Time to Redefine Normal

  • Op Ed for ReBuilding Nations Supplement – NZ Herald. Published on 17 November 2020.
  • By Ross Copland, CE New Zealand Infrastructure Commission/Te Waihanga

As a nation we have shown we are often at our finest in a crisis. 

Our response to the Kaikoura earthquake saw rapid mobilisation of a specialist workforce to execute $1.2 billion of civil works in just 12 months. A planning, consenting and procurement process that would usually have taken years, was compressed into weeks. The social, environmental and economic outcomes generated by this effort is a result the NCTIR (North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery) team and their supporting agencies which they can all be very proud of.  They proved that speed, quality and environmental stewardship are not only possible, but essential ingredients in a successful response to an infrastructure crisis.

New Zealand has been praised around the globe for its management and response to Covid-19.  Our political leaders stuck to the mantra of ‘go hard and go early’ to beat Covid, and New Zealanders gave up unprecedented liberties and livelihoods in doing their part to halt the virus. The public and private sectors worked together on initiatives like Shovel Ready Projects and stimulus investment in water infrastructure. First and foremost, the wellbeing of Kiwis has been the focus and it has paid off so far.

Covid has taken a toll on New Zealand, and its full implications haven’t yet been felt. Much like the months of aftershocks following the Christchurch earthquakes, the periodic outbreaks of Covid have kept Kiwi’s well-grounded in the reality of the threat we continue to face to both our social and economic wellbeing as the virus rages on in many corners of the globe.

This crisis has seen us find new ways through some of the cumbersome bureaucracy that places ‘process’ ahead of ‘progress’ with the RMA Fast Track legislation one example of a concerted effort to bring a Kaikoura-like focus to the response. I recently took part in a seminar with our water sector where I was informed consent costs have reached 25 percent of the capital value of significant water projects, a staggering figure roughly five-times the contractors profit margin for actually building a typical project of this nature. As we progress through the Covid response, it’s imperative that we continue to shed some of the bureaucratic baggage we have accumulated over the years. It’s essential that we take this opportunity to redefine ‘normal’.

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga, is determined to make the most of this opportunity to capture the best elements of our crisis-response success to redefine the way we plan, pay for and build infrastructure over the next three decades. We were founded in 2019 to improve the wellbeing of New Zealanders through better infrastructure. As the Government’s lead advisor on infrastructure, we have been deliberately structured as an Autonomous Crown Entity with a bipartisan, objective view of how best to address the significant infrastructure deficit we face here in New Zealand. Sense Partners report(external link) that the investment deficit may be as high as 25 percent of GDP, or $75 billion – a truly staggering figure representing nearly double the total value of investment intentions currently published in our Infrastructure Pipeline.

We are currently working to deliver a 30-year Infrastructure Strategy for New Zealand. This will be delivered to the Minister for Infrastructure in September 2021, and work is well underway, but we don’t have all the answers and we can’t do it alone. This is your strategy New Zealand; we’re just holding the pen. So please take the opportunity to engage and share your views as the opportunities arise, and arise they will with a busy programme of engagement activity ramping up over the next six months. Tell us what you think ‘normal’ should look like, how much you think is fair to invest in consents for a new home, or what you would prioritise between alleviating congestion or improving water quality.

In addition to the 30-year Strategy, resource management and three waters reform, delivery of major infrastructure projects like Dunedin Hospital will be top priorities as we welcome the new Government.   

Looking ahead, Te Waihanga remains very concerned about the economic health of the construction sector and is supporting various initiatives through the Construction Sector Accord and engaging in our own primary research to monitor this closely.   

Projects approved as part of the $3 billion ‘shovel ready’ stimulus and the first tranche of water reform investments need to get underway urgently in order to secure jobs and retain our skilled people. Te Waihanga is working with urgency to get these projects into our pipeline in order to keep the market informed of the likely delivery programme by project, sector, client and region.   

So there’s plenty to do. Let’s make sure we don’t waste what we have learned from this and previous crises, and that we continue to innovate and focus on delivering the infrastructure we need to live the lives we want. Most important of all, is that you take a moment to articulate the new normal you want for New Zealand and the legacy you want to be remembered for when we look back from 2050 to the smart decisions that were made today.