Rough road to reliable services

21:35, Nov 09 2012
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Anthony Wilson

When Anthony Wilson was 4 he set fire to Pukekura Kindergarten's toy shed.

"He was a naughty kid," says Jack Kettlewell, the one time mentor to the man who went on to become head of New Plymouth District Council's infrastructure group and internationally respected engineer.

"I don't know. He must have got hold of some matches. Luckily it was completely insured," Kettlewell added.

It is not completely beyond belief that Wilson knew this at the time. Renowned for his precision and decisiveness, his move last week to Wellington City Council after three decades in New Plymouth leaves a hole the council will struggle to fill.

It was under his watchful eye and direction that much of the district's infrastructure moved from barely coping to such levels of reliability you hardly know they are there.

Employed at the council in 1983 as a young engineer, Wilson was given the job of commissioning New Plymouth waste water treatment plant, then the country's most advanced sewage treatment system.


"We were pleased to get a young bloke of his calibre," says Kettlewell, the now-retired Pukekura Kindergarten treasurer and deputy city engineer who gave Wilson a job.

"It was obvious all the way along he was very ambitious and highly competent."

That ambition saw him appointed Wellington City Council's chief asset officer in September, a position he has now filled for one week.

"People forget the investment in infrastructure. They really do," he says. "Utilities are not judged on how they perform 99.9 per cent of the time. We are judged on how they perform 0.1 of the time when they don't go the way people expect. We are always in the business of not worrying about the 99.9 per cent of the time. We work on making sure we have got the 0.1 of the time covered."

The road to reliability began with the 1989 local body amalgamations that created the New Plymouth District Council and exposed what Mr Wilson politely terms "significant deferred investment" in the new district's small towns.

"Every stone we turned over we found problems. We had tips, there is no way to describe them as landfills. We had rubbish tips all over the district," he says.

"The water supply to Waitara was so bad it was not at all uncommon for people to get eels forced into their hot water tanks and boiled for a few days and then complain about the taste."

"Inglewood oxidation pond was so overloaded the seagulls could walk across it. I am not joking. And it roared straight into the Kurapete Stream which everyone called Krapatee Creek."

With most of those problems now solved Mr Wilson counts New Plymouth's water augmentation project as his most satisfying. It ensured the city's drinking water now comes via three different water mains rather than the one it arrived through until 2001.

On the other side, he says Oakura's $24 million sewerage project was one of the most difficult.

"It's not that it didn't go as planned. It's just that the community didn't understand the change of scope," he says.

"The original estimates for that were for something that was completely different from that which was built. The main reason was the community, as part of resource consenting requirements, was demanding a far, far higher level of protection than had traditionally been provided anywhere in New Zealand."

That meant higher cost and when combined with surging resource prices it became what many saw as a budget blowout.

Mr Wilson takes the public scrutiny and political aspect of his job in his stride, appearing to relish tackling question time around the council table. Renowned for exactitude he was never lost for an answer, says councillor Maurice Betts.

"He was at his best with a convoluted, rambling question of great moment for the councillor involved, usually in an attempt to show what knowledge the person had," Betts said. "After a slow walk to the lectern and suitable pause, he would answer in one word."

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