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Active, planning role urged for new infrastructure body

By Gavin Evans

May 23 (BusinessDesk) - A proposed national infrastructure commission needs to address gaps in regional planning and could play a more active role in setting standards for smaller councils to work to, lawmakers heard yesterday.

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission needs to be more than just another version of the Productivity Commission if it is to really improve the planning and resilience of the country’s infrastructure, Engineering NZ senior policy advisor Neil Miller says.

“There’s a danger that it becomes another deep-dive agency producing wonderful reports that don’t actually lead to changes in actual practice,” Miller told parliament's finance and expenditure select committee.

“We don’t think there’s much value in having another plan, another strategy, without some capable ‘doers’ who can step in where required and actually improve those standards.”

The Labour-led coalition is creating the new commission to help improve infrastructure planning. Last year, Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones said there was little innovation, not enough collaboration with the private sector, and a lack of visibility of the potential pipeline and scale of work available.

Labour force training and planning was poor, he said in August. There was also an overriding focus on building new assets rather than the outcomes intended to be achieved, he said.

The government has already allocated about $4 million to establish the new autonomous body, which will absorb some Treasury functions and is intended to be operating later this year.

As well as publishing a 30-year plan and maintaining a pipeline list of expected developments, the commission is tasked with advising ministers and departments on infrastructure development. It is meant to be advisory only, but the bill establishing it signals the potential for the commission to “embed” staff within other agencies to provide support.

Miller told the committee there is a lack of recognition in the bill that much of the country’s infrastructure is provided by local government. And while Auckland is a well-resourced council, many of the country’s smaller local authorities aren’t.

Many councils could well do with a hand and some are asking for support with some services, Miller said. Water is a big issue and some simply don’t have sufficient in-house experience of major projects or the ability to test options internally.

“We have ‘getting by’ versus best practice; getting by is potentially more expensive.”

Miller said that, rather than multiple councils seeking the same advice from consultants, the commission could provide standard guidance on some assets. The infrastructure for a wastewater plant, for example, is largely the same irrespective of the discharge standards to be met, he said.

The commission should also require a greater focus on resilience from all agencies, whether in the construction of new facilities or when deciding whether to renew or replace assets.

Infrastructure may be damaged in natural disasters, but it should be designed so that it can be repaired quickly and the community can “bounce back,” he said.

There should also be strong guidance on whether ageing assets should not be replaced, or perhaps relocated, when there is a better understanding of the seismic risks they face or heightened risks from climate change.

“Objective advice is especially needed when the decisions for the long-term are not locally popular,” the group said in its submission.



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