Once were builders

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
16 June, 2023

While it is easy to lament the current state of New Zealand’s infrastructure, it is important to remind ourselves that we were once builders.

On Wednesday, we launched a new report, Paving the Way: Learning from New Zealand’s Past to Build a Better Future. It explores how New Zealand effectively tackled infrastructure projects in the past and offers guidance on how the country can rediscover its mojo.

In fact, we still use much of the infrastructure that our forebears built in the 19th century. The Lyttleton Tunnel dates from 1867, for example. And our train network and major urban centres also date from this period.

How did New Zealand’s early settlers achieve these remarkable feats? And what lessons can we learn?

Paving the Way identifies three key takeaways.

Lesson 1: Embrace the private sector

New Zealand infrastructure policy has been most successful when it has leveraged the resources and expertise of private enterprise.

However, we seem to have become allergic to it. That would flummox those who came before us.

The first bridge across the Waimakariri was built by a hotel owner from Kaiapoi named William White. White recognised the potential benefits and stumped up his own cash to finance its construction.

We need to rekindle the spirit of William White if we are to plug the $210 billion infrastructure deficit.

Lesson 2: Locals know best

Localism is the lifeblood of responsive and targeted development.

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

New Zealand once understood this.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge was built and maintained by what we would now call a special purpose vehicle.

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. The “No. 8 Wire” mentality loomed large in the national consciousness.

Nowadays, we’re immediately negative about growth and development.

That would have shocked Julius Vogel, architect of New Zealand’s railways. Back then, there was no equivalent of the RMA to stop him in his tracks.

New Zealand has faced infrastructure dilemmas since the arrival of the first waka. We would do ourselves–and future generations–a disservice if we ignored the lessons of the past.

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