South Island being short changed by Government

“Everybody south of the Bombay Hills” is a common reference to everyone not living in Auckland. It is generally used in the context of political commentary on Government decisions where New Zealanders not living in Auckland are likely to come distant second in Government funding or policy announcements.

The recent announcement by Minister of Transport Phil Twyford that billions of dollars are to be spent on Auckland and other North Island transport projects was a rude jolt for many in the South Island. Whilst an announcement on funding for the Southern Motorway was made for Christchurch, there was precious little else for the South Island to be happy with. It broke a promise that Labour made to spend $100 million on trains for Christchurch. It ignored the West Coast, Otago, Nelson, Marlborough and Southland completely.

But worst of all it sent a message to people south of Cook Strait that they are not important.

Yet people wonder why the South Island is getting so frustrated. Much of the power that is generated in the South Island goes to the North Island This has been the case for years and I am assured by a friend in the know that the Police keep a permanent watch on the Cook Strait cable to make sure no one interferes with it.

I am not so surprised by the resentment. It has been around for years and at times has gotten strong enough as to give rise to small political parties that have the vision of separating the South Island or at least making much more effort to include South Island interests on the Government agenda. It has given rise to internet based groups that have – among other things looked at alternative flag designs for the South Island.

Richard Prosser, former New Zealand First list Member of Parliament might have seemed a lone wolf in the mist when he advocated for South Island separatism before entering Parliament. However he was not the first. Nor the last. In 1999 the South Island Party stood at the General Election and got 2,622 votes. Not many, but the fact that it became a verified party with 500+ paying members suggests that such sentiment is capable of becoming more organized. The South Island Party disbanded and another party that replaced it never got enough paying members to be verified as a legitimate party.

Still, one cannot help but wonder what it would take for South Island nationalism to start creeping back into the fringes of New Zealand politics. How many more policy and budget announcements that short change the 1.1 million New Zealanders south of Cook Strait could be tolerated?

The answer might not be as many as people think.

Local Government Act 2002 becoming convoluted

As we approach the end of the third term of this Government, it is important to look back at how the legislation defining local government in New Zealand has changed. Since 2008, a number of changes have been made that significantly alter how local councils operate and the obligations that they are expected to meet. As many of these changes have flown under the radar many New Zealanders are not aware that they even happened.

To understand how the Local Government Act 2002 came to be in its current state, we need to look at prior legislation. One of these prior Acts of Parliament is the Local Government Act 1974, which among other things made provision for the establishment of District Councils, Regional Councils, Unitary Authorities,

Prior to the 2002 Act being passed by Parliament, the 1974 legislation was quite prescriptive in terms of what councils were permitted to do. The newer legislation gave councils the flexibility to choose activities and how they are undertaken, viewed as relating to general competence and applicable in equal terms to both regional councils and territorial authorities. Since then these changes have been amended by the Local Government Amendment Act, 2010. This was prompted by public perceptions that there were councils over reaching their prescribed mandate to spend money on activities and items that are not permitted in the Local Government Act.

One such case was Kaipara District Council which in the end was found to have not breached the Act, after a dispute over the Mangawhai waste water scheme. The Auditor General agreed to pay out $5.4 million in settling the dispute.

Another is Westland District Council, which has been found wanting over repairs to infrastructure damaged by flooding in 2016. W.D.C. have had a long, drawn out and at times messy public dispute with key council managers and the Chief Executive, which have led to some high profile resignations. Although it is not clear if the Act was breached, given that a cake decorating firm with no prior knowledge of waste water was involved in a multi-million dollar contract, I think it is safe to say something went wrong.

In acknowledging the 1974 Local Government Act and the 2002 Local Government Act, it is important to briefly acknowledge the 1989 Local Government Amendment Act. This Act acknowledged that the increasingly complex, convoluted and potentially dysfunctional L.G.A. 1974 needed a significant overhaul. To that end it dismantled or merged 850 separate bodies into 86. Of those 850 there had been 249 municipalities and the other 601 were catchment boards, drainage boards and harbour boards. The current configuration includes 13 regional councils and 73 territorial authorities (City and District Councils).

In 2012 there were changes made that repealed Sections 91 and 92, which pertain to the processes for identifying community outcomes and obligations to report against said community outcomes. This essentially meant councils were no longer obligated to indicate how they were progressing in terms of creating healthy integrated communities, compared with the outcomes identified in council planning papers. In the same year, the powers of the Minister were significantly increased (s257-259) so as to permit the appointment of a Crown Observer, Crown Manager, a Commision or even calling of general elections of a council in place of one thought to be incapable of performing its statutory obligations.

I fear that if too many more Amendment Acts are passed that the Local Government Act 2002 will be too convoluted to remain in existence, thereby becoming obsolete.

So, what is really going on at Westland District Council?


On 17 March 2016, after days of torrential rain, the Waiho River at Franz Josef finally did something that council planners and consultants had been warning of for years: it broke through the banks swamping large parts of abandoned flood plain, causing $30 million in damage around the township.

The Westland District Council knew this was going to happen. A report in The Press states that at least four separate reports over the space of as many years warned their assets management team that such an event was inevitable. One did not need to be a council planner to know that the Waiho River, as long as its flood plain was choked by a stop bank would continue relentlessly piling up against it and eventually over top the bank. Hazard Management students on field trips have frequently visited the area to learn about the interplay between the Waiho River, the town and the Alpine Fault (which is beyond the scope of this article).

