2 Feb 2024

Master Plumbers boss wants commissioners brought to Wellington

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 2 February 2024

A plumbing industry body is calling for independent commissioners to look into Wellington City Council amidst a tsunami of leaks in the capital.

The Wellington region is currently in level 2 water restrictions, meaning a ban on household garden sprinklers and irrigation systems, with a possible move to level 3 restrictions.

But at the same time Wellington Water said the region had thousands of water leaks and estimated that 45 percent of the region's water was being lost, prompting some locals to re-route the leaks to water their garden.

A report has also revealed response and repair times have blown out; a patch-up that should take less than five days to do was taking 40 days on average. 

Meanwhile, an independent review has found that the agency's lax reporting meant the water provider could not clearly show how it was spending ratepayers' money to fix pipes.

It found the utility was not properly reporting how money was being spent to improve the pipe network, and identified issues with its contracts between Wellington City Council and contractor Fulton Hogan.

Master Plumbers chief executive Greg Wallace told Checkpoint that Wellingtonians were fed up.

"We've got excuse after excuse and we're not having any solutions."

He said he was being "inundated" by members sending him emails and pictures of leaks across the city.

"You can't walk 100 metres around Wellington without seeing a leak coming from the footpath, the road or a fire hydrant. It's everywhere."

Wallace said the council needed to stop doing band-aid patch jobs and move forward with a real replacement strategy. In the meantime, he said the isolation valves and tobies (a water shut-off valve) in all houses needed to be fixed.

"We need to stop bandaging the problem. What we're doing is we're digging up the road, fixing one leak and 200 metres down the road that pipe that needed repair 40 years ago is going to leak again.

"We're advocating for independent commissioners to go into the council ... this problem has been around for decades. We're still investing into cycleways, a new Town Hall and libraries, when we potentially could run out of water," he said.

"It's nothing else than financial mismanagement from this council."

When asked on Checkpoint previously if there was talk of commissioners being brought in to sort out the situation, Wellington mayor Tory Whanau said there was "absolutely none".

"The minister has since said publicly that hasn't even crossed his mind… As I came in as mayor, I knew this was a big, big complex issue and, and my goodness, it is more so than I thought."

CEO of New Zealand Master Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Greg Wallace

 Master Plumbers chief executive Greg Wallace. Photo: supplied

'We want to be part of the solution'

Master Plumbers' members were also "incredibly frustrated" that they were not being asked to be part of the solution when they are fully trained and qualified, Wallace said.

"They do a seven-year qualification, it's a full apprenticeship, and two written exams ... they deal with water connections and tobies every day in their career, to say they're not trained is quite simply ludicrous.

"Our members deal with health and safety, they deal with traffic management and obviously they deal with drinking water. We've been told that up to 60 percent of those tobies in residential houses across Wellington need repair or are leaking water."

Wallace said there were members with lots of staff available that could start fixing up leaks, starting Monday or Tuesday, without any issue.

He said his members were ratepayers as well.

"Those ratepayers are really, really frustrated because they know they could help with the solution.

"We know we've got members available. I spoke to a member this week who is an approved Wellington Water contractor. He's had no request from Wellington Water to do any extra work, or any work actually, over the last six months.

"Now he's sitting there, supposedly gone through their health and safety, traffic management and every other process, and he's still not being requested to do any work."

Wallace did not believe Wellington Water were doing their upmost to find contractors for repair jobs.

"We want to be part of the solution. We are proud Wellingtonians, right, we want to have a city that's not the laughingstock of the world," he said.

In response, Wellington Water said the repair work required specialist knowledge, training and qualifications so only approved contractors could be used. 

The agency's spokesman Kevin Locke said skills needed included working with and repairing small and large diametre public water pipes along with the ability to comply with health, safety and environmental requirements for the protection of public health.

Locke said the repairs also involved working around gas and electricity fibre and traffic management, which was not something a plumbing company offered.