Amelia Linzey is Beca's Chief Planner and a moderator at this month's ReBuilding Nations conference. We caught up with her to look at how the engineering industry is coping as we move into the post-COVID redevelopment.
How much of the government's $3b infrastructure rebuild funding is filtering down to engineering outcomes and progress on the ground?
I think there is still a lot of noise out there about "shovel-ready" projects, and there are signs that projects are getting underway. However, there's still uncertainty about how we're going to get all our ducks in a row to actually deliver them. Changes like the fast-track legislation will likely help, but it's early days in working through all of that. It means we're relatively busy on the planning side of our industry - which is fantastic on the one hand - but I would like to see more projects being released to the market; so we can move on with the next stage of delivery.
Are you saying it's time for the talking to end?
Some of the talk was, and is, still necessary, particularly around reform of the resource management system to deliver the change or transformation we need. It means we have a tension right now around making changes to get things moving, while also taking time to get everything restructured and reordered so we can derive benefits from a new way of doing things.
I feel we're in a situation where our current systems aren't supporting the level of change we need to see for our communities and our future.
Achieving any amount of change at the moment is going to be somewhat painful, and I think the panel recommendations for reform are brave and big. But I also believe we need to work hard to achieve the right balance between moving forward quickly in our infrastructure delivery and economic recovery, while at the same time allowing time to make the change and to ensure people are on the ride for those changes. We also must decide how to deal with some of the large and long-term infrastructure issues that we are facing in New Zealand at the moment. COVID recovery is one of the most pressing issues. Still, we mustn't lose sight of the other problems like climate change adaptation and mitigation, which are significant drivers demanding a reformed system.
Are the current planning reforms going to solve our problems?
I think the changes are going to solve several problems in some areas.
Our current system is not delivering for growth, for infrastructure delivery or our environment. However, you have to consider what role the resource management system is playing in the difficulties we're facing in developing new infrastructure. There's no doubt that the Resource Management Act (RMA) is the source of many of these issues, but it's not the only problem affecting the construction industry or infrastructure delivery. Other significant sources of frustration include the interface between the resource management system and the Building Act, the issues of funding and financing long-term infrastructure investment (mainly for local government) and the transition we need to make in infrastructure for a zero-carbon future. The RMA Review Panel worked on developing a new direction on long-term strategic thinking. It'll help support the creation of a credible pipeline of infrastructure projects. And it will support the delivery of the community's vision for the future of their towns, cities and our environment. While I think it'll support problem-solving, it doesn't make problems go away.
Is the vision of the community the same as that of the central government?
It's a critical issue.
At the moment, I believe the vision of central and local government and community vision risks being quite disconnected. An example of this, to me, is the rate of change and growth expected, which can be more ambitious at a central government level but is met with more resistance in local communities. The successful outcome of infrastructure delivery is inextricably tied to community engagement and understanding of expectations. At the moment, there is a lack of communication between what central government is planning and thinking and how that fits with the local government capacity and delivery. These issues are similar between government and the private sector. It was a significant factor in our thinking during the panel's system review and is part of the reason we have recommended the development of a Strategic Planning Act and the combined plans for delivery of the resource management system. We're seeking greater collaboration in plan development and emphasising developing shared expectations of outcomes for communities.
Is this a communication problem?
While communication between central and local government in resource management is an issue at the moment, not everyone is missing those steps. The Land Transport Management Act requires communication and collaboration – for example, in the development of Land Transport Plans. It means that local and central government agencies such as Waka Kotahi, invest significantly in both long term thinking and collaboration on investment planning for structure planning. We've also had some significant success in spatial planning around the country, both driven from local government and other examples from central government. The Panel recommendations see the next step being to formalise those successes and give them some weight in subsequent resource management system processes.
Do you see a day when the government and private sectors will genuinely collaborate for the betterment of the community?
I aspire to that, and I think the resource management panel group made recommendations that aim to identify and strengthen systems that could enable that to happen. I believe it's important to remember that legislation never makes things happen, but it does have the ability to either enable or disincentivise progress to this outcome.
Is there a need for greater collaboration between all stakeholders?
The country is now experiencing both growth and change, which is placing tremendous pressure on our infrastructure assets. Community values are also changing rapidly – and this sets expectations about what we can and can't do in the environment and the type of or quality of the environment we want for our future. I think it's inevitable that the tension between these demands will grow, whether that be the implications of water scarcity and challenges for allocation, or significant investment in new infrastructure, or the pressing and challenging adaptation and mitigation requirements as we seek to reduce our carbon footprint. All of these things are increasing the pressure on infrastructure, and I believe the only credible option in terms of shaping our community is for greater collaboration to ensure we find the best solutions. Strong leadership will be required to ensure that we get the very best for our communities while all stakeholders will have to work together to deliver the benefits right across the board.
Where does sustainability fit into the current infrastructure development programme?
Sustainability, at its core, is about ensuring that we consider future generations in everything we use, create and build. It's about the legacy of the decisions we make today and making sure this includes not only providing for future generations of people and communities but also future ecosystems. A key pressure in our current sustainability thinking is the financial burden that will be faced by future generations. The COVID pandemic has placed enormous pressure on the country's finances, and our infrastructure investment programme needs to support this current generation as we fight our way out of the downturn. I passionately believe that now is not the time to lose sight of our sustainability objectives. Still, instead we need to make sure that the actions we take today, particularly in infrastructure development, are supporting the outcomes we want for our future, our children's future and their children's futures.
These issues and more will be discussed at Infrastructure New Zealand's ReBuilding Nations Conference, 18 and 19 November in Auckland. Register now