The photo below was taken in 2005 whilst on a field trip by myself of a flood warning sign on the south bank, recognizing the risk of a debris dam failure in the upper reaches of the Waiho River catchment. Whilst a debris dam failure was not involved in this flood, an event caused by one would be more than sufficient to over top the bank.

With such wide knowledge of the flood hazard, and in an era of heightened hazard awareness, how and why did the W.D.C. come to a decision not to act on the warnings. To answer that we need ask the question:

So what is going on at Westland District Council?

The floods caused serious damage to a hotel, the sewerage treatment ponds and town water supply. They caused damage to the stop banks protecting numerous businesses and over 200 people had to be evacuated.

After the announcement that the Westland District Council  Asset Management team Manager Vivek Goel was placed on leave, it was announced that the Serious Fraud Office was investigating whether or not Mr Goel had been involved in fraudulent practices. As Manager of the Asset team, it was Mr Goel’s task to ensure that the infrastructure he was responsible for would at the very least handle natural events expected to happen in its lifetime. It had been found that to replace the sewerage oxidation ponds, Mr Goel had planned to build a sewerage intensive treatment plant and had sourced his own contractor to do the work. The contractor, a cake decorator with no prior knowledge of asset management, was awarded a $7 million contract to . As of 31 March, Vivek Goel was reported as having left the W.D.C by the Greymouth Star

But what of the actual failure to act on the warnings? Was it incompetence – simply someone not fit to be handling such critical assets being caught in a job that they did not know how to do? Prior to working for W.D.C. Mr Goel was an employee of Taranaki District Council, which he left in 2010.

In a climate of reasonably increased expectations post Christchurch earthquake, ratepayers across New Zealand do not any longer accept the potential for bad planning. The realisation and understanding that as ratepayers, they have a right ot know that there will be a duty of care which the W.D.C. – like any other council has – to the visitors, the locals alike.

The cake maker and the sewerage system

Is there anybody who is going to listen to the story? It’s all about a District Council, a cake maker and a sewerage system…

In March 2016, during a substantial flood, the Waiho River near Franz Josef broke its banks and destroyed the sewerage ponds that service the town’s sewerage system. When the Westland District Council tendered a new contract to rebuild the ponds, it awarded the contract Techno Economic Services.

This is a new business. It was established by Neha Bubna who is the sole shareholder and owns another business called Cake Culture in the town of Waiuku near Manukau Harbour. Neha Bubna denies any knowledge of the contract that was awarded to T.E.S.

A man named Vivek Goel awarded the contract in his capacity as Council Assets Manager. Prior to working for the Westland District Council he was behind several failed businesses. Now, the Serious Fraud Office has been contacted by the Westland District Council to investigate whether fraudulent practices occurred in the tendering of the contract to build the sewerage system.

A Westland District ratepayer would be wanting answers to the conduct of the Council on matters that have significant implications for ratepayers. The sewerage system ponds obviously need to be rebuilt somewhere, but in their design and construction allowance for the fact that the ponds are on an active flood plain, which may be subject to avulsion of the Waiho River, needs to be made.

Unfortunately this is not the only major headache afflicting Franz Josef. In December last year, the Westland District Council revoked Plan Change 7, which acknowledged the presence of the Alpine Fault and the likelihood of significant ground displacement through Franz Josef township when the next earthquake occurs. This indirectly affects the location of the new sewerage ponds, lest they be subject to lateral spreading – where the position of ground strata is different from where it started in an earthquake, because different layers moved at different speeds.

It is – in a financial and planning sense – a rather stinky situation to find such a lovely little township in. Should the Serious Fraud Office investigation expose corruption in how the the Council has handled the situation, proverbial gas mask will be mandatory.


Westland District Council fails Duty of Care to Franz Josef

The decision by the Westland District Council to scrap a Plan Change to its District Plan in Franz Josef has been welcomed by businesses. However it has raised alarm among those familiar with the geological hazards under the town.

A Council has a duty of care to ratepayers, businesses and tourists alike. As such, when it makes a decision the consequences of that decision are legally binding on the Council in question. If something happens causing physical harm to people or damage to property that can ben traced back to the decision, then the Council opens itself to potentially massive litigation from businesses or people who have suffered.

The Alpine Fault is the tectonic plate boundary between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. It is 650 kilometres long and divided into four sections. Every 300-350 years this faultline ruptures in earthquakes that measure between magnitude 7.8 and 8.2. Each earthquake results in a movement between 8-10 metres long with up to 2-3 metres vertical displacement. Shaking intensity on the rupturing fault will be up to MMX and may last 2-4 minutes.The high intensity shaking combined with possibly quite high Peak Ground Accelerations mean the buildings currently straddling the Fault would be heavily damaged. An Alpine Fault earthquake is considered a certainty in the next 100 years as the last rupture was in or about 1717.

The Alpine Fault runs SW-NE through the township of Franz Josef in Westland District Council. Westland District Council introduced Plan Change 7 to their District Plan. This acknowledged the presence of the Alpine Fault in Franz Josef. It envisaged a zone through the town where people would relocate their businesses from to mitigate the risk posed by an Alpine Fault earthquake.

However the local business community have refused to accept the fault line poses a level of danger to their clients, to themselves whose probability of happening increases 1-2% each year. I find it frankly incredible that an elected council could succumb to a few business owners on something that has taken considerably more urgency following the Kaikoura earthquake. This quake was at the very lower end of what an Alpine Fault earthquake is expected to be in magnitude, but the high intensity shaking lasted a full 100-120 seconds and was MMV in Christchurch over 100km from the epicentre. Some of the faults that ruptured in this complex earthquake had 2-3 metres vertical displacement and over 6 metres horizontal displacement.