Wellington city in crisis; leadership absent, panic setting in (long read)

I am occasionally accused, rightfully, of being pessimistic. Usually, by those who find the truth of a situation to generate an uncomfortable feeling and seek to avoid it. However, right now, the city has no time for optimism bias, in fact, I think a general feeling of panic amongst local body officers, Councillors, and Mayors, should be encouraged.


  • Sewage systems are broken
  • Water systems are breaking
  • Congestion is grinding the city to a halt
  • Let’s Get Wellington Moving is broken
  • Buses are broken
  • Housing is broken
  • Core parts of the city, including it’s heart, Civic Square, are broken
  • Councillors are absent
  • Leadership is absent
  • Magical Thinking will not fix this, practical crisis management is required with strong leadership

After covering the Wellington City Council for the previous decade, and being an analyst at heart, it’s my opinion that the city is on a downward glide path, probably since the days of Celia Wade-Brown, following a mini-boom under Kerry Prendegast.

It occurred to me this morning that there is a perfect confluence of problems across the entire city-ecosystem and because it’s taken a long time to get here, people have almost become accepting of what is an unacceptable situation for the city and Wellington. It’s like the old boiling the frog analogy if you will.

We’ve failed to invest in the basics in place of vanity and legacy projects perhaps because they are more attractive to a politician.

Wellington is in trouble unless the decline can be reversed. Don’t get me wrong, the city is a beautiful place and one of the most vibrant places on earth, but underneath the streets and sheets, it’s not such a pretty picture.

Let’s take a closer look.

The WCC and GWRC have been told time and time and time again that infrastructure is creaking due to age and the increasing demands of new residents. Time and again those calls have been ignored or dampened down, and now we see the chickens coming home to roost.

Sewage is now in our streets, in our streams, in our coastal environment, and our harbours. We are now back to the 19th century equivalent of the night soil collectors with sewage laden trucks picking up our excreta in Moa Point and transporting it kilometres to a landfill.

Incidentally exposing another problem, the landfill, which is nearly full itself, and polluting the valley it resides in, just like all the other old landfills are.

Our mayor thinks that this latest round of increasing catastrophe is “appallingly bad luck”, since that statement;

January 27: Emergency waterworks on corner of Hargreaves and Wallace Street
January 31: Burst watermain on Tasman Street
February 3: Pollution returns to Owhiro Bay, two days after it was “safe”
February 3: Repairs to wastewater pipes under Abel Smith, Cuba and Vivian Streets
February 8: Burst water main on Owhiro Road
February 12: Burst water main in Severn Street, Island Bay, cuts supply to 70 homes, two nights in a row.

As I write this, there was another unusual discharge into Island Bay and yet another burst water main in Kingston.

GWRC and Wellington Water are nowhere to be seen either, with a recent very confusing press release giving us no more information on when things are going to be fixed, how, who is responsible for that, and how they will be working together with all parties to reassess their spending priorities to make that happen.

Rather, you can see them digging a trench, something they probably should have done twenty years ago, with defensive statements like this;

“Greater Wellington does not comment on the specifics of ongoing investigations until all the facts have been established and a clear course of action has been decided.”

If part of the city system is suffering from public diarrhoea, the other part is significantly constipated.

Travel times across the city are at record highs and there is no end in sight. I predict this will become significantly worse over the next ten years, with a significant surge when Transmission Gully comes online.

The emissions from idling traffic are incredibly high and to add to those plumes of dirty air we’ve got rid of all our electric buses and replaced them with old, highly-polluting, diesel versions, that fill the streets of suburbs and CBD with carcinogenic fumes.

How we got to the point where we had an effectively zero-emission, zero pollution, reliable public bus fleet to this situation is an exercise in madness. No one has been held accountable. Now, electric buses that were promised to replace the original fleet are on TradeMe being sold off for the lowest bidder.

To add to the congestion and problems, we destroyed the bus service in Wellington city in one cut over a year ago and haven’t been able to fix it. Driving, literally, people into buying another car or using ride-sharing services that are now clogging our streets themselves.

As an aside, here is an interesting piece by Eye of The Fish analysing congestion and coming up with some new perspectives on the issue.

Here’s an example, just in from London, which as we all know is the capital of a small country quite some distance north of here…. London famously introduced a congestion charge about 17 years ago – so, is London now “congestion free”?

Ummm, reading that article, it appears not. In fact, allegedly, in parts it is worse than before. Apparently, “Britain’s biggest city has almost ground to a halt, thanks to the rise of Uber, delivery drivers – and cycle lanes.” Crucially, the buses which used to scoot people around reasonably well, are now being used less, as they are getting stuck in traffic more. London has, as we all know, one of the world’s most extensive underground train systems, the London Underground. Does exactly what it says on the packet. But the buses?

