Some will need significant upgrades to withstand future storms.
Labour’s less-than-urgent emergency laws amend the Three Waters legislation to permit councils to fix their broken water pipes, treatment plants and drinking water supplies.
However, any budget for repair or upgrade will need to be approved by the accountants at the Three Waters Transition Unit in Wellington, and only once approval is given can councils procure designers and contractors to do the work. That is likely to take months or longer.
This could be the plot of a black comedy about useless governments, but it is not at all funny to people without drinking water and forced to use a portaloo for weeks and months.
ACT MPs are practical people who want to help the communities we represent. Before the rain had stopped, we were on the phone to people affected by flooding, to council staff and insurers, asking what could and should Government do?
On Friday 3rd of March ACT released our response to Cyclone Gabrielle - 15 urgent Ideas for recovery. These can apply equally to communities hit by Cyclone Hail and the severe weather on Auckland Anniversary weekend.
ACT believes that as a first principle, the Labour Government should reprioritise existing spending cutting unhealthy obsessions like Light Rail and the transport “mode shift” and put that money into rebuilding roads and bridges.
The second principle is for Government to get out of the way. The Christchurch rebuild and the COVID-19 recovery led to a permanent expansion of the big Wellington machine. The recovery from recent floods and storms should not be used as a further excuse to expand the size and reach of Government.
Instead of tinkering with the RMA, ACT asks that Government remove RMA requirements altogether so communities can get on with the rebuild, like after the Kaikoura earthquake. Clearing slips and vegetation, reforming streams and channels, and building much greater capacity into the stormwater system needs good design and agile contractors, not Wellington accountants holding the pen and a whip.
ACT offered our 15 ideas to Labour, but they were ignored. We will offer them again when Parliament resumes in late March to debate the next round of recovery legislation.