Weekly column by Kāpiti mayor K Gurunathan.
The continued woes of Wellington City has generated an avalanche of opinion writers offering a range of reasons. Current mayor Andy Foster and former mayor Kerry Prendergast amongst them have called for solutions instead of playing the blame game. Failing wastewater and drinking water reticulation have inflicted collateral damage on the already frustrating city traffic congestion. Worse, as some of the opinion writers have pointed out, these failures are seen as symptomatic of the failure of the local government sector. While there are good reasons for such perceptions central government should not be allowed to shirk its responsibility for the state of Wellington City.
Amongst the many opinion writers only one has come close to an argument that needs further exploration. Ben Thomas, a former National Party press secretary, writing for Stuff on February 7, outlined the problem of parochial local politics preventing good decision making. He touched on the systemic nature of local politicians incentivised to keep rates low quoting economist Brad Olsen "pipes are underground "— there's no ribbon cutting on fixing leaks and so under investment is rife. To that I add the concept of "unfunded mandate". This is where the national politicians in Parliament churn out legislation like the RMA, the Building Act, the Food Act ... etc ... etc. And councils are by law required to not only enforce them but have to increase staff to regulate and enforce then. And then there's the salt in the wound — central government does not provide additional funding for councils to do this work. Worse, councils become the ugly face of bureaucratic oppression when these laws don't work. Central government is invisible so councils become the whipping boy. "Local government has been a convenient clearing house for new central government regulations," Thomas said. In a telling conclusion he makes this poignant observation: "But ministers only need to look out their beehive windows and be reminded by the sinkholes and geysers in the street that you can't bury your problems forever."
However, Thomas does go not far enough. Wellington City is not just any city in the country. It's the capital city of the country and as such it's the global international face of Aotearoa New Zealand. It's the political and administrative home of central government and its multi billion dollar business. Both the city as local government, and the capital as the central government, exist within the same small tight geographical area. The inefficiencies of the transport, water, wastewater and stormwater systems of Wellington City become the inefficiencies of the Capital and Central Government. When the water mains and wastewater pipes burst and the proverbial flows down urban streets this disgrace does not just belong to Wellington City or the Wellington Region. It reflects on the whole country.
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Let's not forget, Wellington is the home of our diplomatic community. Given this huge weight of responsibility Wellington City should be the showcase of the country. Over the decades, successive central governments should have taken ownership of the understanding that what's good for Wellington is good for the country. Such a strategic understanding would have enabled the investment of national funding to make Wellington Aotearoa New Zealand's showcase city. Minister of Local Government and Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, in initiating the radical Three Waters Reform had challenged the local government sector to "reimagine local government". Given Wellington City's woes it might be advisable for the minister and her government to also reimagine local government and appoint a minister of Wellington City. There should be some political arrangement for central government to have a direct influence around the council table of Wellington City.