Changing our outlook and horizons is key to Auckland's future.

When we see a change in Government, as we had last year, there's effectively a full reset.
Auckland is a stunning city however, the beauty of our surroundings will only get us so far. The liveability and lifestyles we value are related to our city being underpinned by functional infrastructure.

This infrastructure is currently under immense pressure. Christina Sheard, Partner in Kensington Swan's Environment and Planning team notes that "Auckland is already lagging behind due to long periods of chronic under-investment in transport and water infrastructure", it is also facing unprecedented population growth, which only exacerbates the problem.

Though many of the challenges that have built up over time will take time to address, there are two key constraints holding back our ability to deliver. Marija Batistich, Partner in Kensington Swan's Environment and Planning team, considers both can be dealt with through a change of mindset involving a more strategic and collaborative approach.

Advertisement
Marija Batistich. Photo / Supplied
Marija Batistich. Photo / Supplied

The 3-year itch

The first challenge we need to address is the focus on short-term horizons built around election cycles.

Following the recent change in Government, Batistich observes that we seem to be seeing infrastructure planning increasingly tied to the election cycle. "When we see a change in Government, as we had last year, there's effectively a full reset, with new thinking about whether it's best to carry on with the current programme or do things differently."

This reassessment process saw the revision of the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport with new strategic priorities and amended objectives and themes.

The East-West Link is a classic example of a project that has felt the impact of the Government's change in direction.

This $1.2 billion project — which aimed to better link State Highways 1 and 20, and improve connections between freight and rail hubs — was deemed a priority by the previous Government. The project was put on hold following the last election, and is now just one of about 12 projects in a similar state that are being re-evaluated.

The obvious impact of having so many projects under re-evaluation is that delivery of new infrastructure is delayed while the evaluation process takes place and new projects are assessed and progressed through the business case process.

Sheard observes that "Despite the understandable rationale and motivation for this change in policy direction, from an industry perspective it also muddies the waters as the market struggles to understand when projects will be coming to market and how big or small they will be".

Advertisement

The impact is that when all the infrastructure planning and funding ducks finally line up, the procurement process becomes challenged. It's a matter of realising the tap can't necessarily just be turned back on, and the need for adequate timeframes to allow industry to respond.

Consenting challenges

When it comes to expediting the delivery of infrastructure, a common view is that an overly onerous and complex consenting framework is holding things up. Despite the tinkering of successive previous Governments (including the most recent proposals by the current Government) with the legislative framework, it's the RMA that often gets a bad rap for holding up the process. As a result, calls for more radical changes to the RMA continue.

When you peel it back though, there are plenty of examples of major infrastructure projects that have been consented in relatively short timeframes using processes such as Boards of Inquiry (which have a 9 month timeframe) and direct referral to the Environment Court (which circumvents the need for a council level hearing).

Batistich points out that a good example of rapid consenting is the process earlier this year for the approvals granted for waterfront infrastructure in preparation for Auckland hosting the next America's Cup in 2020-2021. By opting for a direct referral, the consent applicant was able to go direct to the Environment Court. The application was effectively processed in just over five months, enabling construction to get under way on time, by the end of 2018. An intensive timetable of mediations with all submitters was put in place and refined over time to address key issues which ultimately resulted in a hearing of less than two days. Having been involved in this process, Batistich says it shows you can have effective public input into a project and still get going.

Christina Sheard. Photo / Supplied
Christina Sheard. Photo / Supplied

Sheard emphasises that "We have the tools to deliver consenting processes faster — we just need to have the confidence to use them".

Options for substantially expediting the consenting process further, include legislative amendments to constrain the right to submit on a project and/or appeal rights but any approach that would effectively cut out or limit the right of the community to be heard on a project is likely to be controversial. Other options within the existing framework include greater resourcing of councils to process applications more quickly, as well as more effective engagement by infrastructure providers with stakeholders early on before the consenting process gets underway. These options would not involve legislative change, and in essence would require collaboration by all parties at an early stage to succeed.

Sheard has heard the growing noise around removing Auckland's rural urban boundary, which to her, again seems like tinkering for the sake of it, "the Auckland Unitary Plan contains plenty of provision to intensify built-up urban areas, and identifies potential future growth areas for rezoning". From an infrastructure perspective, focusing on these areas is going to be much more efficient. Intensification seems to be a bad word in Auckland, but if you look at many cities around the world it is being done extremely well.

It's a matter of good design and that requires buy-in from all parties.

The way forward

Longer-term thinking is key and greater collaboration required to ensure both Government, local government and the market can devise a plan for the next five to 10 years to allow consultants and industry to look at their resourcing. It's about being clear with our intentions and providing consistent visibility of the projects coming down the track. This may be an opportunity for the new Infrastructure Agency but the details are still under development, and the focus appears to be on supporting government agencies and local government in planning for infrastructure.

Batistich thinks that cross-agency collaboration will take on even more of a focus with the introduction of the new Housing and Urban Development Authority (HUDA). While it's still not clear exactly what its powers will be, it will need to work with the likes of NZTA, the existing CCOs in Auckland and local authorities to deliver the three waters and transport infrastructure.

Batistich and Sheard agree that if we can get our horizons and approach right there's a huge opportunity for Auckland to be the world-class city we want it to be.