Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is adamant the Government is not leaving businesses affected by the delayed construction of the City Rail Link (CRL) in Auckland out to dry.
But business owners affected by the closure of the central Auckland Street while the link is under construction disagree and have called on the Government to provide more clarity on the issue.
In recent interviews, both Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Ardern have cited advice they have received from City Rail Link Ltd (CRLL) about what the Government is doing to help the struggling businesses.
Twyford said CRLL was in discussions with a "handful" of businesses, but he has been unable to specify how many, directing comment to CRLL itself.
But CRLL has gone to ground, not only refusing the Herald's request for interviews, but flat out refusing to answer any questions on the issue.
This comes as the ongoing saga takes its toll on those affected.
Shakespeare Tavern owner Sunny Kaushal, who is the spokesman for the lower Albert St businesses, said many business owners are suffering mental health issues.
"Every day starts for us with stress and ends with depression – it's taking a huge toll on our personal lives and our families."
He said some of the business owners don't know how they are going to open their doors tomorrow.
"We have been crying out for help for two years and the situation is so grave that some of the businesses have already closed and others are on the brink of collapse."
Speaking to Newstalk ZB last week, Twyford said the Government was working "hand-in-hand" with affected businesses.
But, when pressed again on the issue yesterday, Twyford was unable to provide much detail as to what that meant.
He told Newstalk yesterday that his advice from CRL was that it had been talking to affected businesses about the issue.
When asked how many, he said a "handful" bit was not able to answer with any more specificity as he didn't know.
"But CRLL advise me that they are doing their best to provide practical assistance to those businesses in lower Albert St who have been affected by the delay in the construction project."
He said the Government does not have a policy to provide cash payouts to businesses which are affected by construction projects.
CRL refused to comment, other than to send a statement which did not address the Herald's questions.
"City Rail Link Ltd continues to look at what it can do across the whole project within the remit given to it by Sponsors – the Crown and Auckland Council – where it is feasible and it is justified," CRLL chief executive Sean Sweeney said.
He added that this may include looking at taking over a lease temporarily to occupy for project use, as long as it makes sense from a "project point of view".
He added that CRLL is also continually looking at other measures but those were still being developed.
But an email from Sweeney, obtained by the Herald, confirmed that CRLL has had "private conversations" with one retailer.
But speaking to media this morning, Ardern said the Government was not leaving the businesses affected by the rail project out to dry.
"CRL are directly talking to the effected businesses as we speak – some of those may be commercially sensitive," she said, adding that's why she was unable to divulge many details.
But advocates for the affected businesses were surprised to hear the Prime Minister making these comments.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said she was not aware of any negotiations or talks between affected lower Albert St businesses and CRL, bar one.
Kaushal said he was not aware of any of the 16 businesses he represents who were in conversations with the Government, or CRLL.
National Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye said this was an "extraordinary situation" where people's lives were being wrecked.
"All they are asking for is a fair and transparent process and it's really unhelpful to have the minister and the Prime Minister repeating that negotiations and discussions are occurring around financial assistance when the reality is these 16 businesses are not having those discussions."
In July, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff proposed a hardship fund for businesses struggling to survive along the route of the $4.4 billion City Rail Link.
Today, a mayoral spokesman said what he proposed is for a capped fund administered by CRLL to provide some targeted financial assistance to small businesses facing exceptional hardship due to prolonged construction.
The mayor has made the case to the minister for a targeted hardship fund and that decision is now in the minister - and potentially cabinet's hands, the spokesman said.
In August, Twyford told the Herald the Government was taking Goff's proposal for a hardship fund seriously and officials were looking at it.
He said there is no precedent for central or local government providing hardship payouts for people affected by transport construction.
"I want to know what the fiscal consequences will be and whatever we are doing is fair and consistent.
"It is a small number of businesses in this neighbourhood. We are right at the start of the City Rail Link, then we are going to build two light rail lines and another one in Wellington so this is not a small thing," said Twyford.