Part 2: The importance of good asset information

Insights into local government: 2019

For some time, we have said that councils should collect better information about the condition and performance of their critical assets.8

In this Part, we describe why having better condition and performance information is important. We describe the approach Ōpōtiki District Council (the Council) took to collect better information about its assets and the benefits it realised. We encourage other councils to consider this example of good practice.

Why having better asset information is important

Councils own assets so they can provide important services, such as delivering drinking water and protecting communities from floods. As asset managers and stewards, councils need to have the right information about their assets to effectively manage them. This means that councils need to identify which of their assets matter most, based on which are the most critical for the continued delivery of the services they provide.

All councils need up-to-date knowledge of their critical assets, especially their condition and performance, to make well-informed decisions about maintaining and renewing those assets before they fail.

Councils also need to know the condition and performance of their assets so they are well equipped to deal with change. Change can come in several ways – for example, changes to regulations, a growing community, or the effect of the changing climate on the severity of storm events and water levels.

Councils responding to change might need to deliver services in different ways. They will need condition and performance information to do this efficiently and effectively.

Ōpōtiki District Council's wastewater network

The sewers under the Ōpōtiki township (the main settlement in the district) were first installed in the 1950s. From the early 2000s, the performance of the wastewater network was poor, and many in the township suffered from loss of service. This was because the wastewater network did not have the capacity to deal with heavy rainfall events and the sewerage pipes were reaching the end of their useful lives.

During periods of heavy rain, the wastewater treatment plant would regularly overflow untreated effluent, which led to concerns for public health. There were also concerns that the wastewater network could not accommodate future development. The Council's approach at the time – to fix it when it broke – was not working and was proving too costly to continue.

The Council did not have the information to know what the main cause of the poor performance was, which meant it did not know how to best respond to the network failure.

Why the Council prioritised collecting better information

Initially, the Council considered how to replace the wastewater network. However, the Council determined it did not have the information it needed to make an informed decision about how to replace the wastewater network or even whether replacing the network was the right decision. Any potential solution also needed to consider the changing climate.

Proper governance processes were put in place

The Council set up a subcommittee to govern the project to find a solution. It appointed an independent member with an engineering background to the subcommittee. The Council told us that it found the independent member hugely beneficial because they helped ensure that the right questions were asked and that staff provided the right information to effectively govern the project.

What type of information did the Council collect?

In 2013/14, the Council started collecting a range of information to get a sense of the condition and performance of its sewer networks.

One of the first things the Council did was check the general state of the pipes and to try to identify how much rainwater was flowing into the wastewater network. This work focused on the worst-known sewer mains, as well as a representative sample of the network. In the end, the Council checked about 15% of the network.

The Council also increased its monitoring of ground water, river levels, rainfall, and its pump station. From this monitoring, the Council confirmed that rainwater was entering its wastewater network through gully traps and illegal connections. Ground water was also getting into the wastewater network through old broken underground pipes.

The Council used the information the modelling work collected to develop and evaluate scenarios and options to address its wastewater problem.

Tailored repair work – the Find and Fix project

In 2015/16, the Council carried out an initial trial in Ōpōtiki's smallest catchment. The trial was known as the Find and Fix project. The project found and fixed areas of water infiltration into the network. It repaired both council-owned wastewater pipes and privately owned pipes.9 The Council funded the repair work on privately owned pipes.

The Council also educated its community about the best ways to dispose of rainwater collected on their property. Council management considered that this helped reduce the level of rainwater coming into the wastewater network.

The Council continued its monitoring programme during the project and observed a significant reduction in the amount of rainwater coming into the catchment's wastewater network once the repair work was completed.

The Council's decision to fix the wastewater network

Based on the information it collected, the modelling it did, and the results of the Find and Fix project, the Council decided to rehabilitate (fix) the existing wastewater network in 2017. The rehabilitation option was partly an extension of the Find and Fix project.

The Council would continue to fix broken pipes – both private pipes and those owned by the Council. For the main reticulation pipes, the Council relined the existing pipes instead of installing new pipes. This would extend the life of the pipes, although for a shorter time than if new pipes had been installed.

The rehabilitation project was budgeted at $12 million and was scheduled to start in the 2018 financial year and finish in 2020. At the time of writing this report, the Council was nearing the end of the rehabilitation project as it initially had planned.

The Council has spent about $5 million on fixing the wastewater network, which is less than it expected. It has assessed that the average daily flows going through the wastewater network have reduced by at least 25% because of the work of the rehabilitation project.

Council staff believe that the Council will need to continue to collect the information we discussed in paragraphs 2.13 and 2.14. This information will be used again to target repairs where they are most needed and to maintain a sustainable system in the future.

The benefits of, and lessons from, collecting better information

We asked council management about the main benefits of, and the lessons learned from, its work on the wastewater network. Council management saw three main benefits:

  • The Ōpōtiki community is receiving a significantly better level of service. There are fewer wastewater overflows, and the wastewater treatment plant no longer reaches capacity during heavy rainfall events.
  • The Council identified an effective solution through an evidence-based decision-making process, which saved the Council and its community money. However, the cost was significant, because the Council had to quickly make up for years of underinvestment.
  • The Council learned the value of investing in data systems to gain good information about assets to inform decisions. The Council told us that, if councils decide to collect better information, they need to commit to data collection and budget accordingly. A council will not get the full benefits if it does not properly invest in the investigative stage.

We encourage councils, especially those that do not have good-quality information about the condition and performance of critical assets, to learn from the Council's initiative.

8: For example, see our December 2017 report, Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities.

9: These are the laterals that connect a private property to a council's reticulation system.