Growth is traditionally seen as a good thing. Many local governments across New Zealand however, are feeling the stress of trying to balance growing populations with ageing or inadequate infrastructure, and capital works programmes that
barely squeak by on their budgets.
Of course, we'll always welcome newcomers and returning residents into our wonderful district. The question is, how can we continue to mitigate the pressure a population boom puts on our infrastructure?
Last week, I was honoured to participate in the Infrastructure New Zealand ReBuilding Nations Symposium in Auckland. With 866 delegates, the symposium was opened by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and I was in the company of speakers and panellists such as Hon Grant Robertson (Minister of Finance, Minister of Infrastructure), Jo Hendy (chief executive of Climate Change Commission), Professor Greg Clark (global adviser, future cities and new industries to HSBC Bank) and Brad Olsen (senior economist at Infometrics).
Our challenges, from an infrastructure point of view, are fairly straightforward. We have a growing population and infrastructure with high maintenance and running costs. Our infrastructure needs to expand to meet demand, but we also need to maintain or renew our existing infrastructure, while planning for future growth. This is without even looking at climate change impacts and Covid-19.
The problem lies in the funding gap between what we need, what we can pay for ourselves, and what is available to us from the central Government.
Currently, we fund infrastructure through a mixture of general rates and targeted rates, development and financial contributions and subsidies and grants. The funding made available through central Government is often very project-specific, and can be difficult to apply to general infrastructure needs.
We are also still in recovery from the economic impacts of Covid-19, and are working with a reduced rates increase for this financial year.
Whangārei District is a geographically large area, with a city and many rural communities. Our challenge is not only to ensure our urban infrastructure is fit for purpose (taking into account future growth, climate change and the current pandemic) but also that our rural communities remain connected and well-serviced.
We need to address our district's water storage and reticulation, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure, housing needs and, of course, roading.
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When I look around our district, I see constant growth and positive change: Large projects taking shape or nearing completion, more walking paths, playgrounds, green spaces and attractions, new roading and housing developments.
I know, however, as I'm sure many of you do too, that there's a lot of work to be done before our infrastructure meets the growing needs of our district.
It's a lot to take in, and with our Long Term Plan (2021-2031) under discussion, there's no better time to take a long, hard look at the way we're operating and our plans for the future.
Early next year we'll be asking for your input into our Long Term Plan. We know the challenges – now is the time for us to work together to find solutions.
• Sheryl Mai is mayor of Whangārei.