The law and the library

Our Central Library is hugely missed by so many of us, a place to go, to be, without cost or expectation, a place to learn, a place to find adventure in the pages of a good book, a place that added life to Te Ngakau Civic Square – the heart of our city.

There is strong demand ‘to just reopen it.’ Problem is the Council cannot ‘just reopen it’.

The 2016 Kaikoura quake was massive, but it was 200 kilometres away. It didn’t damage the Library, but it did cause significant damage to the Civic Administration Building right next door, constructed with similar methodology. The CAB remains the subject of ongoing discussion with Council’s insurers, and has not been occupied since.

Our advice is that it was just the angle of the waves from the earthquake that determined which building was damaged. It could equally have been the library. Thankfully we had recently removed the portico which joined the two buildings together.

The Statistics building on Harbour Quays had floors collapse in the quake. Several other city buildings were also damaged and subsequently demolished. Parliament’s Bowen House is undergoing strengthening as are others.

Every one of these buildings was constructed using precast concrete floors. These floors sit on ledges. The simple fact is that in the event of a major quake there is (high) likelihood of the walls moving, meaning the floors could become unsupported. That could be catastrophic in a building with 3000 plus visitors a day, as well as Council staff and CAB and café workers. Reopening requires doing something (major) first.

Because of its significance that also entails a public consultation and decision-making process first, which I’ll cover shortly. Councillors and I will approve a Special Consultation Process and Statement of Proposal on Tuesday. That will allow everyone to have a say.

So what are the options? Let’s start with what we want to achieve:

Get the /a library open as quickly as possible

Ensure the library is life safe in an earthquake

Ensure the library building itself survives an earthquake – so the building is reusable

Minimise costs to the ratepayer

In addition we should consider whether the library building can relate better to Civic Square.

We should also consider how to modernise the actual library service. If you haven’t visited our new Waitohi (Johnsonville) library, or Christchurch’s Turanga, I encourage you to do so. We will ‘build back better’.

Finally the plant (heating, ventilation, AC, plumbing etc) in the building is mostly now 30 years old and most of it in need of replacement regardless of what we do.

There are several different options, and multiple variations on those options. Every option has pros and cons. Broadly the options under active consideration are to strengthen the existing building to varying degrees, or construct a new building either on the existing site, or elsewhere in Te Ngakau Civic Square.

Other options are mentioned but haven’t been expanded on in the officer’s paper for the 21st. They include:

1. A disaggregated model. Essentially several smaller CBD libraries, building on / expanding what is now in place with this week’s opening of Te Awe (Johnston/Panama Streets), following on from Arapaki (Manners St) and He Matapihi Molesworth (located in the National Library), with some less used stock now warehoused but accessible in Johnsonville. This model wasn’t included because of the difficulty in costing it, but would undoubtedly be the cheapest option. It would also enliven a number of parts of our Central City and potentially be more accessible than a single site, but clearly wouldn’t add so much to Te Ngakau Civic Square, even if one of the smaller libraries were located there.

2. Building a single Central library away from Te Ngakau Civic Square was also not assessed in detail because of the difficulty of locating a suitable site, costing such a proposal, and determining how long it might take to deliver. Creative feedback will be welcome on any options.

3. Undertaking minimal strengthening now, and then doing further work ‘in a few years when funds might be available.’ This was discounted because it would involve another future lengthy closure, and probably the need to find and fund another temporary CBD library network.

How do the potential proposed options respond to those 7 outcomes?

First thing is that cost numbers are at this stage based only on preliminary information. For the existing building that is based on the engineering information fully available on the Council’s website.

Those costs will become more accurate with developed design and further with detailed design, and of course finally tendering and agreeing a contract. I am particularly interested in the feedback from engineering, architectural and construction sectors who will undoubtedly be able to make helpful suggestions which might save ratepayers’ money.

For the purposes of comparison, a new building is assumed to be the same size as the existing library, though if a new building were chosen it could clearly be of the size necessary to accommodate the library, or the library plus additional (office) space as the current building does.

One aspect is that roughly a 1/3rd of existing Central Library stock had not been borrowed in at least 2 years. The paper quite sensibly notes that, and the possibility of holding such stock in a lower cost building outside the CBD, as we are currently doing with the bulk of the CBD stock.

Decisions will likewise need to be made about the internal layout and space allocation should the existing building be retained.

What is clear is that every option has pluses and minuses. In essence the more resilient the building, the greater the cost and the longer the delivery timeframe, regardless of whether it in a new or the existing building. You will note that costs have ranges. They are derived only from high level concept designs at this stage.


(*The estimated one off increase in average residential rates, noting that this would be sustained at that level over the life of building)
(#These will be inevitably indicative, but reflect risk of increasing seismic standards impacting on building life. Personal view is that we in New Zealand should be expecting buildings to last longer)

Why not just decide on an option and get on with it?

The answer lies in the Local Government Act (LGA), the most significant piece of legislation giving Councils wide ranging powers, and imposing commensurate responsibilities.

The legislation is there for obvious reasons. You may be passionately in support of a particular approach to the library and consider that obviously ‘everyone’ thinks the same way. However, judging from even the most initial feedback, our community has a wide range of views on this as on many significant issues. We need to allow people to express those views, and the law says we must do that. Imagine if we just made some other significant decision because we knew ‘everyone’ wanted that, but which you passionately disagreed with.

I would encourage everyone to read the LGA – sections 76 – 83.

Section 76AA and 76 say in effect that the Council has to identify significant assets and services, and when making decisions about them needs to engage with the community to a level commensurate with the significance of the decision. The library service, Civic Square and the dollars involved are all clearly significant. They are of a level that our clear advice is that we must undertake the ‘Special Consultative Procedures’ set out in the LGA (section 83).

Section 77 says Councils must identify all the practicable options and assess them all in terms of their advantages and disadvantages. We are required to have a proposal; that is a preferred option at the outset. The key point is that the proposal may well change as a result of public feedback. That is eminently possible in this case regardless of which is the preferred option at the outset.

Section 78 says Councils must ‘give consideration to the views of people affected by or likely to have an interest in a matter.’ Section 78 doesn’t compel consultation. Section 76 certainly does when significance is considered.

Section 79 talks about the detail of information to be considered.

Section 80 talks about consistency / inconsistency with other decisions /policies of the Council.

Section 81 says Councils must provide opportunities for Maori input.

Section 82 is complex but essentially says Councils have to provide interested and affected parties (the wider public in this case) adequate information, adequate time to consider that information, encouragement to provide feedback to Councils, and Councils must receive that feedback and give it due consideration – with an open mind (clause 1 (e)) Just in case you wonder why Council doesn’t consult extensively on every minor matter Clause 82 4 makes clear that all of this is subject to consideration of the significance of the matter. Essentially this requires a common sense consideration of the scale of the matter versus the cost / time involved in consultation.

The ‘open mind’ requirement is particularly important, and elected members can find themselves unable to participate in decision making if they go too far before or during the consultation process.

Section 83 sets out the specific requirements for the Special Consultation Procedure.

In short – Subject to a decision about the significance of a matter, the Council must consult, must consider all practicable options, must provide all relevant information, must provide the time to consider it and encourage feedback, and must do all of this with an open mind. Elected members can most certainly argue a position but must remain open to the possibility of changing their position in response to public feedback and additional information.

This is about good process. Failing to undertake the process properly risks our Auditor’s wrath, meaning having to do it all again, or the possibility of legal challenge.

We are all very keen to get on and make a decision. We so greatly value our city library services.

That’s why the Council moved with speed to set up what are now three interim libraries across the Central City. That is also why we are undertaking this special consultation now, allowing a decision at the end of October, and not waiting until the Long Term Plan consultation and a decision at the end of next June. It is also why we have allocated an additional $2 million in the just approved Annual Plan to do further design work this year, in advance of the Long Term Plan funding decisions in June next year, so as to speed up delivery of the finally agreed option.

This will be an important decision.

I encourage all Wellingtonians to take an interest, make a submission from the 27th of July. Can I also ask, that in the spirit of being all in this together, you also take time to read all the material, ask questions rather than making assumptions, listen to the views of others who have different views, and consider them thoughtfully, and with the open mind your elected representatives are required to have.


First published on Wellington Scoop, 19 July 2020.