How history can help us build back better

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
15 June, 2023

Infrastructure is high on the agenda this election year.

And why wouldn’t it be?

Broken bridges, potholes and leaky pipes abound.

Yet, while we often talk about New Zealand’s infrastructure woes, we sometimes neglect the valuable lessons of our past. That is a missed opportunity.

After all, we are not the first generation to confront infrastructure challenges.

The Polynesian voyagers who arrived here in the late 13th century didn’t turn around because they found an empty landscape.

No, they got to work and built kāinga and pā.

Likewise, in the 19th century, New Zealand’s early European settlers overcame an acute infrastructure deficit by building roads, railways, towns, and cities without letting bureaucracy hold them back.

We still use their infrastructure today. The Lyttleton Tunnel dates from 1867, for example.

As we grapple with the rebuild from Cyclone Gabrielle and a $210 billion deficit, it is worthwhile to draw upon history to shape a better future.

My report for The New Zealand Initiative, Paving the Way: Learning from New Zealand’s Past to Build a Better Future, helps with this task.

The report highlights key success stories, from the laying of toll roads in the Taranaki in the 19th century to the broadband rollout in the 21st. And it also explores a few cautionary tales to help us avoid past mistakes.

Here are three important takeaways from studying in the archives – you can think of them as the holy trinity of successful infrastructure.

Lesson 1: Embrace the Private Sector

New Zealand infrastructure policy has delivered the greatest value when it has leveraged the resources and expertise of private enterprise.

However, it seems that today we have become allergic to private capital.

Our forebears would struggle to comprehend this.

For example, the first bridge across the Waimakariri was built by a hotel owner from Kaiapoi called William White.

White recognised the immense benefits a bridge would bring to the local community and took it upon himself to finance its construction. Impressed by White’s success, the Canterbury Provincial Council awarded him the contract to build the first bridge across the Rakaia River.

But you don’t have to go back to the 19th century to find an example of private capital financing critical infrastructure.

Take New Zealand’s Ultra-Fast Broadband Initiative, a public-private partnership launched in 2009 by John Key’s National Government. The aim was to provide 75% of New Zealanders with fibre-to-the-home services within a decade.

UFB easily surpassed its mandate. More than 1.8 million homes across 400-plus cities and towns now have access to ultrafast broadband, or over 87% of the New Zealand population.

When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, UFB enabled countless Kiwis to stay connected to work and family.

Government provided strategic direction and invested in the core infrastructure that retail providers rely on to deliver broadband services to homes and businesses. But it then let its private partners such as Chorus get on with building the network.

We need to return to the principles of private funding and delivery.

2: Locals Know Best

Localism is the lifeblood of responsive and targeted development.

Local communities often know their needs better than distant bureaucrats, so it’s important to let those who benefit from growth and development make the decisions.

Wellington will always play a role in the provision of big-ticket items like our national road network, but shifting power away from the capital when appropriate would lead to better outcomes.

Taranaki provides a compelling example of localism at work. In the early 20th century, the region boasted some of the best roads in New Zealand because of its toll gates. By 1935 Taranaki had over 500 kilometres of sealed road.

Unlike other provinces that relied on central government and road boards levying ratepayers, Taranaki’s toll gates generated sufficient revenue to maintain and build roads that were the envy of the country.

And did you know that the Auckland Harbour Bridge was built and maintained by what we would now call a special purpose vehicle?

The Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority issued revenue bonds backed by toll revenue to fund and finance the bridge. This ensured that the bridge paid for itself. And it meant that commuters who benefited contributed to its upkeep.

Just imagine if local authorities were empowered to do something similar today. It would solve a lot of problems.

Lesson 3: Reignite the Passion for Building

New Zealanders used to take pride in getting things done. As one of the final projects of the Enlightenment, New Zealand was established with the conviction that progress was possible.

Now, though, the nation’s founding spirit has diminished. Projects are often delayed by rules and regulations.

Take housing. In the mid-20th century, New Zealand built entire suburbs like Naenae in the Hutt Valley. A suburban arcadia flourished. But it did so only because liberal policy settings encouraged development.

Urban planning did not stop construction. And restrictive legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Act and the RMA still lay in the future. As a result, housing supply was responsive to New Zealand’s growing population. And prices remained affordable.

Nowadays, we’re immediately negative about development. Zoning restrictions and planning regulations predominate.

Heritage designations and environmental impact assessments have also surged.

I often wonder whether we’re more interested in finding new species of grass than in housing people.

The result?

We have a housing crisis even though only 1% of New Zealand is built on. That is a cost of anti-development.

It is high time that we rekindle the spirit of construction that was so integral to our early development and find ways to simplify the building process.

New Zealand is poised at the infrastructure crossroads.

The network we need to thrive and prosper in the 21st century may look very different from the one our forebears built. But that does not mean that we should ignore the lessons of the past.

New Zealand was once able to deliver infrastructure.

There is no reason why we cannot do it again.

Read here 

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates