WCC and the SEP

In Life, The Universe, and Everything, Douglas Adams introduced the world to the SEP field:

An SEP … is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out; it’s like a blind spot.

Wellington City Council employ SEPs on a regular basis. For example, earlier this week, Audit NZ criticised the Council after discovering a $403 million funding gap for social housing:

The gap was highlighted in the council’s draft 10-year plan, which allocated less than 10 per cent of the forecast $446m required to upgrade the city’s social housing stock over the next decade.

Audit NZ said it was “unreasonable to omit these costs and associated funding” from the plan, and that the council should address how the costs would be met.

So to be clear, the council has budgeted for operating costs for the full 10 years – except for this bit.

‘Fitchett. Where’s that 10-year plan I asked for?’
‘Right here, sir.’
‘Ah, good man. … Wait a minute, this 10-year plan only covers three years.’
‘Yes sir. We’ll look at the remaining seven years during the first three.’

Which is exactly how Council responded. “Funding for the remaining seven years would be addressed during this time.” Not only that, but the council’s chief financial officer Sara Hay said the council was “actively working on a solution to meet this cost.”

Don’t you love that adjective? Actively working on a solution. They’re not just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, you know. I envisage a whole team dedicated to this very issue:

‘What about a pub raffle?’
‘Put it on the whiteboard.’
‘A gala day?’
‘How about a bring-and-buy stall on Lambton Quay? Or a bottle drive? Or a coconut shy on the waterfront?’
‘Yes, yes, yes! Now we’re fizzing!’

The team beavers on, burning the midnight oil, undaunted by the fact that finding alternate sources of council funding is more challenging than mastering quantum mechanics. No council in the country has cracked this other than by increasing charges or increasing rates, but if there is a solution, these people will find it. Actively!

Look, it’s easy to overlook the odd $400m when you’re a city councillor. And it would be churlish to insist that a 10-year plan should actually cover 10 years. Still, there are some churlish people about.

Local government and public management specialist Dr Andy Asquith, a senior lecturer at Massey University, said the gaping hole in the council’s budget meant public consultation on the plan was effectively pointless.

“You might as well have asked them to get their comments on Harry Potter or something,” Asquith said. “It’s a pointless exercise.”

Sheesh, what a killjoy!

You may be wondering where the Somebody Else’s Problem field comes into this. Look back to that comment about addressing the $400m shortfall over the next three years. Three years. That’ll be 2024. The next WCC election is in 2022. SEP.

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