National infrastructure body plan

A government plan for a new national infrastructure agency could help Dunedin tackle a $80 million backlog in water infrastructure investment and prepare for climate change.

The Government is consulting on plans for a new independent entity, which is expected to be up and running in late 2019.

It would be tasked with helping tackle New Zealand’s "major infrastructure deficit" by providing overarching support and advice, to improve long-term planning and investment, Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones has said.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, who is also Local Government New Zealand president, said he could see benefits in the plan.

The Dunedin City Council managed a $2.1 billion water infrastructure network, sections of which were over 100 years old, but staff said a backlog in investment was now worth between $70 million and $80 million.

Mr Cull said it was difficult to gauge the exact size of the backlog while work to improve the council’s understanding of the condition of the network continued.

However, the council, which last week confirmed plans to lift its 2018-19 capital spending by $27.7 million, including on water infrastructure, aimed to catch up on the backlog within a few years, he said.

The national infrastructure body could help by co-ordinating the spending plans of councils across a region, or across the country, he said.

The council  had already had to confront unexpected price hikes, or an inability to complete work within expected timeframes when contractors were stretched across the region.

That could happen again if major capital projects in Christchurch or elsewhere coincided with Dunedin’s capital projects, such as the central city upgrade and Dunedin Hospital rebuild, he said.

"If there’s a whole lot of things coming on stream in roughly the same timeframe, how might the region work together to smooth out the demand for contracting capability and labour, so that someone’s not left hanging?

"It’s all very fine budgeting your capital spending for the next five years, but then you find you can’t get a company to do the work — and that has happened on occasion," he said.

The new agency could also help by providing high-level planning and procurement expertise for councils, and aligning councils’ 30-year infrastructure plans with the 10-year timeframe for regional transportation plans, he said.

It could also "absolutely" help with the response to climate change by councils across the country, Mr Cull said.

He had previously argued for more central government help — and money — for councils in adapting to the effects of climate change, including through a proposed local government risk agency funded by central government.

"Having overarching national capability ... in terms of climate change response will be very helpful."

The council  submission said New Zealand’s existing planning and delivery environment for infrastructure was "complex", but the new agency could help simplify the approach.

Benefits could include "strategy and planning with a national perspective, provision of expert project delivery support, the identification of barriers to developing good infrastructure, and potentially climate change adaption".

The council  also wanted to see climate change adaptation added "as a core function" of any new infrastructure body, because of the "serious challenges" it posed to communities and councils, Mr Cull said.

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