Laurel Stowell talks to South Taranaki Mayor Phil Nixon about his first 18 months in the job and why he lives in "the centre of the universe".
Phil Nixon gets up at 5.30am. If he has a lot on it's 4am.
For nearly 20 years he had two jobs - a dairy farm and electrical work at the Kapuni lactose plant.
He's a JP, served on three school boards and lives in "the centre of the universe" - an ordinary farmhouse on a one-lane road through bright green dairy farms that slope down to the Tasman Sea.
Nixon arrives at the house he has lived in all his life and plugs in the electric vehicle his council provides.
He has a spare hour to talk, a Long-Term Plan meeting in Opunake that night and another in Hāwera next night.
When the Chronicle arrives the house is wide open. It's one of just six on Rainie Rd, behind a well-trimmed hedge and tidy lawn. His wife Tanya invites us in to sit at a large table.
Nixon has been an electrician and a dairy farmer. He was elected to South Taranaki District Council in 2013, and was its deputy mayor from 2016-19. He won the mayoralty with 5253 votes and he says South Taranaki is growing.
Its population grew 3.5 per cent at the last census. It's retail spend outstripped the region's average and was well ahead of the New Zealand average.
New houses are being built. His council approved $18 million of building in November-December last year - usually a quiet period.
"There's a huge amount going on. I would think that we can probably sustain a 6 to 8 per cent population increase every three years," he said.
Added to its wealth, South Taranaki has a Long Term Investment Fund of $153 million that can subsidise rates by $6.5 million a year.
Nixon is a JP and was on school boards for 16 years, finishing as chairman of the Hāwera High School board. When he has spare time he likes to see his grandchildren and make things in his "disgraceful" workshop - furniture, or improvements to a barbecue area.
"It's a happy space for me," he said.
He was brought up on his family's Heretoa Farm, 114 gently sloping hectares with 320 Kiwi cross milking cows.
Dairy farming hasn't changed much. But visible from Rainie Rd is the onshore production station that processes oil and gas pulled up from under the sea at the unmanned Kupe Field 30km offshore.
Nixon trained as an electrician. When he finished his apprenticeship he was on an OE, but his father died in 1979 and he went back to the farm.
Then one winter when the farm was quiet he took on maintenance electrical work at the Kapuni Fonterra plant - and carried on there for nearly 20 years.
He would do the morning milking, go to work and then milk again when he got home - until his wife and sons were able to take over the afternoons.
For the last five years most of the farm's milking has been done by his manager, Sydney Porter, 2021's DairyNZ Trainee of the Year.
But Nixon is still hands on, planning work with staff and contouring the land with a digger. He's a proud Fonterra supplier and shareholder, and spray irrigates his land with effluent.
"The savings in fertiliser have been huge, and we still produce the yield of grass that we need."
He's been doing riparian planting for more than 15 years and believes crops and grass help offset greenhouse gas emissions from the cows - though that's not recognised.
None of his four sons wants to be a farmer, but they are all attached to the land. The Feilding son had a truckload of Taranaki's "beautiful, rich volcanic loam" trucked over to enrich his garden.
Dairy and oil and gas make up 42 per cent of South Taranaki's income, but climate action will change that picture. Nixon predicts his sons will have to move away from dairy when they inherit the land.
"They just need to look to diversify. I don't want to do a lot of that myself now. They can do that in future," he said.
An environmental and sustainability strategy is one of four major planks in South Taranaki's Long-Term Plan. It aims to adapt to climate change, plant more trees on council land, protect significant natural areas and divert five per cent of waste from landfill by 2023.
The district is planning a composting facility to deal with green and food waste, but hasn't decided a location yet.
Its elite soils are increasingly used for horticulture, with blueberries planted at Hāwera, and kiwifruit at Waitōtara. Hemp and quinoa are other new crops and the Waipipi Wind Farm provides energy without burning fossil fuel.
But the plank that excites Nixon the most is extending the South Taranaki Business Park on SH3 near Hāwera.
The council would spend $15 million over nine years to provide water, sewerage, stormwater, electricity and high-speed fibre internet to the industrial park.
A large Palmerston North warehouse is interested in moving to it, and Nixon envisages a precinct with local plumbing and electrical businesses grouped together.
The Long-Term Plan also proposes spending $10.6 million to revitalise South Taranaki's five small towns - Waverley, Pātea, Opunake, Eltham and Manaia - all at once, not one at a time. All have highways running through them that need to be made safer.
"Trucks just thunder through Waverley. Fifty kilometres is fast in a small town," Nixon said.
A $690,000 pathway from Waverley to Waverley Beach is proposed, and the towns would get signs directing people to points of interest.
"We have just got so much to tell here on our small towns. They're all so different."
The fourth major plank is about improving basic infrastructure. On the list is a new reservoir for Waverley's water supply. Sometimes the water that comes out of Waverley taps is brown.
"People are getting stuff out of their taps that they would sooner not. It's safe, but if it's brown and cloudy you don't like it," Nixon said.
Completing the Nukumaru Station Rd extension to Waiinu Beach is in the plan. And Waverley and Pātea are among five district towns that need new wastewater treatment plants.
Six new councillors were voted on to South Taranaki District Council in 2019. The current 12 are a diverse bunch, Nixon said, with women and Māori.
"We have a very good team around the table. We do work very well together and we are lucky to have a supportive staff behind us."
But he would like more young people. He is always keen to see young people succeed, and enjoys the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs.
The Three Waters Reforms pose a big question about the future of local government. But, Nixon says, it could have an exciting future if central government resources it to take on new functions.
It could do housing better than central government, he said, because it knows its communities.
"I think the best thing we can do is get in the same room with central government, thrash out a path forward on these things and work together."