An independent commission should oversee infrastructure says Stephen Selwood

Significant advances in infrastructure planning and investment have been made in recent years to lift the performance of the New Zealand economy and the quality of public assets that underpin it.

Despite progress, executing plans remains vexingly difficult.

It is true that, after many years, large and difficult projects such as the Waterview tunnel are being delivered and delivered well. But building big assets is not enough. Achieving the ultimate objectives of major infrastructure investment is about stimulating long term economic growth, delivering improved liveability and better environmental outcomes. Strong long term partnerships between central and local government and the private sector are essential.

If local government planning fails to promote effective land use, then a Government transport investment will not deliver national aspirations. If the market does not like the area served by a big local government project, then it will not provide the investment to justify council expenditure.

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In no place is the imperative to link the theory and practice of good infrastructure planning, delivery and associated development more pressing than in the most heavily and expertly resourced of our regions -- Auckland.

With regional governance reformed and now consolidated, Auckland Council has developed a single plan for a quality compact city supported by public transport. In theory, this should mean urban development is now being directed towards brownfield areas serviced by rail and other rapid transit.

But an assessment of the Special Housing Areas earmarked by the council and Government for immediate residential development shows this is not the case.

Four out of every five of the 26,000 dwellings identified to date are poorly served by public transport, and only around 5000 or 20 per cent are located close enough to public transport to provide a realistic alternative to the car. The majority of these new, priority homes are dislocated from the enormous investment the city is making in rail and other public transport and reinforce private motor vehicle dependency.

Meanwhile, the notified Unitary Plan allows significant urban intensification in areas not well supported by public transport while imposing height restrictions in town centres and locations adjacent to train stations and bus corridors. A review of the unitary plan shows that almost half of bus and rail stations have weak transport and land use integration.

What signals do these policies send to private investors and Government agencies?

It is not difficult to find further examples of infrastructure planning and delivery misaligned with private sector or wider public policy.

For example, Auckland Council and the Government continue to disagree over urban development and the timing of the nation's largest public transport investment with a consequential dampening effect on private investment.

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Incredibly, in the absence of a National Policy Statement the Government maintains no formalised capacity to influence the Auckland Plan or the unitary plan beyond submitting through consultation, despite Government investment being central to delivering the plan.

Similarly in Christchurch, in the absence of a compelling investment proposition and a unique point of difference, market response to the CBD rebuild has been much slower than anticipated. Across the regions, there remains no cross-party agreement on major inter-generational investment in roads in Wellington, Waikato and Northland and there is opposition from consenting authorities in Wellington to national and local strategic investment.

Something must be done.

Emerging as a key platform of the British Labour Opposition's policy agenda is an interesting initiative that may help address the problem: an independent national statutory authority to identify long term infrastructure issues and monitor Government response.

A New Zealand National Infrastructure Commission would be responsible for assessing and publishing national infrastructure needs over 30 years and monitoring regional and national progress on issues and opportunities.

The needs assessment, delivered every five years, would be tabled in Parliament, as would other ongoing monitoring reports, and be subject to rigorous committee review processes. All future trends and pressures would be analysed -- population and demographic change, finances, technology and environmental challenges.

The commission itself would comprise recognised public and private sector experts across planning, project funding and delivery, regulation and procurement and be fully funded by the Crown. Each member would be appointed by the Government for a fixed term and approved by Parliament.

As a statutory body, the commission would possess powers to require information from Government departments and agencies and would maintain capacity to investigate infrastructure issues of national significance.

But it would not formulate solutions, nor propose investments -- this role can only sit with the Government. The commission would be restricted to analysis, monitoring and reporting.

Government departments would be required to develop sector plans within 12 months of the commission having undertaken the needs assessment, demonstrating how they are addressing issues raised.

Where councils plan, manage, or regulate for nationally significant infrastructure, they would have to meet the same requirement.

Much of the work that a national infrastructure commission would undertake has already been initiated by the existing National Infrastructure Unit, but accountability for effective execution of policies and plans remains problematic.

An independent National Infrastructure commission would enable a shift away from short term politicised debate to long term planning horizons, promote cross-parliamentary alignment on infrastructure policy and provide independent scrutiny and commentary on the execution of public investment in infrastructure of national significance.

Optimal investment requires strong leadership and governance, long term visionary planning linked to funding, efficient and effective regulation, rigorous project prioritisation and appraisal and advanced procurement and delivery capability.

Independent oversight and direct advice to Parliament by a National Infrastructure Commission on the execution of infrastructure planning, funding and delivery is the logical next step to ensuring that planning, funding and delivery of nation-building infrastructure measures up and meets the expectations of all New Zealanders, including current and future generations.

* Stephen Selwood is Chief Executive of the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development