Floods highlight wider issue

Ten months after swathes of Dunedin were left submerged by floodwaters a report on how the city's infrastructure performed has finally been completed.

Released last week, the Dunedin City Council report covered many issues and highlighted the severity of the June weather event.

Notably, the volume of rain that fell on the city over the 24-hour period was the highest recorded at Musselburgh since 1923.

But the report's real focus was on infrastructure and its findings on that score are sobering.

Just 25% of South Dunedin's mud tanks were at an adequate standard when the rains came.

Of the 75% under-maintained mud tanks 26% were ‘‘totally blocked'', the report said. Another 36% were ‘‘partially blocked''.

Those numbers are appalling. Most Dunedin residents accept and understand not all of the city's infrastructure can be at a perfect standard all of the time. Most understand mud tanks are notorious for blockages.

While cleaning the tanks is not a particularly time-consuming or expensive business, the ratepayers nevertheless pay for the service and accept a compromise between servicing and cost.

But the sheer volume of under-maintained mud tanks shows something had gone very wrong in the time leading up to the June floods.

Mayor Dave Cull has called the problem a dual failure by contractor Fulton Hogan and council staff.

While Fulton Hogan has said it fulfilled the requirements of its mud-tank maintenance contract, the report, written by council infrastructure and networks general manager Ruth Stokes, said the way the company tested the tanks to ensure it was meeting the council's terms could not be relied upon.

But Ms Stokes' most pointed criticism has been of council staff. Council monitoring, oversight and administration of road maintenance contracts had ‘‘fallen well short'' of what was expected, a problem she said could extend to contracts beyond mud-tank maintenance.

That acknowledgement may end up leading to the flood's most lasting effect.

Ms Stokes made no public comment about whether council staff would be disciplined or sacked as a result of the report's findings.

That is a reasonable position to take as the problem appears to be one of culture, not personnel. It may well be the staff involved do not need to be changed.

But change is needed; a change in culture, and change in accountability and a change in expectations.

There was a time when city councils employed their own roading experts and maintenance crews.

That time passed many years ago and such services are now contracted out. But the delivery of those services needs to be at the highest level.

The ratepayers should expect it, council staff should demand it, and contractors should know without doubt the repercussions of failing to deliver it.

It is easy to speculate on why contracts had not been monitored and managed as strictly and efficiently as they should have been, but that speculation is ultimately fruitless. Looking backwards is not the way forward.

Instead, the council must become a hard task-master and a demanding client, its demands backed by the high expectations of ratepayers.

Ratepayer money should not be seen as some lesser currency, a commodity easy to come by and easy to spend.

There is no suggestion blocked mud tanks caused the June 2015 flood.

A combination of Dunedin's topography, ground level, water table and a period of intense rainfall were the true culprits.

The city's infrastructure, no matter how well it was maintained, could not have prevented it.

But infrastructure failings almost certainly impacted the flood's severity and duration - a situation the council has accepted.

That acceptance is meaningless if change does not follow.

The Dunedin City Council must change how exacting and demanding it is of the people we pay to maintain our city.

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