Regional and Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash inherited responsibility for the Provincial Growth Fund after NZ First's ousting at the last election. He toured Northland this week for a first-hand look at key PGF projects - some of which are exceeding expectations, while others are foundering in red tape and budget over-runs. The Advocate caught up with Nash, an avowed Northland fan, to hear his impressions.
Whangārei's Town Basin
"I just love the whole art precinct and the contrast between something which is based on absolute engineering precision [the rolling ball clock] and the craftsmanship of the Hundertwasser. It must have been a builder's nightmare because nothing is straight, level or square. It's awesome to see."
Nash said he had known Whangārei since he was a child, thanks to childhood holidays in Matapouri and relatives in the Bay of Islands, and seen huge changes at the Town Basin.
"There was a report five of six years ago by sociologist Paul Spoonley who talked about the danger of provincial towns like Wairoa and Kaikohe becoming 'zombie towns'. I thought it was a bit insulting to the people who live there ... but what PGF has allowed us to do is move away from the narrative of dying provincial New Zealand and take it in the opposite direction.
"The money is the first step but it's about rebuilding communities and confidence. When you talk to people in Whangārei, people are moving back because they see a vibrancy that hasn't been there for a long time."
Nash said the 16,000 visitors through the Hundertwasser Arts Centre so far had "blown the predictions out of the water".
Many of those visitors would also eat in a cafe or do some shopping, gradually revitalising the whole precinct.
The arts centre was granted about $18 million from the PGF and the rolling ball clock $750,000.
Kaikohe's Lindvart Park
Tears of joy were shed in July 2020 when then Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones announced $6.25m for a decades-long dream of a multi-sports complex in Kaikohe.
Since then exactly nothing has been built.
The lack of progress was highlighted in March when a lack of youth facilities was cited as one reason gang life was so appealing to some young people in Kaikohe.
"What happened is they were given funding and it [the project cost] has completely blown out. There are Covid reasons, supply chain reasons and project management reasons. What they're doing now is looking at the project and seeing if they can scale it back to keep within the funding envelope."
Nash said funding for the Lindvart Park project had not been withdrawn.
"But we are getting to the stage with some projects around the country where we're taking a good hard look at them and saying, okay, you're now outside the terms of the original contract. And sitting down with them and working very hard to see if these projects are still viable."
This 18ha water storage reservoir at Ngāwhā, near Kaikohe, was loaned $10m by the PGF. Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust is raising a further $4m.
Nash pointed to the 6ha of blueberries and 3ha of strawberries now being grown nearby as examples of what could happen once investors were confident of a year-round water supply — especially as weather becomes increasingly unpredictable.
Nearby, work is continuing on the Ngāwhā Innovation and Enterprise Hub, a Far North Holdings-led project pledged $19.5m from the PGF in 2020.
Rangitane reclamation and Paihia breakwaters
Plans to build a double boat ramp, replace a dilapidated jetty and reclaim an area of Kerikeri Inlet for car and trailer parking received a significant setback last week when the Environmental Protection Authority refused an application for fast-tracked consent.
The project has divided the Rangitane community, with one faction opposed for traffic and environmental reasons, while another wants it to go ahead for better safety and improved access to the water.
Similar issues - and sharp divisions - are at play in Paihia, where a PGF grant allowed the revival of a decade-old plan to build breakwaters to protect the town from storms and restore an eroded beach.
Nash said it was up to the council whether to challenge the court ruling which had scuttled the fast-track process in Rangitane, or go through the standard resource consent process.
"We're not looking at pulling out but at a certain point we will say, 'Okay, if this hasn't got community backing, or it's too hard, or it doesn't look like it's going to happen, we will need to have surety by a certain date. If things aren't sorted by that date, or we don't see very clear progress, then we need to have a very honest conversation about whether we continue or just pull out.'"
If a community was "hugely opposed" to a project there would have to be compelling reasons for going ahead.
''A lot of projects will never have unanimous support because there'll always be one or two people who don't think it's the right thing to do. Getting Hundertwasser across the line, for example, took years. But if the community really isn't behind a project, or it's tearing a community apart, we need to be sure the promoters are managing in a way that builds relationships as opposed to destroying them. This is supposed to be about engaging and enabling communities," Nash said.
"I'm not saying we're going to pull out of these projects. But I'm saying we are approaching a point in time where conversations need to be had. And we need to have confidence projects can progress in a way we were told they would originally."
The PGF granted $2.4m for the Rangitane project in 2020 while the council was expected to contribute $1.2m.
The Paihia breakwater plan was pledged $8m, with the council expected to cover the $5.3m cost of a new waterfront recreational area and restoring Horotutu Beach.
The PGF's legacy
The $3 billion PGF — a key part of the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First after the 2017 election — was at times derided as a massive re-election bribe by NZ First.
The fund, now administered by the Kānoa Regional Economic Development and Investment Unit, allocated $800m to Northland alone.
Nash, however, said the PGF had offered a catch-up for regions such as Northland which had suffered from decades of underinvestment.
"It was a lot of money but I think it's been transformational for a number of smaller communities. I get to travel a lot in this wonderful country and I see the difference it has made. There's been a whole lot of good stuff. Some of it is sung from the rooftops, others are much more subtle, but, hell, it's made a difference."