Project bound in red tape

Dunedin's physio pool in Hanover St. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Dunedin's physio pool in Hanover St. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
The roof of the physio pool. Photo by Linda Robertson.
The roof of the physio pool. Photo by Linda Robertson.

Refitting Dunedin's physio pool is a no-brainer says Dunedin North MP David Clark. The community has raised funds for repairs and the asset and land can't easily be used for anything else.

Dunedin's physiotherapy pool was opened in 1946. For decades its existence has been a given. Residents with chronic medical conditions have welcomed the relief it has brought them from suffering.

Its existence has also complemented the training of physiotherapists and exercise physiologists at the university.

But suddenly, two years ago, the physio pool's ongoing survival was thrown into question. Expensive and necessary repairs and underfunding in the health system led the Southern District Health Board to question whether it could afford the maintenance at all.

A community campaign, jollied along by the ODT, raised $1.2million, and the community signalled their willingness to contribute over and above their taxes to retain the service.

The story should have ended soon after. An upgrade should have been confirmed and a project manager appointed. But it has not panned out that way.

To their credit, Southern DHB commissioners have signalled their support for the pool upgrade proposal and recommended that Health Minister Jonathan Coleman sign paperwork necessary to give the trust confidence to start the maintenance work.

The Southern DHB wants to enter into a medium-term lease of 10-30 years with the pool's trust because the pool occupies a small area of land away from the main campus - across a state highway - and it will not reduce any site options for the mooted hospital rebuild.

But the project has been marooned on an island of bureaucracy in the Ministry of Health. The minister doesn't understand his ability to override this bureaucracy. Either that, or the minister is hiding behind the skirts of his department.

Official Information Act papers revealing the inner workings of Government show Ministry of Health officials want to keep the project on ice until the long-awaited and much delayed master plan for a Dunedin Hospital rebuild is completed.

They appear worried that the rebuild master plan might involve a not yet considered and logic-defying leap across State Highway 1 to include the site on which the physio pool now stands. Better, they say, to wait until the end of next year to be certain the site is not required for other purposes.

Nobody anywhere in the bureaucracy is seriously suggesting that a small square of land on the opposite site of New Zealand's number one state highway might be included in the main campus project for a hospital rebuild. No. But nobody who collects a six-figure salary in Wellington seems prepared to rule it out, either.

The issue is emblematic of a wider Wellington malaise that has infected health in the South. Don't mention the $1.7billion in underfunding the health system faces across New Zealand.

Tony Ryall originally promised to deliver a Dunedin Hospital rebuild business case when he was minister. It never happened. Dr Coleman has pushed the deadline out at least twice. Now he has it on the never-never. Uncertainty surrounding the pool repairs is but one casualty of this malaise.

In the case of Dunedin's physio pool, Dr Coleman's officials recommend putting an imaginary risk ahead of the health and wellbeing of elderly and vulnerable Dunedin residents.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, the pool's deterioration accelerates, and the pool's trust members have to spend unproductive time renegotiating pledges of charitable support, inconveniencing those who have made them.

A deteriorating pool without repairs will cost more to fix. Bureaucracy and backside-covering in Wellington are costing Dunedin residents.

The case for ministerial intervention is seldom stronger. With the stroke of a pen, the minister can override the silliness, remove the egg from the face of Wellington's bureaucracy, and support self-funded community aspirations to refit the pool for modern use. It is a no-brainer.

-By Dunedin North MP David Clark 

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