20 Aug 2015

New 30-year plan for infrastructure rebuild

8:44 pm on 20 August 2015

The Government has unveiled a 30-year plan to improve New Zealand's infrastructure.

Bill English talking on Solid Energy.

Finance Minister Bill English Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

It wants water, sewage, roads and other systems improved by 2045 to enhance New Zealand's economic performance.

But there are two problems: the Government admits it does not understand the problem well enough yet and would need contentious reforms to the Resource Management Act (RMA) to achieve real improvements.

Infrastructure covers road, rail, ports, pipes, wires, and a wide range of other things.

A plan to bring them up to shape was unveiled to a conference in Christchurch this morning by Finance Minister Bill English.

The minister later went on to describe one example of the problem: the physical state of New Zealand's schools, which have an average age of 42 years.

"We have now for the first time got very good information about all of our schools," he said.

"There are more of them in poor shape than we thought. We have got a lot of leaky buildings - that is about a billion dollar bill. We have got others that have been poorly managed and are in pretty poor condition, and we are just working out how big that bill is."

Central and local government already pay $11 billion a year for infrastructure such as roads or rail. Putting today's ambitious plan into effect will almost certainly push that total higher.

The trouble is, the Government does not know how much higher this is likely to be, because it does not know how big the problem is.

Mr English gave an example of this lack of understanding in terms of the country's water system.

"The pipes for our drinking water, our waste water and our storm water - about 50 percent of it is classified as unrated, which means that about 50 percent of our networks we don't know what state they are in, except that they are about 100 years old."

This confusion highlighted one of the main thrusts of the programme: it needs to know more about the problem and co-ordinate what it finds out.

It also wants to develop an organised plan for central and local government to put it right.

An additional problem is the RMA, which would need to be changed first, as Environment Minister Nick Smith explained.

"New Zealand as a country of 4.5 million people, having each of our 68 councils developing different sets of rules is compromising our capacity to deliver resilient and affordable infrastructure," he said.

"Without RMA reform, it will be more expensive and it will also delay getting some of this key infrastructure built."

Council for Infrastructural Development chairman John Rae agreed the RMA needed to change.

"We think it is time for a wholesale review of its effectiveness," he said.

"We understand that the act is seen as an environmental protection law but in fact it was not originally designed to be that. We think it is important to determine an effective place between environmental protection and progress."

Change to the RMA has long been sought by the Government but is stymied by opposition parties in parliament.

Dr Smith said he still hoped to bring in a law change by the end of the year.

In the meantime, he has a back-up plan, involving the issuing of official comments from the Government - known as national policy statements.

These would be intended to steer commissioners considering projects to look at economic matters as well as the environment, as a means of them applying government policy.