Congestion free?

The answer to all of this has been thrown into a bureaucratic hell known as Let’s Get Wellington Moving. It’s not good enough. LGWM has become a political football undermined by ideology from the highest levels, the realm of temper tantrums, and is now a Frankenstein doomed to be chased with pitchforks over the next thirty years.

Despite promises by the central government to ease the housing issue, it has simply got worse. A good measure of this is the increasing numbers of homeless, as the two are directly related. The WCC has not been able to make inroads into releasing land or signing off on developments fast enough. The promise of a new Urban Authority is already running into headwinds with allegations that it’s been “poaching” staff from Councils.

The earthquake smashed the idea of apartments for a lot of people. While nothing fell down at the time, it scared a lot of residents into abandoning apartments and left the remainder with incredibly high repair bills while at the same time facing crippling future insurance. Despite all kinds of committees and working groups, nothing has been done.

Any time a medium-density development is mooted the community shuts it down, sometimes rightfully, sometimes because of the lack of information and transparency creates great confusion. And of course, then there is the fact that we can’t stack that many more people into clusters given that the infrastructure is over-capacity, hence a lot of the concern around Shelly Bay.

Speaking of earthquakes, we have no plan to restore the heart of the city, which remains largely cordoned off and empty. Multiple buildings across the city have closed with no doubt more to come. There is an absence of a visible plan to restore the city to its former vitality, particular in those shared public areas.

Then we throw the ever-increasing threat of climate change into the mix and despite a climate emergency being declared, more of a political party piece in an election year than an actual plan, nothing is being done.

Unfortunately, we are at the phase of climate change where we think that we can put the brakes on a runaway train by introducing pie in the sky ideas to stop emissions when the reality is that we need to start adaptation now. Most cities, internationally, realise that slowing emissions while adapting are two sides of the same coin, but not Wellington.

While no short-term answers are forthcoming for any of these serious issues, what is notable is that our city leaders are absent from the discussion. As well as these issues, other serious community concerns find our Councillors missing in action. A new trend that has appeared about six months ago and very reminiscent of a central government play guide where “the Minister is not available” when significant issues appear.

The airport expansion plan and Shelly Bay are notable examples. The airport continues to, literally, turn paradise into a parking lot with community groups now activating after calling on the Council for help. I see several new boarded up houses appearing along the airport route over the last month, I assume in preparation for the next move to create another giant parking lot, when, they could be used to house people.

At heart, I am an optimist; however, I am not a Pollyanna personality that belies misplaced confidence that things will get better through magical thinking.

The city is in crisis, as one Councillor has been brave enough to suggest. There is a minor movement, if you believe Twitter, for a minority of Councillors to start asking questions. However, there is still a distancing exercise going on, where the same Councillors put the responsibility of any fixes onto a third party and those third parties become publicly defensive and litigious.

Which means no one is leading at a time when leadership, transparency, taking control, and plans are critical.

There are answers to these issues, and those answers lie within the community itself. Something that I’ll look at in the next articles. Right now, we need the city to understand it is at a crisis point, a tipping point, and we need it to react to that in kind.

Never was there a better time to get some basic crisis management processes in place.

6 thoughts on “Wellington city in crisis; leadership absent, panic setting in (long read)

  1. You’re forgetting the two biggest crises of all – Wellington’s lack of a movie museum, and our lack of a military museum. Until Wellington has a public home for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, possibly in the same space as a War Memorial, we will continue to be a failing city.


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  3. Bang on post, absolutely agree. Wellington is the cuttest and compact little capital with convenience but just a capital city on papers and map. Without proper infrastructure, transport options especially to airport from city without the need of travelling through city roads and tunnels, housing crisis, rental crisis, broken buses, mould houses, resilience challenges, Closed down iconic buildings Reading cinemas, National library etc.I have immense respect and love for Wellington culture, vibes and people but, also heavy heart for the declining charm of Welli


  4. Absolutely agree with you.

    The idea though that these revelations about waste water are anything new is not correct – think Jim Belich’s campaign for Moa Point in 1986! It’s an age old problem that’s never fully dealt with because the public don’t really care that much about stuff they can’t see. If sewerage was highlight yellow in colour we’d be far more aware of these things!

    The city needs governors who can stand up and take responsibility for these issues and put the proper oversights of the management in place. The buck stops with them, not Wellington Water as they would have you believe. It’s elected members who vote the money to maintain, replace and build 3-water assets every year.


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