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Shovel digging dirt
What shall we bury in 2020? Photo: Pixabay

PoliticsApril 14, 2020

The problem with the ‘shovel ready’ strategy for post-Covid-19 rebuild

Shovel digging dirt
What shall we bury in 2020? Photo: Pixabay

The public health response to Covid-19 showed New Zealand at its best. What will the economic response reveal? Iain White, a professor of environmental planning, on the risks ahead.

Crises reveal. They bring the nature of societies to light. From the differing attitude to experts between countries, to who really are the essential workers, to the spatial inequalities in health care provision or access to greenspace.

Crises also change our perception of time. Just as days will feel like decades for some, so too, will decades worth of decisions be determined in a matter of days. The recent government call for “shovel ready” infrastructure projects to kickstart the recovery promises a scale of investment that holds real potential to transform our towns and cities.

Everything is happening at once. We have a once in a generation pandemic and a once in a generation investment. But just as our response to the public health crisis revealed much about what is good in New Zealand, what will our response to the economic crisis reveal?

There is no doubt that state investment in infrastructure is needed, but there is a lot of devil in the detail. Targeting shovel ready projects tends to reveal the direction and support governments have been giving local authorities over the last decade. If, as has been the case, there has been a clear mandate to supply the pipes, roads, and so on to support local urban growth, but without enough central government funds, then we can expect a raft of unfunded infrastructure projects to be submitted as opportunity beckons.

Like surfers waiting for the next big wave, some ideas have been bobbing around for a while but have been neither compelling nor affordable enough. Other ideas are being brought forward. There may be new, exciting projects too, such as those associated with more emergent policy directions, like zero carbon or wellbeing, but these will be in the minority. Projects take a while to get shovel ready. They need political support, budgets in Long Term Plans, and perhaps even a lot of initial design work already done. There is a lag.

Beyond the ideas themselves, the people helping shortlist and make sense of the relative merit of proposals are crucial. In this case it is the Infrastructure Industry Reference Group. There will no doubt be a huge amount of experience, but any ranking is inherently subjective. Just as James Shaw and Simon Bridges may rank the same projects differently, so would an engineer or a planner, or a CEO or an academic.

Attaching numbers to projects can help. Typically the jobs created or results of a formal Business Investment Case, but numbers are political. They favour ideas with established calculative processes and competencies. In New Zealand we can easily provide evidence on roads or pipes, while things like wellbeing, the arts, cycling, or the future impacts of climate change are more intangible. This is partly due to previous decisions in science and evidence, and partly how allocate value in decision making processes.

The criteria by which these will be evaluated also raises question marks. The four criteria to aid selection says projects must relate to infrastructure, have construction readiness, be of a significant size that creates jobs, and a broad catch-all consideration of benefits and risks.

There is no mention of the once in a generation investment seeking to remedy the urban planning failures of the past, or adapting to the challenges of the future. No mention of climate change. No mention of the need to transition our economy away from fossil fuels. No mention of redistributing investment to the regions. While many projects will be laudable, collectively they will be fragmented and disconnected from a wider strategic vision for New Zealand.

Recovery also doesn’t have to be about infrastructure. Germany is investing €50bn in arts led regeneration. The arts traditionally struggle to demonstrate ‘job creation’ and so would score poorly in exercises like this, but the societal value of art and culture has never been so apparent than during a lockdown.

By definition, today’s shovel ready project is yesterday’s idea. The key questions are how long ago and whether the criteria and processes favour certain types of projects over others. You would hope that when the report from the Reference Group summarising the benefits of particular projects gets to Ministers that these wider, strategic issues of vision, integration, or transition would come to the fore, but projects that do not fit this criteria may have already been deemed as poor investments.

We are already seeing a lot of different hot takes about what the recovery will mean for towns and cities, the way we move, the role of technology, or the way we live. If there are lessons from previous crises — whether financial or environmental — it’s that crises don’t necessarily lead to any particular “lessons” learned.

Crises are better understood as opening up new political spaces. Spaces that can be occupied by various ideas or groups, and where those who already hold power tend to wield significant influence. As with businesses, we are more likely to bailout existing ideas than invest in new ones.

Currently countries and citizens from around the world are looking at the expert-led public health response to Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand as a model approach. I’d challenge the government to elevate our economic recovery to that high level too. This is an absolutely pivotal moment for urban planning. Investment of this nature is needed, but it is rare and we need to get it right.

Infrastructure has an effect that stretches beyond the creation of jobs; it shapes behaviour and influences our quality of life for decades. We need to balance objective numbers with subjective values, incorporate views of those beyond the narrow Infrastructure Industry Reference Group, and consider these diverse projects within the context of a more progressive, integrated vision for long-term planning New Zealand.

Our responses to the economic crisis will reveal much. Are we reproducing the past or using this once in a generation investment to transition to a different future?

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