The visual pollution of Wellington’s streets

Published: Wed 17 Dec 2008 01:07 PM
Why I refused TelstraClear’s unrefusable offer
By Lindsay Shelton

Click to enlarge
Spaghetti of wires on Khao San Road, Bangkok - are Wellington's streets any better?
TelstraClear rang me the other day. They wanted to offer me a deal for telephone and internet which they said I couldn’t refuse.
I told them I was ready to accept their deal, but first I wanted them to remove their thick and ugly black cable which hangs at eye level between my house and the view of Wellington harbour.
It was the third call from TelstraClear within the last year or so. Twice before I had asked without success for their help to remove their cable – I even offered to share the costs. But this call seemed to be more promising.
The Telstra callcentre person, who was in Christchurch, was keen to sign me up. She asked where I lived, told me she had once lived in Wellington, and agreed that there were great views in my suburb. She even sympathized with the fact that her company’s cable hung in my line of sight.
She asked about my current agreement with Telecom, promised that Telstra’s service would be quicker and less expensive, and said she would talk to her supervisor about getting rid of the ugly cable.
Ten minutes later she called me back, sounding a bit deflated. Her message: TelstraClear had no wish to move their cable, not even as a way of getting a new customer.
When Telecom had rung me a week earlier, they offered twice the gigabites at no extra charge. Were they really offering something for nothing? When they confirmed the offer, I accepted in spite of the penalty payment of $190 if I break the deal within a year.
It would have been worth paying $190, I told my TelstraClear caller, if I could get rid of the cable outside my windows.
But no one seems interested in moving the cable or the 15 other wires that hang above the street outside my house.
So I haven’t made the change to TelstraClear, though I think of them every day - and not in a positive way - when I look out at the big black cable which carries their faster, cheaper services.
Two years ago the Wellington City Council seemed to have developed a conscience about the messiness of its suburban streetscapes. It accepted that overhead cabling “can be unsightly” and it agreed that “the most popular method of reducing the visual impact of overhead cable networks is to place them underground.” It went further: “Under-grounding cable networks provide[s] aesthetic and safety benefits.” But it warned: “The main drawbacks are the high costs and difficulty deciding how costs should be shared.”
In spite of the drawbacks, the council decided to be pro-active. It began a trial of a programme which aimed to help get rid of some of the proliferation of wires and cables. It called for registrations of interest for a “contestable fund for under-grounding overhead networks.”
There were rules, but they weren’t complicated. A minimum of eight households had to join in applying for money from the fund. The council would pay 25 per cent of the costs, which it advised could be as high as $10,000 per house. The 75 per cent contribution for ratepayers could be added to the rates over a five-year period.
I phoned the council last week to ask about the next deadline for applying for money from the fund. But I was out of luck. The fund no longer exists. The two-year trial was not a success. About 20 groups of householders had sought council assistance. But when it came to the crunch, none of them was willing to pay 75 per cent of the under-grounding cost. So the council didn’t have to pay out any of the allocated money, and no wires and cables were moved out of sight.
Perhaps I shouldn’t keep looking at overhead wires and cables. Perhaps there are more serious issues to get concerned about. A film producer friend tells me I’m unreasonable to be offended by all the wires hanging in Wellington streets. He says they should be accepted as part of our third-world urban streetscapes.
I don’t agree with him.
I don’t accept that overhead wires should be part of the capital city’s streets. They aren’t allowed in new subdivisions – where it’s compulsory to place all services underground. But in older suburbs, everywhere you look there are overhead wires and cables. Even in Oriental Bay - which ought to be one of the city’s iconic places - wires which should have been buried years ago have been left hanging messily across parts of the Parade. It’s not a good look.
Four years ago a group in Hawker Street talked of visual pollution of the view from St Gerard’s Monastery. They told the council that the “mass of ugly overhead cabling” was “an absolute disgrace.” The council said it had no money to bury the cables. It estimated the cost as more than a million dollars.
Council policy gives lip-service to the maintenance of an “aesthetically pleasing environment” – there’s even authority to remove trees where significant public views are compromised. But after the demise of the under-grounding fund, there’s no longer any policy or any money for removing wires and cables which compromise the environment.
The council says defensively that it cannot compel the utility companies to move their wires underground (though it believes it can stop them hanging-up any new wires). But the council has itself contributed to the messiness of its streetscapes, and not only by allowing TelstraClear’s predecessor Saturn to string-up the black cables which droop below the other power and phone lines in most Wellington suburbs.
In 1995 it allowed a new venture named CityLink to hang fibre-optic cable alongside the trolley bus wires in inner-city streets. The new company saved under-ground trenching costs that it said could have been as high as $400 a metre, though its cables were hung in areas where other lines had been under-grounded, in keeping with expectations for the centre of a capital city.
Auckland was more protective of the look of its streets. It told the new venture that any new cable network would have to be completely under-grounded. (Auckland pricing was therefore likely to be higher, said CityLink.)
One Wellington street is this month showing how streetscapes can be improved when overhead wiring is removed. Newtown’s Riddiford Street, which is acquiring unexpected grandeur where it’s being widened outside the new hospital, has lost all its overhead wires on one side of the road. The road-widening budget included the cost of digging a trench in which all the wires on the hospital side have been buried: an admirable idea. But the policy has so far been half-hearted. Though there are new poles on the opposite side of the road, the old wooden poles are still in position as well, carrying the familiar clutter of wires. What an awful difference.
It’s not just the overhead wires which demonstrate a lack of pride in the design of Wellington suburban streetscapes. The wires themselves are carried up the poles in a variety of different pipes – white, grey, blue, metallic, big, small … some of them waving threateningly in the winds where they haven’t been properly secured.
Then there are the poles themselves - which lean at all angles and can be made of concrete or wood, with no apparent design consistency. I was driving on a country road in the Manawatu over the weekend – the rural power poles were all of a kind, and aligned with an accuracy that seems to be beyond whoever is in charge of Wellington’s suburban street design. Perhaps no one is in control?
The other day I watched a clump of loose wires blowing around in the northerly, after an old pole had been removed, and the new one hadn’t arrived. When the linesmen started installing the new pole and re-attaching the wires, I ascertained what had been obvious all along – the phone lines originate underground and are brought above-ground to climb each pole like an ugly weed. What a weird setup. We are lucky that gas and water and sewerage connections aren’t suspended in mid-air as well. Think of the money that someone would save. But who would be crazy enough to suggest it?
Lindsay Shelton
Wellington Scoop Editor
Lindsay Shelton started work as a journalist with the Dominion, then the Sydney Morning Herald and later TVNZ, where he was editor of network news. Then he became the first Marketing Director of the NZ Film Commission. He's been editing Wellington Scoop since November 2008.
Contact Lindsay Shelton

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