Oslo water project drains City Council

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The scenic Holsfjord west of Oslo looks so peaceful, but a costly project to divert water from it to provide new drinking water reserves for the capital has set off a political crisis. Huge budget overruns looked likely on Tuesday afternoon to send the Greens Party’s already-controversial top politician in charge, and maybe the entire city government, down the drain.

The scenic Holsfjord, seen here from Krokskogen, will provide a new source of drinking water for Oslo. The expensive water project is taking a toll, however, on both taxpayers and the Oslo city government. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Morten Møst

Earlier city governments had failed for years to launch the new drinking water project that ultimately was demanded by state authorities. Oslo currently has only one main source of drinking water, the large lake called Maridalsvannet that’s fed by waterways through the forests north of the city. It’s no longer viewed as adequate and also makes Oslo’s roughly 600,000 residents vulnerable to any disruptions, from droughts to vandalism.

When state authorities finally ordered the Oslo city government to establish a new source of drinking water by 2028, its current Labour Party-led coalition settled on the huge project. It involves blasting a 19-kilometer-long tunnel from the Holsfjord in Lier through the neighbouring communities of Hole and Bærum to Huseby on Oslo’s west side. From there, a new underground water treatment plant will be made available to send water all over the city using both existing and new tunnels and pipes also being built under areas stretching from Ullern and Montebello in the west to Sagene and farther east to Disen, Alnabru and Haugerud.

The whole project was originally supposed to cost around NOK 12.5 billion (USD 1.5 billion), equivalent to NOK 37,000 per property owner in Oslo. The city government official in charge, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg of the Greens Party, was on hand in February to push the button that symbolically blasted one its new tunnels. Now she’s being blasted instead, for failing to mention what she’d known since December: Rising prices in the construction business mean the water project will be at least NOK 5 billion (UD 600 million) more expensive than budgeted.

‘Biggest budget scandal ever’
That wasn’t revealed to opposition parties on the Oslo City Council or to the public until the city’s mid-year revised budget was unveiled late last month. It’s since been called the “biggest budget scandal” ever in Oslo, or worse.

“I think this is one of the biggest budget overruns in Norwegian history,” Anne Haabeth Rygg, leader of the Conservative Party’s delegation on the city council, told newspaper Aftenposten. “It’s nearly a Mongstad,” she added, referring to the huge budget overrun at the Mongstad oil refinery in 1987 that left heads rolling.

At the center of the storm of the water project budget overrun is Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, who’s been championing controversial Greens policy in Oslo since 2015. Now she’s running for Parliament, so may be leaving her post at Oslo City Hall this fall anyway. PHOTO: MDG

“I’ve never seen the likes of this,” Hallstein Bjercke of the Liberal Party, noting, however, that he joined the city council after expansion of the Holmenkollen Ski Jump ended up costing hundreds of millions more than budgeted and forced the resignation of the Progress Party politician in charge.

Opposition politicians quickly began claiming that the new water project overrun (which came in addition to large overruns on the construction of a new swimming pool at Tøyen and a new fire station project that’s been dropped) “must have consequences.”

They emerged in full on Tuesday, when the Reds Party supported a proposed lack of confidence vote in Lan Marie Nguyen Berg that already had been put forward by the Progress Party and the small party that’s opposed to road tolls (Folkeaksjon Nei til mer bompenger). By Monday evening they’d won support from the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Center Party. It’s highly unusual when the far-left Reds go along with measures proposed by far-right Progress and the Conservatives, but the billions involved infuriated them all.

They’re most upset, however, over how Berg allegedly withheld information on the budget overrun and gave the opposition no time to study the situation or suggest alternatives until the revised budget was up for approval. “For the Reds, openness and information are most important in politics,” the leader of the Reds delegation, Eivor Evenrud, said at a press conference Tuesday.

Opposition politicians also claim it’s not the first time Berg has failed to inform the City Council about major problems. Berg, committed to reversing climate change, is also controversial for her relentless campaign to make driving as difficult as possible in Oslo by closing streets, replacing street parking with bicycle lanes and declaring how she “loves” road tolls. She’s often branded as arrogant and unwilling to accept criticism.

Berg denies any wrongdoing
Berg has earlier blamed the NOK 5 billion overrun (enough to build another National Museum or Opera House) on “unforeseen and major price increases” in the construction market that she needed to get confirmed in an independent report. She noted how there are many tunnels being built in Norway at present, including for new train and tram lines, and both supplies and expertise are at a premium.

On Tuesday she still claimed she had not ignored her duty to inform her fellow City Council members. Instead, she claims, the city government simply had to “quality check” the numbers. She noted that the huge overrun is “extremely unfortunate” for Oslo residents but that it can’t be blamed on any poor management or lack of control on her part. She also wrote on social media that she feels she’s being treated much more harshly than other politicians, ignoring how a Progress Party official had to resign over the Holmenkollen fiasco.

Lan Marie Nguyen Berg of the Greens Party (right), Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party and Marianne Borgen of the Socialist Left Party (SV), when they first formed Oslo’s Labour-led city government in 2015. Now Berg may be on her way out sooner than expected. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne

With a majority on Oslo’s City Council declaring a lack of confidence in her, however, they’re now asking her to voluntarily resign. It’s possible that Oslo’s city government leader, Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, will ask her to resign or simply replace her, but it’s also possible he’ll stand behind her. That would force the entire city government led by Labour, the Socialist Left Party (SV) and the Greens to resign. It would then be up to Mayor Marianne Borgen of SV to appoint a new city government leader, possibly from the Conservatives, but in the meantime, the current government can continue to rule with their overall majority on the council until a new government is formed. “The city shall and must keep running,” Borgen told newspaper Dagsavisen over the weekend as the crisis loomed. “The city is still in a pandemic.”

Confronted with chaos that can loom in the midst of the ongoing Corona crisis and just before national elections in September, Evenrud of the Reds claimed the consequences of Berg’s handling of the water project “will be up to Raymond Johansen to evaluate.” It was all due to come up for a vote later this week, when Berg even may be allowed to continue in her post after all. She’s the Greens Party’s top candidate for a seat in Parliament this fall and is likely to secure it if the Greens gain enough votes as expected. “Then she at least won’t be the Oslo opposition’s pain in the neck any longer,” wrote political commentator Lars West Johnsen, even before the lack of confidence vote came up.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund