My Column 2020 - Moving forward together

10 December 2020

An extraordinary year

With the Christmas break and New Year fast approaching it is natural to look back over the past 12 months. I don’t think anyone would argue this was an extraordinary year.

Locally, we were hit by a record-breaking drought that saw three of our communities come close to running out of water. Kaikohe was hardest-hit but taps in Kaitaia and Rawene were also in danger of running dry. They didn't, thanks largely to the remarkable water conservation efforts of residents and businesses and assistance from iwi groups to help us quickly develop supplementary water supplies. In Kaitaia Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto helped us tap into underground supplies, while the Lake Omapere Trust and Omapere Taraire E Rangihamama X3A Ahuwhenua Trust assisted with an alternative supply for Kaikohe. We are now progressing permanent alternatives with a second bore due to be operational soon for Kaikohe, and new groundwater supplies for Kaitaia to be completed before next summer.

Of course, 2020 will be remembered as the year COVID-19 disrupted the entire planet, killing close to 1.5 million people, including 25 in New Zealand. Fortunately, we have not seen rampant rates of infection, but our economy has taken a hit. This has not been as severe as predicted in Northland, but many have lost jobs and businesses have closed. Luckily, our region has received significant Government assistance to help us weather the economic downturn. The Council and our commercial company, Far North Holdings Ltd, have won more than $65 million for infrastructure projects in COVID-19 economic recovery funding and from the Provincial Growth Fund. Physical work has begun on several of these with more due to begin next quarter. These will have a lasting impact on our district with some, such as water storage projects near Kaikohe, likely to transform the way some do business.

Many Kiwis will be travelling north for their summer break this year. This increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading if we again see cases of community infection. I urge you all to follow Northland DHB’s advice to continue contact tracing. If you are expecting a lot of visitors, the DHB suggests you provide a contact tracing QR Code poster they can use. Likewise, if you are renting out your home or bach, please provide guests with a QR Code. You can create a poster quickly and easily by going to the Ministry of Health website.

During the break Council staff and contractors will be collecting rubbish and keeping our facilities clean. They will ensure drinking water keeps flowing and other vital services operate. Please help by disposing of rubbish correctly. Random patrols of popular dog exercise areas will also be undertaken to ensure dogs are under control and owners understand and adhere to our Dog Management Policy 2018.

As always, please drive carefully. Take care of yourselves, your whanau and others on our roads. Have a safe and enjoyable Christmas and New Year. Look after each other and have a great Far North summer.

3 December 2020

Supporting our horticulture industry

Horticulture is playing an increasingly important role in the Far North and its growth is evident across the district. In the Bay of Islands, vast new kiwifruit orchards are taking shape around Kerikeri while in Te Hiku, avocado orchards continue to flourish. Elsewhere crops, such as berries, manuka for the honey industry and even bananas are being planted alongside traditional citrus and vegetable mainstays.

Warm temperatures and excellent soils provide the Far North with clear advantages for horticulture. However, some issues still need to be resolved before this industry can reach its full potential. One you have probably heard much about in the media recently is a lack of workers to pick, pack and tend crops. This is even more urgent since the global COVID-19 pandemic cut off a key source of workers when international travel was halted. For many years, the industry has filled seasonal labour gaps by recruiting international travellers and workers from Pacific nations through the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. Finding workers to pick our crops is not a new issue. However, what is often lost in media coverage is the fact that horticulture provides many types of employment, including highly skilled, fulltime opportunities.

Two recent announcements underline this. I was pleased to learn that the Kerikeri Gateway Horticulture Schools Programme has secured funding from Te Taitokerau Trades Academy to run another programme in 2021. Over the last four years this partnership between Plant & Food Research and Orangewood Packhouse has seen 51 students from five Northland secondary schools graduate from its horticultural programme. This combines science and horticulture and has a strong focus on fostering Maori talent, particularly among rangatahi Maori (Maori youth). This is not just about picking fruit. The programme covers health and safety, winter pruning, field grafting, kiwifruit canopy management, crop-thinning, harvesting of kiwifruit, and grading and packing of fruit crops. Anyone interested in a horticulture career should visit a jobs expo being held in Kerikeri next Wednesday. Go Hort, which is running the expo, works directly with industry, schools and tertiary education providers to link people with horticulture employers. It is funded by the Provincial Growth Fund and the New Zealand Fruitgrowers Charitable Trust. The expo will run 12.15 - 2.15pm at the Cornerstone Church, 144 Kerikeri Rd.

As well as workers, horticulture needs access to dependable water supplies, and this is being addressed near Kaitaia and Kaikohe. Using funding from the Provincial Growth Fund, Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust is planning to develop up to four water storage reservoirs and delivery systems near Kaikohe. This will allow property owners to transform low-yield pastoral land into high-yield and employment rich businesses. A similar approach is being taken by Te Rarawa, which is building a reservoir on its Sweetwater farm just north of Ahipara. It aims to convert its existing dairy operation into a more sustainable, higher-return horticultural one.

With care and good planning, including around the issues of water use and crop sprays, our bourgeoning horticulture industry will provide our people with new and sustainable economic opportunities. I’ll support that.

19 November 2020

Making Northland accessible for all

All of us can probably remember a time in our lives when everyday activities suddenly became difficult or even impossible to achieve. Maybe you were suffering from an injury and simply getting up some stairs became an almost insurmountable ordeal. Or perhaps you were helping an elderly relative and for the first time had to consider how they could get from place to place without help. Often it is only when our mobility is reduced that we recognise how important it is that our environment can be accessed easily.

There are simple ways to improve accessibility, like ensuring public buildings include wheelchair access or there are signs displayed that include braille. There are many other ways to make our world easier to negotiate, which is why we launched a survey last week along with other Northland councils seeking your feedback on how well - or how poorly - we are collectively doing in this area.

Responses received during our month-long survey will feed into a regional strategy being developed jointly by Northland councils. The proposed Te Tai Tokerau Regional Accessibility Strategy aims to make Northland a great place to work, live and play for everyone. Residents with disabilities will be a very important focus of the strategy, as will the high proportion of older people living in Northland. But achieving great accessibility means thinking about all residents. There are families with young children to consider, migrants new to our language and our way of doing things, children, and those with health conditions.

To help identify key accessibility issues, the Northland-wide survey will include questions on transport, access to public spaces, access to information services, and participation in community consultation and engagement. There will also be ample opportunity to provide your own comments. Responses to the survey, which ends on 11 December, will build a clearer picture of how well each council is working for people with access needs and help frame the issues to be addressed when the strategy is finalised.

With all councils working on this strategy together, our aim is to ensure consistency across all of Northland. You should expect to have similar levels of access to places, activities, services and information whether you are in the Far North, Kaipara or Whangarei.

Once we have your survey feedback, we will discuss the results with key disability and community organisations and then create a draft plan. We will then publicly consult on the draft. Once final changes have been incorporated, it will be put up for formal adoption by each of Northland’s councils.

To take part in the survey online, go to or collect a survey form from any Far North District Council service centre, library or i-SITE.

If you have ideas on how we can improve accessibility in the Far North, then I urge you to take a few minutes to complete the survey. Help us make Northland a great place to live for all our people.

12 November 2020

Taking stock of our achievements

In this column I often discuss big-ticket projects the Council is working on. But with the end of the year fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to update you on some of the smaller projects we are constantly engaged in to make our district a better place for all residents.

We have undertaken considerable work to better assist property owners and developers. This includes making our District Plan more accessible and easier to understand. Our online version was a huge advance on the paper-based plan, but our resource consents staff still respond to about 4500 enquiries a year from customers needing help.

In September, we unveiled a new digital format of the District Plan to planning and building industry professionals. The new isoplan e-plan features much-improved searchability, pop-up terms and definitions, and embedded links to help users navigate within the plan and to external documents. It is also compatible with other district plans across the country. Industry practitioners are now providing feedback to help finetune the e-plan before we make it public.

Delivery of building consents is another area where we have seen significant improvements. Following their recent audit, International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) confirmed on-going accreditation of our Building Consent Authority until October 2022 subject to addressing a few small non-compliances.

The Building Team is now taking 13 days on average to process consent applications and has processed 99.38 per cent of applications within the 20-day statutory timeframe since 1 July. This result was greatly assisted by our business intelligence and online services teams.

Technology developments are also helping to make our staff safer. We are now rolling out GPS vehicle trackers and lone worker personal alarms to our animal management officers and other field workers. Animal management officers are one of our teams that often work in remote locations where cell phone coverage is patchy or non-existent.

This poses a significant health and safety risk for staff dealing with potentially dangerous animals, or members of the public in what can be emotionally charged situations. So far, we have installed GPS units to 14 vehicles. Personal alarms linked to satellites are also being allocated. Once activated, the alarms send the exact location of the staff member via satellite to an external monitoring service and emergency services can be deployed.

Finally, CouncilMARK assessors spent three days last week auditing progress made by the Council since we were first assessed under the local government excellence programme in 2017. They met with more than 50 elected members, staff and stakeholders to discuss our performance in governance, financial management, communications and service delivery, and asset management.

FNDC was one of the first councils assessed by the benchmarking programme, which aims to give communities a clear and independent picture of how well their council is serving them. We received a B grade in 2017, but I am confident the report due to be delivered early next year will show considerable improvement. Watch this space.

5 November 2020

Decisions on Māori representation

During our next elections in 2022, Far North electors will not only be asked to pick their preferred candidates, they will also be polled on whether we should have Māori wards in our district. My own view is that we should. I believe everyone in our district will benefit by providing our Māori community with a guaranteed seat at the Council table. I agree with Haami Piripi, Chair of Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, who recently told the Council that our region's growth and development may well depend on a more functional relationship with Māori and the resources they control. He asked that the Council adopt Māori wards during its meeting last week. Five of our Councillors agreed and raised a motion to establish Māori wards ahead of the 2022 and 2025 local body elections. Reluctantly, I voted against that motion and I want to explain why.

In 2015, the Far North District Council polled voters on establishing Māori wards in our district. Only 45 per cent of voters took part and rejected the option by 67 per cent. Under the Local Electoral Act 2001, a decision by any council to establish Māori wards can be reversed by a public referendum paid for by the ratepayer. Just 5 per cent of voters are required to demand the Council undertake a poll on Māori wards and these have occurred in Kaikōura, Whakatāne, Western Bay of Plenty, Manawatū and Palmerston North – all rejecting decisions to establish Māori wards. Achieving that 5 per cent threshold in the Far North would require just 2156 electors based on enrolments during the 2019 local body election.

In the days leading up to last week's Council meeting, Councillors and I were bombarded by emails demanding that we reject Māori wards. Many came from outside our district and I believe were orchestrated by the group, Hobson's Pledge. I was saddened by the opinions expressed in some of these emails. It also demonstrated quite clearly to me that there is a lot of disinformation, misunderstanding and fear in the community about how representation could be affected by Māori wards. This convinced me that any decision to adopt Māori wards for our 2022 and 2025 elections would likely be overturned by a publicly-initiated poll, effectively shelving representation changes for another six years.

Around half of our Far North residents identify as Māori, as do several of our Councillors. Despite that, Māori do not feel well represented by the Council and believe key principles of the Treaty of Waitangi are not applied. I believe that ensuring that Māori have a voice in decision making will be vital for the ongoing economic, political and cultural growth of our district. We now have two years to explain why and how this will benefit our whole community. I have trust and faith that our people can decide this issue based on clear and unbiased explanations. It is now up to the Council to ensure all of our people are well-informed about the decision they will be asked to make.

22 October 2020

Striking a balance on development

The General Election may be over, but much more will be said in coming weeks as special votes are counted and coalition agreements (if any) are negotiated. For the Council, we have a degree of certainty that plans and funding announced over the past three years will remain on track. We will continue to prioritise resources so we can deliver the economic recovery and Provincial Growth Fund projects funded by the previous Coalition Government. Work has already begun on several of these projects and we are poised to sign agreements for others shortly.

We got another significant agreement across the line last week, but not with the Government. We signed a private development agreement with Arvida, which is building a retirement community in Kerikeri that will eventually include about 200 villas on Hall Road. Arvida operates 32 similar communities across the country and is one of the largest aged care providers in New Zealand. While essentially a Kerikeri project, this will benefit the entire district. It will boost our economy and provide employment, initially during the construction phase and then during its operation.

The private development agreement with Arvida is significant for the whole district. It confirms that Arvida will contribute $5 million towards public infrastructure, either as a financial contribution or as works carried out on behalf of the Council. This is in lieu of development contributions the Council stopped officially collecting in 2015. We did this to help reboot development after our economy was seriously impacted by the global financial crisis. The Council began talking to Arvida in February 2019 about how it could help offset the impact a large development would have on our infrastructure. I think the agreement we reached is fair and reasonable. Arvida will contribute towards sewerage and water services, will upgrade Hall Road, including a new 2.1-metre-wide footpath and safety lighting, will build walkways on esplanade strips, and contribute towards construction of public toilets in Kerikeri.

This deal sets a clear benchmark for other developers. It demonstrates what we see as an appropriate contribution to help offset the extra burdens new developments can place on our ratepayers. It also ensures that all residents can share in the benefits of developments. Striking the right balance is vital. We don’t want ratepayers to subsidise developments, but we also want to encourage developers to invest in our district.

One way we can do that is to change the way we rate businesses. From this week ratepayers will begin receiving their latest rates invoice in the mail. You will also receive information on proposals to make the rating system fairer and more transparent. This includes reducing the rates burden on commercial property owners. They currently pay $2.75 for every $1 paid by residential ratepayers. We propose reducing that to $1.75. You can find out more and take an informal survey on the rating system by going to the Have your say page on the FNDC website. We will formally consult on these ideas in March 2021.

15 October 2020

Celebrating community achievements

Last Friday, hundreds of Northland residents converged on Kawakawa to witness Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern officially open the town's new cultural and community hub. Te Hononga, or 'the joining together of people', pays homage to Austrian artist and architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who lived in the area from 1975. Kawakawa is already famous for the public toilets Hundertwasser designed and helped to build, and which opened in 1999 shortly before his death. With its Hundertwasser-inspired curved walls and mosaic pillars, Te Hononga continues the artist's legacy. Shaped like two hearts joined, the building houses a new Council library and service centre, gallery, Hundertwasser interpretative centre, community workshop, and public toilets and showers. Outside, a parking area will help accommodate the thousands of tourists who visit the town annually to view Hundertwasser's toilets.

This new cultural and community hub is truly impressive, and I urge you to visit Te Hononga and explore this building for yourselves. It was a huge honour to host the Prime Minister, along with the MPs Kelvin Davis, Shane Jones, Willow Jean Prime and Andrew Little. However, what made Friday so special was the sense of community pride and ownership that was so clearly on display and that could not be dampened by the cold and blustery conditions.

The Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust, which has spearheaded efforts to create a community building since 2008, has helped create and maintain that community enthusiasm. The group, chaired by Noma Shepherd, has worked hard to include the whole community. Key partnerships include Te Runanga O Ngati Hine, Far North District Council, Kawakawa Business and Community Association, Bay of Islands Whangaroa Community Board, Far North Holdings (which managed the project), Northland Regional Council, and a range of Northland businesses that undertook almost all aspects of the project build. Funders included the Council, the Tourism Infrastructure Fund, Lotteries, Foundation North and the Provincial Growth Fund.

The following Saturday, my wife Leoni and I were guests of the Kaitaia Fijian community. We were asked to mark a significant anniversary for the Pacific nation - 50 years since Fiji gained independence from British rule and established a parliamentary democracy. This was another example of people keeping their community alive and focusing on what they can achieve together. Fiji's political landscape has in the past been divided along ethnic lines and many of those attending the 50th Anniversary event had left their homeland because of those divisions. Here in Te Hiku, they have focused on what unites them as Fijians - a shared culture that makes them unique in the world. It was wonderful to witness the pride and joy they all took in celebrating that anniversary.

After a year in which we all have had to rethink and reduce our community links because of the threat of COVID-19, these two events have been a very clear reminder of what is important - strong and vibrant communities. Working together, we can and are making this a great place to live.

8 October 2020

Getting our people working

Many of you will have seen work now underway along our district roads. Litter is being collected, problem trees are being felled and weeds sprayed. This is part of the Government's Worker Redeployment Package designed to create employment opportunities for those who have lost jobs due to COVID-19 or are at risk of losing their jobs. In the Far North this work is being managed by the Council. So far, 73 people, all of them locals, have been employed by contractors.

The Government is funding this programme, and I'm happy the Council can facilitate this work. I am especially proud that together we have helped prevent job losses in our district, have given contractors the confidence to hire new staff, and have already assisted 40 previously unemployed people into work. These workers have cleared dangerous macrocarpa trees along Puketotara Rd, removed a large dead pine tree on Paiaka Rd, removed 11 very large gum trees along Waipapa Road, and are continuing to target wildling pines and other problem roadside trees. Litter has been collected from roadsides at Karikari Peninsular, Kaimaumau, Houhora Heads, Matauri Bay, Wainui, Tauranga Bay and Hihi. Litter along approaches to Broadwood, Kohukohu and Panguru will be tackled soon.

The Worker Redeployment Package is only part of the Government's efforts to reboot our economy. It has also allocated more than $83 million of COVID-19 recovery funds to the Council and Far North Holdings Ltd for infrastructure projects across the district. They have set us a challenging schedule in which to deliver this work so last week we held a workshop to discuss with Northland contractors how we can achieve this together. Twenty-six civil works, construction, professional services and labour businesses attended the forum. Also attending were representatives from the Ministry of Social Development, Te Puni Kokiri and other agencies.

These projects will boost our economy and will create employment in our district. But too often in the past, infrastructure projects have created short-term economic booms that have fizzled once the project is completed. The Council, along with Central Government, is determined to avoid a repeat of this. We want the skills gained during recovery projects to stay in the Far North and to lead onto permanent employment. These projects need to be a springboard to build a more resilient, self-sustaining local economy by growing capability and capacity in the Far North.

This goal dovetails with changes the Council has already made to our own procurement policy. When considering tenders, more weight is now given to whether the bidder is based in our region, can source local materials, and will hire local staff.

The Worker Redeployment Package is just one part of the Government's response to COVID-19. It is already paying dividends on the ground. Take the three new staff employed by one contractor. They started out picking up litter, but due to their attitude, work ethic and awareness of safety issues, they were selected for extra training to get their traffic control licence. They will now have road maintenance jobs through the summer.

24 September 2020

Extraordinary collaboration

This month we used a Sikorsky U60 'Blackhawk' helicopter to remove over 12 tonnes of equipment at Lake Omapere. The generator, pumps, floating pontoon, fuel pod, cables and water pipes were installed in March to provide drought-stricken Kaikohe with an emergency back-up water supply.

I hardly need remind residents that the winter of 2019 was one of the driest we have experienced. That was followed by a dry summer and all of Northland was hit by severe drought conditions. Kaitaia and Kaikohe were among the most seriously affected towns. Despite tight water restrictions and remarkable conservation efforts by Kaikohe, there was a very real possibility the town's taps would run dry.

The Council scrambled to find alternative sources close to Kaikohe that could provide the quantities of water needed. We received many generous offers from local landowners, but only one option proved viable. That came in mid-February from Lake Omapere Trust, which offered 1500 cubic metres of lake water a day for 100 days. Omapere Taraire E Rangihamama X3A Ahuwhenua Trust also responded to Kaikohe's plight, giving Council permission to pipe the lake water 2.8km over its land to our Taraire Hills Water Treatment Plant. What followed was a remarkable demonstration of co-operation between more than a dozen agencies working to build a safe emergency water supply for Kaikohe as quickly as possible.

Civil Defence Northland helped broker agreements with the trusts, Fire and Emergency New Zealand helped lay the longest fire service-style hose in the country linking the lake to our Taraire Hills Water Treatment Plant. The hose was loaned from Refining NZ's Marsden Point facility. Far North Waters oversaw installation of the equipment with support from local contractors. Other critical support came from the Government, which provided $2 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to help establish temporary water supplies for both Kaikohe and Kaitaia.

Core infrastructure was in place by mid-March. We then worked closely with Far North Waters, Northland District Health Board and water treatment consultants to ensure the treatment plant could remove toxin-producing bacteria if an algal bloom occurred in the lake. We achieved that goal by Mid-April and the board gave us the go ahead to use the lake water. While it was safe to drink, we could not remove the unpleasant odour and taste caused by geosmin, a naturally occurring organic compound, and decided to only use the water in an emergency to avoid taps running dry. That never happened, largely due to Kaikohe residents and businesses consistently exceeding the 25 per cent reduction in consumption we asked for. We are now progressing alternative water supplies for Kaikohe, including building water storage at the Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park and developing a second bore at Monument Hill.

Some may ask about the cost of this project. My answer is that we had to do all we could to prevent Kaikohe (and also Kaitaia) running out of water. Government funding has significantly offset the total cost to ratepayers. We learned a lot from the experience – not least that crises like the recent drought are best resolved by working hand in hand with other agencies and the community.

17 September 2020

Progress on water

It may feel like Spring is already here, but the equinox - when the sun crosses the equator and enters the Southern Hemisphere - isn't until next Wednesday. Whichever system you use to mark the first day of Spring, warmer weather is here.

This time last year, most of the district was emerging from one of the driest winters on record. By the end of the year, Kaitaia had recorded its lowest annual rainfall since records began in 1949. By contrast, this winter was one of the wettest for some parts of Northland. Kaikohe, for instance, recorded 935 mm of winter rain, its second highest winter total since records began in 1956.

The rain this winter, and NIWA predictions of normal or above average rainfall this Spring, have helped to reduce the need for water restrictions this side of Christmas. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. Summer water restrictions are the norm at many of our drought-prone water supplies. We are therefore encouraging people to use water thoughtfully this Spring.

The Council was criticized last summer for not making the district's water supplies more drought-resilient. Last month, elected members gave staff the green light to develop a new water source for Kaitaia's water supply. We are developing a bore site at Sweetwater near Awanui and plan to pipe water 14 km to the Council's water treatment plant in Okahu Road.

When commissioned in mid to late 2021, this new source will reduce our reliance on the Awanui River which flowed at historic low levels last summer. In the meantime, we are planning to build a permanent weir in the Awanui River. This will raise the river level near our water intake pipe and allow us to draw water from the river when flows are low.

In Kaikohe, where water shortages were most acute last summer, we are moving ahead with a proposal to develop a second bore at Monument Hill. While this project is still at an early stage, we are encouraged by the quality of water from this bore. The Council is also involved in a Provincial Growth Fund project to develop water storage at Kaikohe and construction of a reservoir could begin this summer.

Drought resilience projects in Kaitaia and Kaikohe could also benefit from funding under the Government's Three Waters Reform Programme. We will get initial programme funding of $5.9 million and may receive further funds when Northland councils allocate funding for regional projects. Joining the programme at this stage only commits us to share information about our infrastructure and talk to neighbouring councils about options for large-scale delivery of water services.

We are under no obligation to join the next stage of the programme if we don't believe this is in the interests of our communities. We are in a much better place than we were this time last year and are generally pleased with the progress we are making on future-proofing our water supplies.

10 September 2020

The real cost of COVID

On Friday last week we received a sharp reminder about the real cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. We learned of two deaths from the virus, the first in New Zealand for several months. One was a 50-year-old man, who worked at the Americold company in Auckland. The other person to succumb to the virus was an 85-year-old. He was a friend of mine. It was with considerable sadness that I learned that former Cook Islands' Prime Minister Dr Joe Williams had died from coronavirus.

After leaving Parliament in 2011, I was New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands until 2013 and I know how highly respected and well-loved Dr Williams is in that country. However, it was during my years as an MP that I got to know Joe. He was a great guy and a true ‘people person’. He was well-loved because of the tireless work he undertook for his people in New Zealand and in the Cooks. His death is a blow for both nations.

In the days following that tragic news, new cases of the virus have been confirmed. This underlines the need for continued vigilance against this disease and why Alert Level 2 restrictions should continue across the country until midnight Wednesday, 16 September.

These latest events also bear out another fact about this disease. While older people like Dr Joe Williams are certainly more vulnerable, this disease is a very real threat to much younger people too. The father of four, who also died on Friday, was the youngest person in New Zealand to be claimed by the disease so far. These cases demonstrate why we all need to follow the advice of medical experts. We must continue to practice physical distancing and wear a face covering if we can. Please also get into the habit of using the Ministry of Health’s contact tracing app to record of where you have been and when. These are relatively simple changes to adopt and will help to prevent more avoidable deaths.

If we all continue to follow this advice, we can retain our reputation as one of the safest places to be when it comes to COVID-19. That was borne out by an international survey released recently that ranked New Zealand as the second-safest place to be in the world. The assessment was based on over 140 COVID-related parameters and placed us closely behind Germany, ranked the safest country to be.

Here in Northland, we have recorded no new COVID cases since April. As the weather gets warmer, we will welcome more visitors to our region from Auckland and elsewhere in the country. That’s a good thing. We need friends and whanau to come here to help our tourism and hospitality businesses. I’m confident that if we all follow the advice of medical experts, we can maintain our virus-free record. If we work together, we will continue to enjoy the benefits of being one of the safest places in the world.

3 September 2020

Innovating our streets for our people

'Creating great places, supporting our people' is the mission that guides what we do every day at the Council and is included on nearly every document you receive from us. Last week, three Far North community-led projects were given the go-ahead by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency after they were selected for funding. The Kawakawa, Moerewa and Kaikohe projects were among 32 plans from around the country to get the agency's go ahead. I think the three in our district perfectly demonstrate what we strive to achieve every day as a council: each project supports our communities to work with us to innovate and make changes that will make our great places even better.

These projects were part of the second and final funding round of Waka Kotahi's Innovating Streets for People programme. This $7 million fund is supporting around 72 community-led projects across the country focused on helping local authorities and communities work together to make urban areas safer and more people-focused.

The intention of the programme is for councils and communities to co-design and retrofit streets with innovations that will help reduce vehicle speeds and create more space for people. Each project will test layouts, materials and design options that can then be applied more widely to permanent street upgrades. Changes could include piloting new walking or cycling facilities, organising pop-up community-led street events, trialling low-traffic neighbourhoods or reallocating street space for people.

The successful projects include the Kawakawa Safety and Streetscape Improvement Project. This will trial four key initiatives contained in Kawakawa's Twin Coast Discovery Highway Township Plan and aims to actively respond to increasing growth and safety challenges, and help Kawakawa make its streetscape more people-friendly.

Moerewa Safer Streets will fast-track and trial better ways to connect Moerewa with Otiria Road, reduce traffic speeds and provide safe access to schools, marae and community facilities.

Finally, the Tai Tokerau Kaikohe Safe Streets project will see the Council co-design and trial temporary solutions in five key Kaikohe locations. These will reduce traffic speeds, activate Broadway, provide safer routes to and from schools, and encourage economic growth by better linking the town to the Pou Herenga Tai - Twin Coast Cycle Trail.

These projects can include very simple physical changes to street design, such as kerb build-outs, or change the way residents think about and use their streets. That may include promoting regular street programmes to build community support for re-purposing streets or by piloting cycleways and pedestrian networks.

The support offered by Waka Kotahi goes beyond simply funding. It encourages us to work more directly with communities, so together we can quickly create changes to urban environments. Each community can re-imagine how to use its streetscapes and by using the engineering expertise we have in Council, can test out design options to see what works best for them. This approach emphasises community input and gives our residents a direct stake in creating safe places that are great for all residents and visitors.

20 August 2020

Our contact tracing defence

Along with the rest of Northland, I was hugely relieved when the Prime Minister announced on Friday that COVID-19 restrictions would not be increased for our region. We remain at Level 2 until Wednesday 26 August. This means the coronavirus is contained, but the risk of community transmission remains.

It's a different story in Auckland where Level 3 restrictions remain for now due to the significant risk the disease is not contained. Schools and early childhood centres are closed for most children, people are being asked to work from home, public venues are closed and travel outside greater Auckland is tightly controlled.

We are not immune to Auckland's situation. Most Northlanders will be concerned about friends and whanau living in our largest city. Our farmers will be concerned about a fall in demand for fresh produce, and domestic tourism into the Far North will be seriously impacted by the travel restrictions.

The most important thing we can do now is stop further spread of this disease. If we act decisively, we have a good chance of again eliminating community transmission. Most Council staff are working from home. Our service centres, libraries, refuse transfer stations, community recycling centres and i-SITES are open, but physical distancing and contact tracing are in place. Most Council meetings and gatherings have been taken online or cancelled. I have also cut back my own travel around the district.

I was pleased to see during a recent visit to town that many businesses are displaying QR codes so customers can record their visit using the New Zealand COVID Tracer app. Unfortunately, customers seem much slower to get into the habit of recording where they have been. I saw very few logging their visit using the phone app or in any other way. It was also surprised by the low number of people I saw across our district wearing face masks or practicing physical distancing.

With greater knowledge about how this disease spreads, medical experts agree that face masks and physical distancing help reduce your chance of catching or passing on the virus. They also agree that tracing the contacts of anyone who may have been exposed to the virus is one of the best ways we have to break the chain of transmission. Please, let's make sure this virus does not gain a foothold in our district. I'm urging all Far North residents - and I also need to remind myself of this - to get into the habit of wearing face masks and physical distancing in public. Please also scan QR codes every time you visit the supermarket or other business. If a code is not on display, ask the business to provide one.

We only need to look overseas to see how quickly this virus can take hold. You can help prevent that occurring here by taking precautions in public, and by making contact tracing part of your daily routine until we have the virus beaten. Go to the website to download the contact tracer app or QR codes. We all have a part to play.

13 August 2020

Remaining vigilant on COVID-19

Our health experts had warned there was a high chance we would again see an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus inside our borders and that has now occurred. Auckland is temporarily at Level 3 lockdown and the rest of the country has moved to Level 2 restrictions until midnight Friday. The Government will then decide what further measures may be necessary.

At the time the Prime Minister announced these changes on Tuesday night, New Zealand had achieved a remarkable 102 days with no community spread of the COVID-19 virus. We were among only a handful of nations that had managed to eliminate the disease and we achieved that by acting swiftly and decisively. We have again acted swiftly. If you have relatives in Australia, you will be aware of the sudden return to lockdown in regional Victoria and Melbourne. This, and our own experience, demonstrates how easily the virus can find gaps in control measures and how quickly infection rates can spiral.

Minister of Health, Chris Hipkins, is urging all Kiwis to make contact tracing part of our daily routine. He says recent events highlight the need to record our daily movements so we can rapidly trace those who may come into contact with the virus. He has asked local authorities across the country to help promote the New Zealand COVID Tracer app and QR codes for businesses. I'm happy to do that and I urge all businesses, schools, and public agencies in the Far North to display QR codes. Keeping a record of where we have been is a habit we need to get into so we can make contact tracing more effective.

The people of the Far North are an independent bunch and I know some may feel wary about having their movements recorded. The Privacy Commissioner has addressed these concerns and is satisfied your privacy is protected by the NZ COVID Tracer phone app. That's because information recorded through the app, such as businesses you have visited, is stored on your phone. The app will alert you if you have been somewhere at the same time as a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19. Contact alerts work through 'push notifications' to your phone. If a match is found in your digital diary, you'll receive an alert. Location information is not transmitted from your phone to the Ministry of Health.

I think the best chance we have of staying ahead of this disease and preserving the freedoms we now enjoy is to stay vigilant. That means getting into the habit of recording where we have been. So please, download the app and start using it. The Council will be encouraging businesses to create and display the QR codes so it is easy for everyone record where they have been. Failure to get this right could have a massive impact on the health of our communities and on our economic wellbeing. Go to to find out how to create a QR poster for your business.

23 July 2020

Weathering Far North storms

Last Friday, Northland was hit by record-breaking rainfall that caused widespread flooding, slips and damaged key transport and other infrastructure. We are still assessing the impacts and will not know for some time what the total repair bill will be.

What is certain is that a number of our residents were hard-hit with homes and businesses damaged, particularly in Moerewa. At the height of the storm on Friday night, Moerewa was effectively cut off with State Highway 1 flooded at Kawakawa and at the bottom of Turntable Hill. Two community civil defence centres were opened to support travellers stranded by the floods with 30 people hosted at Kawakawa and 15 at Moerewa. Over the next two days, Council staff were out in force supporting residents and other agencies to assess property damage and welfare needs.

They completed 109 rapid property assessments in Moerewa on behalf of Civil Defence and the Council, while another five staff co-ordinated the emergency response from our Kaikohe office. In all, we had 19 staff working on Saturday and eight on Sunday. They found that 37 Moerewa properties were without working sanitation and another eight had inundated septic tanks. Two properties were evacuated, and two others were provided with drinking water.

Meanwhile, in Paihia, debris and silt in the Waitangi River damaged water intakes and a submersible pump cutting water supplies to the Paihia Water Treatment Plant. Our Infrastructure and Asset Management Team and alliance partner, Far North Waters, spent most of the weekend on temporary repairs while our Communications Team raised awareness of the problem in the Paihia community. We got the plant operational again late on Saturday night, thanks to the heroic efforts of Far North Waters staff who didn't leave the site until 3am on Sunday when they were sure the plant could meet demand.

Elsewhere, pump stations at our wastewater treatment plants worked around the clock to deal with stormwater infiltration, while our staff and contractors assessed and cleared debris from roads. As many as 20 district roads were closed on Sunday. This had been reduced to just four roads on Monday. State Highways were also impacted with SH 11 to Opua temporarily closed by a slip, and SH 1 at Mangamuka also closed.

We are no strangers to weather extremes in the Far North. In a matter of weeks, we have gone from drought to deluge. I was extremely proud to witness the professionalism, dedication and empathy Council staff displayed when dealing with the emergency.

Working closely with other agencies, we delivered the services our residents required. That collaboration is what makes our communities strong and the Far North a great place to live. I am proud of the work we do for our people, not only in emergencies, but each and every day. So next time it's pouring down and the wind is howling, spare a thought for those braving the weather to ensure roads are open and our infrastructure keeps running.


16 July 2020

A Kaikohe win for us all

On Monday, the Minister for Regional Economic Development Shane Jones announced $19.5 million in funding from the Provincial Growth Fund for our Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park project. This was a huge vote of confidence in our vision to boost business and employment - not only for Kaikohe, but for the entire district.

You may recall that in March 2018, the Council began this journey by committing $5m to buy a dairy farm at Ngawha. Our goal was to turn it into a ''market ready'' industrial park that would attract industry to Kaikohe and create jobs. The park would have key infrastructure and resource consents in place. It could also provide access to uninterrupted and abundant power from the nearby Ngawha geothermal power station.

It was a bold step into new territory, but we were confident our commercial company, Far North Holdings, had the experience and ability to transform the vision into reality. That belief was not misplaced. I am hugely impressed with the progress Andy Nock and his team have made. Within 12 months, the Provincial Growth Fund had allocated $890,000 for a business case study, site assessment, and preparation of applications for plan changes and resource consents.

Northland Inc, government agencies, iwi, sector specialists, engineers, architects and planning and economic development experts have since helped Far North Holdings develop a business case and discussions with potential tenants and partners are well advanced. Businesses that have signalled their interest include the honey industry, manuka oil extraction, covered horticulture, pre-fabricated housing, and education and training.

The Provincial Growth Fund announcement on Monday commits a further $19.5 million for key infrastructure work including site preparation, roading and drainage. This will be released in two parts. An initial $1.5 million will enable Far North Holdings to complete work on detailed engineering designs, planning and the tender process. When successfully completed, the government will release the remaining $18 million and earthworks, roading and infrastructure work can begin in September.

We estimate this work could involve up to 150 workers, while construction of buildings and other facilities will involve hundreds more. Longer term, we see potential to create 250 new jobs during stage one of the project, and investment of up to $70.8 million from business.

There is still much to do. We must secure commitment from tenants so we can achieve the critical mass needed to make the park viable over the long term. Today’s announcement will help. It demonstrates to the business world and our partners that the Council not only has vision - we deliver.

No other organisation in the Far North has staff with the mix of skills and experience we do. That is important, especially now when there is so much economic uncertainty. By playing to our strengths and working closely with our partners, we will play an important part in boosting the economic and social wellbeing of Kaikohe. That is good news for everybody, and will help make the Far North a great place to live.

9 July 2020

Which voting system do you want?

This week we launched a survey asking you to have your say on the way the Council is elected. The survey offers you two clear options for selecting councillors, community board members and Mayor. One is the system you already know well, First Past the Post (FPP). The other is less familiar, Single Transferable Voting (STV).

Every three years councillors decide which voting system will be used in the upcoming election. We will make that decision on 13 August. But before we do that, this year we want to get a clear indication from the communities we represent what system they prefer.

There are often calls for a change in the way we vote during elections. This was no different during the local body election in 2019. That year, ours was one of 67 councils to use FPP to elect our leaders. Another 11 local authorities used STV.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both systems. Voters are very familiar with FPP: the way the votes are counted is easy to understand, and the results clearly show how many people voted for each candidate. STV is a proportional voting system and is more complex. Instead of ticking the candidate you want, you rank candidates in order of preference. Because voters’ second, third, and other preferences are considered, the results can better reflect the community support each candidate has. 

Our survey runs until 21 July, and while it is not binding, it will help your councillors decide whether to opt for a new voting system. If we do change to STV, that will be the way we vote in the 2022 and 2025 elections. If we don’t change, we must reconsider the options again in three years.

To make what can be a dry and complex explanation more familiar and easily digestible, we have compared the voting choices to collecting pipi. This is a pastime most of us are familiar with. I urge you to find out more about each option on our website or read the newspaper adverts running this week. You can complete the survey online, or if you don’t have access to the internet, find out more about the two options in brochures available at our libraries and service centres. These include a printed survey form you can complete and lodge at the library or service centre.

Whichever option you prefer, the most important thing is to participate. That’s what keeps our democracy strong and responsive to community needs. This is only one part of our review of how Council is elected. We are also planning to look at Maori representation and whether our current wards fairly represent residents. We will tell you more about that soon. In the meantime, please have your say on the way you vote for Council and get your friends and whanau to participate too.

2 July 2020

Funding essential services

Affordability, economic recovery and the need to fund essential services remained key considerations for the Far North District Council when we adopted our Annual Plan 2020/21 on Tuesday. We are aware of the financial hardship COVID-19 has caused for households and businesses and increased rates revenue to 2.23%, in line with inflation, instead of a 3.94% increase the Council proposed before the economic downturn. This minimises the burden for ratepayers and ensures we can continue to provide essential services. We have also tried to ensure that the Council has the resources to support the district's economic recovery.

he Council is contesting millions of dollars of central government funding for new infrastructure projects that will create jobs. We are confident we will receive funds for some of the 17 'shovel-ready' projects we have identified across the district and need to retain the organisational capacity to deliver these. Also, our capital works programme for 2020/21 will remain in a fluid state until we know which projects the Government is willing to fund.

Ensuring the drought-resilience of the District's water supplies will also be a priority for the Council in 2020/21. The Far North has a rainfall deficit and weather forecasters are predicting a dryer than usual winter. We are progressing works that will provide Kaitaia and Kaikohe with new water sources and costing options designed to make our other water supplies more drought-resilient.

We will send 2020/21 rates assessment to ratepayers in mid-July. People who pay rates can find out what their rates will be by checking the Rating Information Database on our website. As I explained in my last column, we will base some rates of the rates we set (General Rate, Targeted Roading Rate and Kaitaia Business Improvement District Rate) on property valuations independent valuer Quotable Value undertook on behalf of the Council last year.

A few messages bear repeating in this regard. First, the Council decides through the Annual Process how much it needs to collect in rates revenue to fund services over the coming year. Property values determine what share of rates ratepayers pay, not how much the Council collects. Second, we are required by law to revalue properties every three years. This is not optional and independent valuer, Quotable Value Ltd, determines the value of your property not the Council.

While it is good from a resale point of view that property values have risen across the district, some ratepayers will face rate increases above inflationary costs. Because of this, we are retaining rates relief measures we adopted in April until the end of September. Please contact us if you are experiencing financial hardship and want to discuss deferring payment of your rates.

18 June 2020

Making sense of property valuations

At the end of this month the Council will adopt its Annual Plan for 2020/21. This affects all ratepayers, because this is when we confirm the Council's budget and how we will finance services provided over the next year.

Last week, I explained that councillors had decided to tie rates as close to the cost of inflation as possible and voted for a 2.23 per cent total rates increase, down from 3.94 per cent planned before the Northland drought and COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the Annual Plan comes after property valuations were undertaken in 2019. The Rating Valuations Act 1988 requires every property in New Zealand be revalued for rating purposes at least every three years. Quotable Value, an independent company, provides this service for many councils including FNDC. In the Far North, we use land value to help calculate rates, not the capital or building value.

The latest valuation saw total property value across the Far North increase by 32 per cent. Some areas increased more, such as Aupouri Peninsula, Kaitaia, and the inner Bay of Islands, where land values increased on average by 40 per cent. Horticultural, industrial and residential land also increased by 54, 42, and 37 per cent respectively.

However, a 54 per cent increase in land value does not equate to a 54 per cent increase in rates. Nor does an increase in property value mean the total amount of rates collected by the Council increases. This is set when the Council adopts the Long Term Plan every 10 years and is reassessed during the Annual Plan process.

So how do revaluations impact rates? We use land values to help calculate your share of General Rates (about 41 per cent of Council revenue) and Roading Differential Rates. In Kaitaia only, commercial properties pay a rate based on land value to improve the business district. The Uniform Annual General Charge, and ward rates for water and sewerage are not related to land values.

How much General Rates you pay depends on the land value of your property relative to the district's total land value. So, a property with a land value that is 0.003 per cent of the district's total pays 0.003 per cent of the General Rates. Imagine General Rates as a pie and each rates bill is a slice. The pie doesn't get bigger or smaller as land values go up or down. However, your slice of that pie may get bigger or smaller depending on the value of your land. If your land value has risen more than the average, you may get a rates increase beginning 1 July. Most will see little change or even a decrease in rates if land value has increased by less than the district average.

We are still calculating what impact property values and the 2.23 per cent total rates increase will have on individual ratepayers. We aim to update our database by 19 June when you can view rates details on our website or at a customer service centre. New rates bills will be sent on 13 July after the Council has adopted the Annual Plan.

11 June 2020

Striking realistic rates

On Friday, your councillors and I voted to cut a planned increase in rates to help ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Northland drought on ratepayers.

The Council had been looking at a 3.94 per cent increase in rates to cover the cost of delivering the activities and services we provide to residents. However, the predicted economic downturn and the knowledge that jobs had already been lost in the Far North made a rethink vital. We decided to peg rates as close to the cost of inflation as possible and voted for a 2.23 per cent increase. This comes on top of an April offer to allow ratepayers facing economic hardship to defer rates payments for up to six months. That was always intended as an interim measure, and elected members and staff have been looking hard since then at how we could further assist ratepayers.

Some will say that even a 2.23 per cent increase is too much. The reality is that by merely keeping pace with inflation, we are effectively treading water. Anything less and all of us would be going backwards. That’s because the Council is a significant part of the local economy. We directly employ about 370 staff and indirectly keep hundreds of contractors and suppliers in work. Those businesses do everything from clean public toilets and empty rubbish bins to investigate noise complaints and quarry the stone we use on our roads.

Cutting rates means having to cut Council spending and we agreed this would make the District’s recovery slower and much more painful. I believe we achieved the right balance on Friday. We have reduced the rates burden without undermining the local economy. We did that mainly by trimming depreciation. This is the amount we collect each year to pay for on-going maintenance and the replacement of assets. For 2020/21, deprecation charges will be reduced by 24 per cent. So we don’t burden future ratepayers, this will be recovered over the next five years.

This on its own is not enough to boost the economy. That is why we allocated $300,000 to an Economic Recovery Support Fund to support businesses and community groups and increased funding by $130,000 to complete a loop footpath joining Te Ahu and Te Hiku Sports Hub.
Of course, we cannot solve all our economic problems alone. Last month, the Government helped by committing around $2.5 million to the Far North from Economic Stimulus and Employment Opportunities funding set up to combat impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was part of $9.51 million allocated to Northland for local roading projects. I anticipate similar good news soon when decisions are made about 17 significant ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects we nominated for funding for the Far North.

The drought and pandemic will continue to be a huge challenge for months and possibly years. We are doing all we can to help lead the District through that challenge.

4 June 2020

Selecting the best water options

You could be forgiven for thinking we are no longer in a drought. Our hillsides appear greener, and our water tanks have recharged. But other indicators tell a different story. Water levels in key waterways remain stubbornly low for this time of year. They rise immediately after rain but fall again just as quickly below minimum levels set by Northland Regional Council. In some parts, soil moisture levels are also well below where they should be in June.

Over the long weekend, we received the first significant rain we have seen in many months. Some on the east coast were especially lucky - up to 150mm of rain fell around Kaeo. Unfortunately, much less was received in the far Far North, the mid-north and parts of the west coast. These are the areas that have been most seriously affected by the drought. They need steady rain over days and weeks to soak parched soils, and to recharge their waterways.

You only need to look south to see further impacts of the drought. Whangarei District now has Level 3 water restrictions operating because dam, river and groundwater levels are at record lows. Kaipara District has Level 4 restrictions in place across its water supplies and Auckland City has imposed restrictions banning the use of outdoor hoses and water-blasters. Its dams are at about 45 per cent full. They should be at 76 per cent.

At the height of the drought in the Far North, numerous landowners offered the Council access to groundwater supplies they hoped may prevent Kaitaia running out of water. Most asked for little in return and I want to thank them for their sense of community and generosity. We were looking for consented supplies, close to Kaitaia, that could provide adequate volumes of water. We investigated several options. This included using Fonterra milk tankers to truck bore water to our treatment plant. We looked at building pipelines of 15km or more and running power supplies to remote sites. In the end, an offer from Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto was the best and quickest solution. Te Rarawa offered us access to a consented bore that could supply the volume of water we needed. Ngai Takoto sealed the deal by allowing us to build a 4km pipe across their land to our Kaitaia water treatment plant.

Our contractors did an amazing job laying the pipe in just weeks and ensuring the system met stringent New Zealand Drinking Water Standards. We began supplying Kaitaia with bore water blended with water from the Awanui River on 23 March. In all, the project has cost $1,071,944, the majority of which was spent on infrastructure. Only a small proportion was allocated to compensation.

Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto understood the community need and provided us with a viable and speedy solution, and I am hugely grateful for their help. We are now working on projects to permanently solve water shortages for both Kaitaia and Kaikohe. I will keep you posted on progress.

28 May 2020

Good news to share

I have some good news. Last week, the Government provided Northland with $9.51 million in funding for local roading projects. This will provide much needed employment for those who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. The Far North will receive approximately $2.5 million of the total and this will go towards vegetation clearance, tidying roadsides and parks, safety improvements and footpaths.

This is just a small part of the Economic Stimulus and Employment Opportunities (ESEO) funding we are seeking to help get our district through the COVID-19 downturn and Northland's ongoing drought. We have nominated 17 'shovel ready' infrastructure projects for funding and we expect an indication of that funding in coming days. Initial indications have been very favourable, and I am confident we will soon have more good news to share.

But that's not all. We are also applying for over $80 million in Government funding for what have been called "vests and tools" projects. These are small infrastructure and maintenance projects that can quickly benefit the community and get those without specialised skills back into the workforce as soon as possible. There is no doubt the twin challenges of a pandemic and the drought will have a lasting impact on our economy and many people's plans have been altered forever. We know these crises are causing hardship and we are working hard to ensure we get the funding we need to reduce the impact.

I also have some good news about water supplies. Last week, we reduced water restrictions for Kaitaia from Level 4 - our toughest restrictions - to Level 3. Kaitaia residents and businesses have done a fantastic job reducing their water consumption. You have regularly exceeded our 25 per cent reduction target and helped avoid the need to use emergency supplies installed at Te Ahu. Thanks to thanks to iwi Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto, our supplementary ground water source at Bonnetts Road is now operating, further ensuring Kaitaia's supply is maintained.

Last week, we also reduced restrictions for Paihia and, this week, we reduced restrictions for Kerikeri. Our waterways have stabilised following recent rains, but the district remains firmly in the drought's grip. In fact, the situation for our neighbours in Kaipara and Whangarei is worsening. Forecasters are predicting another week or more of dry weather coming up and we know flows in our more vulnerable waterways will likely lose gains they have made over the past week. The message from Northland Regional Council is clear: unless the Far North receives almost a metre of rain by October, we face another summer of restrictions.

We are working hard to improve resilience of our supplies and have successfully tapped into supplementary water sources for Kaitaia and Kaikohe – our most seriously affected towns. We are also improving supplies in the Hokianga. Planning is well underway to improve water storage in Northland using Provincial Growth Funds, and improved water supplies are top our 'shovel-ready' list of projects. We hope to report more progress in coming weeks.

21 May 2020

Rebooting our tourism industry

Doing all we can to bolster our economy in a post-COVID-19 world is now a priority. We are already working on a number of infrastructure proposals we hope the Government will fund to help boost the construction industry. Another key sector in the Far North is tourism. Visitors have long been attracted to our forgiving climate, cultural icons and historic places, and an incredibly varied marine environment. Providing for those visitors has become an increasingly significant part of the district's income.

In recent years, foreign visitors have become an important part of the tourism mix and many businesses are reliant on the income they generate. That trade came to an abrupt halt in March when the nation closed its borders. With no way of knowing when foreign tourists will return, many of our tourism businesses are now facing a very uncertain future.

But there is some good news. The Government last week announced a $400 million Tourism Recovery Fund in the budget and has also extended the wage subsidy to help businesses get through the COVID-19 economic downturn. Air New Zealand has resumed flights to Northland. While at a significantly reduced level, the number of flights will increase as restrictions are relaxed and demand climbs.

And demand will increase. According to a survey released last week by Horizon Research, 34 per cent of New Zealand adults, or around 1,229,600 million people, intend to take a domestic holiday in the next 12 months. Of those, over 378,000 say they will holiday in the Bay of Islands. That is great news for tourism operators, both large and small, and one of our most iconic attractions, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, has already re-opened its tours and performances.

It is our many smaller and medium sized tourism operators that face the most immediate challenge after losing a significant portion of their annual income during the virus lockdown. I am working with industry leaders and business associations on a campaign to reboot that industry as quickly as we can. We're about to launch a dedicated Facebook page called Far North Escapes that will link accommodation to restaurants and to activity providers so we can tap into the local knowledge that makes visiting us extra special. The goal is to persuade Kiwis to 'see their own backyard' starting Queen's Birthday weekend. The promotion will be carried on social media and support the district's 'shop local' campaign. Discussions around developing a website linking all our towns to support this campaign and continue collaboration has been one positive outcome of COVID-19.

Encouraging visitors to our district does not mean neglecting important safety measures to prevent a resurgence of the virus. Ensuring protocols are in place is part of discussions with local service providers. We are lucky up here, we have the wide-open spaces and uncrowded beaches that make physical distancing relatively easy. Let's welcome Kiwis to our place, and help our businesses get through the winter.

14 May 2020

Turning a corner on COVID-19

We, all of us, have achieved a significant milestone. Today we move from COVID-19 Alert Level 3 restrictions down to Level 2. Shops cafes, restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces can now reopen. Schools will follow suit from next Monday. As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said when making the announcement on Monday, this is a triumph and one we have achieved ahead of most other nations.

We have accomplished this through the efforts you and other Kiwis have made. Yes, we have advantages as an island nation (our borders are easy to control), but the main reason we have succeeded in avoiding much higher infection rates is due to New Zealanders working together. As a nation, we have listened to medical experts and collectively applied their advice. Many of you have taken it as a personal challenge to beat this pandemic.

I have witnessed the way communities have joined forces despite the physical difficulties in doing that. You have ensured our most vulnerable are looked after and no one is forgotten. I am particularly proud of the way the Far North has stepped up to distribute care packs to those in our remotest communities. It’s hard not to compare these efforts to military manoeuvres: the way individuals and groups have marshalled their resources, especially around marae, was like witnessing a well-drilled army swing into action.

The Prime Minister was not shy of using military metaphors on Monday, reminding us that we may have won a few battles, but have not won the war. As we all look forward to a weekend with far greater freedom, it is crucial to remember that the coronavirus still poses a significant risk to our health. Medical experts agree the disease is now contained, but we are not yet out of danger – the risk of community transmission remains very real.

Under Level 2, we must continue to observe physical distancing, and be ready to provide personal details if required for contact tracing. Providing these details to business owners or at public venues is now the most effective weapon we have to combat new outbreaks of the virus should they occur.

Like other businesses, the Council will ask for contact details as our we reopen our service centres, libraries and i-SITES. We are not returning to 'business as usual' quite yet - our frontline facilities will have limited opening hours, reduced services and strict safety protocols in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Under Level 2 we cannot have gatherings of more than 10 people, so Council, Community Board and committee meetings will continue to be conducted online for the time being. Recordings of these will be posted on our website so you can remain informed of the decisions we are making.

I want to thank all Far North residents for helping to us to get to this point. There is more work to do, but we have turned a corner.

7 May 2020

Restarting our economy

As we near the end of our seventh week living under pandemic restrictions, we are beginning to get a better sense of what our post-pandemic world might look like. I use the term 'sense' because no one can say with any certainty what long-term impacts this event will have on the way we live.

Without doubt our economy will take a hit with key industries brought to a sudden standstill and many of our residents facing financial hardship. Our economy is beginning to restart. For example, of the 426 food outlets we have registered, 106 food are now operating under Level 3 restrictions. Understandably, many ratepayers are looking at how to cut their outgoings and have asked that we look at reducing rates.

Councillors are very aware that rates are a significant cost, particularly to residents on fixed incomes. That is why we adopted rates relief measures at our 9 April meeting. This interim measure allows for rate payments to be deferred for up to six months and was something your council could apply immediately to assist.

Right across the country there have been calls for councils to provide further relief by cutting rates. Last week, your councillors met to discuss the path forward. Cutting rates also means cutting Council spending and we agreed that this would make the district's recovery slower and much more painful.

The Far North District Council is a significant service provider. That means we directly and indirectly employ hundreds of people across the district so we can provide the many services you receive. One of our most significant annual expenditures is on roading. This financial year we plan to spend close to $30 million on new roading and footpaths. Tightening our belt here would inevitably mean contractors and our own staff would lose their jobs. That would not improve our economy or our recovery.

Last month, we submitted 17 'shovel-ready' infrastructure projects to a taskforce set up by the Government to seek out projects that will stimulate the economy and reduce impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The projects we submitted include new water supplies for Kaikohe and Kaitaia, upgrades to wastewater facilities, flood protection, roading, and plans to boost walking and cycling options. I am very confident a number will get the green light and once they do, we need to ensure we have capacity to do that.

We are exploring other ways we can reduce costs and are working through what would be required alongside Local Government New Zealand and the Crown. We will keep you posted on what we decide.

17 April 2020

Life during lockdown

Like you, I have been locked down at home since the Level 4 pandemic restrictions were announced just over three weeks ago. Despite being confined to my bubble, life at Waipapakauri has been hugely busy dealing with two unprecedented crises facing our district. Together, these events are posing significant challenges for Far North residents, particularly our farmers.

Before the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown, our region was already dealing with the most serious drought seen for decades. Five of our water supplies have been subject to stringent Level 4 water restrictions for most of the summer and restrictions remain in place on all Council water supplies. While the situation has eased, temporary emergency water tanks remain on site at Kaikohe, Kaitaia and Rawene - our most seriously affected towns.

To help get our district through both the lockdown and the water crisis, I have been in regular contact with our iwi leaders through conference calls every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. These leaders have done an outstanding job liaising with their communities to ensure all residents receive the support they require.

There have also been weekly conference calls with chairs of our district's Business Associations to get a thorough understanding of the impact the lockdown is having on their members. I am helping them to access information they need to get through the pandemic. At the same time, we have been planning promotions to assist businesses get re-established once Level 4 restrictions are relaxed.

Our rural sector has been particularly hard-hit by recent events. I have been working closely with representatives of the Rural Support Group to ensure the effects of the drought on our farming community is discussed and recorded, and that this information is passed to all those helping this sector negotiate the drought and the lockdown.

I have been taking part in regular conference calls and exchanges with local government colleagues across Northland. This includes Civil Defence and other officials working to ensure essential services delivered to our communities, such as water, sewerage and roading, continue uninterrupted during the lockdown.

These calls provide me with an excellent overview on the lockdown and drought impacts. I am sharing that with Ministers, government officials, Local Government New Zealand and other key decisionmakers. I assure you, the information you are giving me is being listened to in Wellington and is helping Cabinet make key decisions about the Government’s response.

Many residents and community groups have also contacted me directly seeking updates and advice. I have done my best to provide answers or find the information you need. I have also been in touch with several individuals who have needed support or reassurance. Sometimes, simply talking issues through can make a world of difference.

Working from home and communicating with leaders and community members through conference and video calls has required some adjustment. Keeping our council functioning at both a governance and operational level remotely like this has also required adaptation.

26 March 2020

United against COVID-19

Today we begin a four-week national lock down to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Except for those working in an essential service, we must all stay home and stop physical interactions with people outside our households. Schools are closed. Non-essential workplaces are closed. Travel is restricted.

This has never happened before in New Zealand, but I believe it is the right thing to do. We need to do all we can to prevent COVID-19 spreading. If we don’t, tens of thousands of ordinary New Zealanders - our neighbours, our workmates, our whanau - will very likely die. We only need look to China, Italy, Spain, Iran and other countries to see what can happen if we do not act. That’s why our government is taking the initiative to prevent the spread of this virus. Remember, we are doing this to keep your family and friends healthy and safe, so I urge everyone to stay calm and to make coordinated decisions with friends and family, so your self-isolation is sustainable.

Being isolated does not mean cutting yourself off completely, we also need to look out for each other. Please check in with family and friends. Make sure they have all they need, including someone to talk to. Check on your neighbours by phone, especially if they are over the age of 70, have health issues or live alone. Keep an eye out for their welfare, but remember to keep a 2-metre distance if you visit them for the sake of their health as well as your own.

It is easy to feel like we are under siege. We are not. There is no need to panic buy. You can still go outside with your children. You can take the dog for a walk and you can go to the supermarket or pharmacy. The goal is to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, so keep your distance from anyone you are not normally in self-isolation with.

Your Council has a vital role to play during this crisis. We will ensure essential services continue to operate. These include water, wastewater, stormwater, drought management, animal management, housing for the elderly, cemeteries, public toilets, the Hokianga Ferry and road maintenance, where it involves public safety. Other services will continue, but in a different form. Public amenities, such as libraries, public swimming pools, i-SITE information centres, and Council service centres will be closed. However, you can still contact us by emailing or phoning 0800 920 029. Most of our staff will be working from home during the four-week lock down, so there will be someone to deal with urgent enquiries. If you can, please defer non-urgent calls until the COVID-19 alert level is reduced by the government.

The next four weeks will be new territory for all of us. Council staff are working hard to ensure essential services continue with minimum interruption. We ask for your patience and understanding as we establish service continuity. Your elected representatives, alongside senior managers, are also working on options to reduce the impact this unprecedented event will have on our economy and our ratepayers. We will take full advantage of Government assistance to help us through.

Remember, we are all in this together and the best way forward is to be united against COVID-19. Stay safe, be sensible and please be kind to each other.

19 March 2020

Meeting the challenges ahead

Over the weekend our government ramped up the nation's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly everyone entering the country is now asked to self-isolate for 14 days. While the number of confirmed virus cases in New Zealand is still low, we only need to look at how it has progressed elsewhere in the world to understand that decisive action is vital if we want to slow the spread of Covid-19.

The Council is closely monitoring the situation. We are following advice from health experts and doing all we can to prepare. Council staff will stay at home if they feel unwell and we will help them to work from home if they need to self-isolate. At this stage, our services will continue as normal.

The pandemic is already having a dramatic effect on our economy, particularly our tourism industry. An immediate impact for the Far North will be the ban of cruise ships from all New Zealand ports until June 30. About 27 ships carrying more than 50,000 passengers were due in the Bay of Islands during this period. Over the weekend I spoke to schools, rest homes and businesses, and I know many of you are anxious about how the pandemic will impact our district. Rest assured, we will be talking with the government about how we can collectively minimise possible impacts.

As I write this, weather forecasters are predicting Cyclone Gretel will pass to the east of the country and have only limited impact on the Far North. While we will see some showers, this will be well short of the sustained rain we hoped for. Our message therefore to all residents is to please keep conserving water by turning taps off, washing full loads, flushing less often, and taking shorter showers.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a further $3 million in relief measures for drought-hit Northland during a visit to Kaitaia. While here, she toured the pipeline we have built at Bonnetts Rd to take water from a bore on farmland owned by Te Hiku iwi Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto. We will deliver that to Kaitaia's treatment plant at Okahu Rd 4km away. We have also constructed a separate supply at the Sweetwater aquifer for bulk water carriers. Barring unforeseen delays, both supplies are due to start delivering water to customers this week.

Providing the alternative supply to Kaitaia would not have been possible without the assistance of Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto. I am also very grateful for the support we have received from government. Friday's funding announcement comes on top of $2 million already provided by the Provincial Growth Fund to help meet the costs of setting up emergency water supplies for Kaitaia, Kaikohe and Rawene.
The Covid-19 pandemic will be a challenge for us all. However, this drought has demonstrated that we can meet challenges by working together. I am confident we will continue to do so.

12 March 2020

No time for complacency

You may have seen large 'Save water now' signs posted prominently along key roads in your town over the past week. These restate our key water conservation messages and ask everyone to focus efforts on saving water in the bathroom and laundry: turn taps off, wash full loads, flush less often, and take shorter showers.

Following the rain many received over the past few days, it may be thought that these signs are 'too little, too late'. I don't agree. Now is the perfect time to remind all residents and visitors that we continue to face critical water shortages right across the district. While the rain was certainly welcome, especially for those on tank water supplies, it was far from drought-breaking. Only recently, flows in many of our key waterways were recorded at their lowest levels in 50 years. We need far more than 10 millimetres of rain to turn that around.

If you travel across the district, it quickly becomes obvious how seriously this drought is impacting our whenua. In the southern and eastern areas, the hills have turned a little greener since last week's rain. But around Kaitaia and further north, the hills remain seriously parched. The rain we did receive was patchy at best and if people become complacent about conserving water this could even work against us.

Readings from our most at-risk waterways show how dangerous this would be. Flows in the Wairoro Stream, which supplies Kaikohe, are dropping again after receiving some relief from the rain. The same is true for the Tirohanga Stream in Kawakawa, and Kaitaia's Awanui River. Until our water levels turnaround, water conservation efforts must continue.

Last week, I told you about progress we are making to provide two supplementary water supplies for Kaitaia. This work is progressing well, and we are on track to tap into these water sources by the middle of the month.

We are also making solid progress on supplementary supplies for Kaikohe. We announced a deal last week with Lake Omapere Trust to take 1500 cubic metres of water a day from Lake Omapere. The Omapere Taraire E Rangihamama X3A Ahuwhenua Trust has also provided permission to pipe the water over their land to our Taraire Hills Water Treatment Plant. Our remaining obstacle is the danger of a toxic algal bloom in the lake. This can be very difficult to treat, and we are now working closely with Northland District Health Board on ways to reconfigure our plant to effectively treat the lake water.

In the meantime, we are also investigating other water sources for Kaikohe and I will let you know about these as soon as details are confirmed.

Traditionally, autumn is the driest period of the year in the Far North. If that holds true this year, this drought is unlikely to end with a sudden deluge. Instead, we may climb out of this shortage over weeks and months. That's why our roadside signs are important. They remind us that this drought is far from over.

5 March 2020

Working together on water

Rain showers are being seen by many in the district this week for the first time in a long time. Forecasters say we can expect to see more scattered showers right through to the end of next week. Every drop of rain we get is like a gift - some may even have been lucky enough to have their water tanks recharged!

Welcome as they are, these showers are well short of the sustained rain we need to break the current drought. MetService long-range forecasters confirm that above-average temperatures will continue across Northland as high-pressure systems continue to dominate. There's little indication that tropical cyclones or tropical lows will head our way soon.

Northland Regional Council says waterways across the region are continuing to decline, with 96 per cent now running below drought flows. Groundwater levels are faring no better. Many coastal aquifers are at or near the lowest levels recorded since monitoring began in the early 1990s. Many long-time residents and farmers are also saying this is shaping up to be one of the worst droughts they have seen in the Far North.

But it's not all bad news. The Council is making real progress finding and tapping into supplementary water supplies for our worst-affected towns. In Kaitaia, work is progressing well on two projects to tap into the Aupouri aquifer. One will provide a tank farm at Sweetwater so bulk water carriers can fill up with water sourced from the aquifer and treated on-site. This water will go to rural users running out of rainwater and completely remove bulk water carriers from the Kaitaia town water supply. We aim to provide this solution by the middle of this month.

Our second project will provide relief directly to Kaitaia by piping water from a bore on the iwi-owned Sweetwater Farm directly to Kaitaia's water treatment plant. We are now laying 4km of pipe required to complete this job and are on track to have it completed in two weeks. This would not be possible without the input and collaboration of Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto and I am hugely grateful for their support.

Our work to provide a supplementary water source for Kaikohe is progressing well and an announcement on this is imminent. At the same time, we are investigating alternative supply options we believe can provide Kaikohe with greater water resilience in the future. Again, we will announce these plans once they are confirmed.

The other water supply causing us concern is Omanaia-Rawene. Last week, we increased the resilience of this supply when we traced and fixed a significant leak in the system.

While we are achieving real wins finding supplementary supplies, these alone will not be enough to resolve the drought-related water shortages currently impacting our district. We need all residents to continue efforts to reduce water consumption by 25 per cent. By working together, we can get through this drought.

20 February 2020

Positive news for Kaitaia

I was very pleased to see Kaitaia residents had achieved significant water savings of 11.25 per cent last week. This shows the community understands the seriousness of the current drought and how this is impacting our water sources. Thank you Kaitaia for working hard to conserve this precious resource, and according to our latest figures, we are on track to equal or surpass those savings again this week.

I also have good news to share. Last week, the Council signed an agreement to take water from an aquifer bore that will allow us to remove bulk water carriers from the town supply during this drought. Bulk water carriers provide a vital service to our rural and remote residents who rely on rain water tanks for all their domestic water needs. This drought has seen many tanks run dry and for most of these residents, the Council’s treated water supplies are the only alternative source. Demand has risen dramatically. In January we provided 1,444 cubic metres of water to bulk water carriers compared to just 80 cubic metres in September. Currently, bulk water carriers account for around 7 per cent of the treated water we produce for Kaitaia.

The bore we have accessed is about 8km west of Awanui and contractors have started building a pipeline to a roadside access point. To get this supply up and running as quickly as possible, the Council is borrowing a portable water treatment plant from Watercare in Auckland. This will ensure the water we supply meets all applicable health standards. We aim to supply water from the bore in about three weeks relieving pressure on Kaitaia’s primary water source, the Awanui River.

This is just the beginning of efforts to find supplementary supplies for Kaitaia. We are talking to the owner of another bore that has the potential to be a second supply for Kaitaia. Despite these efforts, flows in the Awanui River continue to drop and this waterway is now at record low levels. We partially dammed the river last week to ensure there is enough water at the treatment plant intake pipe so we can continue an uninterrupted supply of water.

This week we applied our highest water restrictions to Paihia-Opua-Waitangi and Kawakawa-Moerewa. These communities are now on Level 4 water restrictions, limiting water use to drinking, cooking and washing only. To have four water supplies operating under Level 4 restrictions demonstrates just how serious this drought is. The last 12-month period has been one of the driest on record and, according Civil Defence, many Northland rivers are at their lowest flows in 50 years.
We have had success in finding short-term and long-term supplementary water supplies, but the best way to avoid serious interruptions to your water supply is to conserve the water we already have. We need to achieve 25 per cent reductions across the district and we all need to play our part.

13 February 2020

Help save water

Most Northland Age readers will be aware that there is a severe drought in the Far North: the worst in a long time. Water shortages are especially acute in Kaitaia and Kaikohe and we introduced Level 4 water restrictions in these towns last week. We are working hard and fast to find temporary water sources to supplement the Awanui River and Wairoro Stream, which are the main water sources for these towns. However, there is still a risk we will run out of water in these towns, particularly if people don’t make the 25 per cent water savings we are asking for. We hope to avoid this worst-case scenario and are following promising leads for supplementary water supplies for Kaikohe and Kaitaia.

In the long term, we plan to make the Aupouri aquifer a permanent water source and we are committed to completing this project next year. Many of you will say this project has been delayed for far too long and many will be disappointed we are facing these shortages. We accept that we could have prioritised this project for completion sooner. However, it is also important to remember that the whole of Northland is experiencing record-breaking weather conditions that our water supplies aren’t designed to cope with. We are also putting in place contingency plans as a proactive measure. Civil Defence Northland delivered three emergency water storage tanks to Kaikohe last week and tanks were installed near Te Ahu in Kaitaia on Tuesday.

We will only use these if we can no longer draw water from our usual sources and back-up sources are not available. Again, we hope it won’t be necessary to use these, but this will depend on whether households and businesses make meaningful reductions to their daily water use.

Sixty-five percent of the water used in the average New Zealand home is used in the bathroom, so we urge people to take shorter showers and to flush toilets less. You can also reduce water flushed by putting a full water bottle into the toilet cistern. If everyone made these small sacrifices, we would significantly improve our chances of getting through this drought without needing to resort to emergency measures. Please, if you haven’t already done so, think about what contribution your household or business can make to our water conservation campaign.

I am hearing comment about bulk water carriers taking water from town supplies. For Kaitaia, we are fast-tracking work on a temporary supply for Te Hiku bulk water carriers so they can tap into the Aupouri aquifer. We are also working on a similar solution for Kaikohe. This will allow bulk water carriers to refill the water tanks without having to transport water long distances from the east coast or put further pressure on our town supplies.

There is still time to avert a water crisis where the taps run dry, but this will depend on all of us playing our part.

6 February 2020

Conserving our precious water

The New Year is traditionally a time when the nation heads to the beach and there's little news to share. Not so this year. Our region has already recorded some major and exciting wins. These include the Government's recent announcement of a $109.7 million to upgrade the rail line from Auckland to Whangarei and plans to reopen the spur to Otiria in Moerewa. The upgrade will allow for a container terminal to be built at Whangarei, and this will be a catalyst for our agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries.

Another significant announcement from the Government was made last week adding an extra $12.7 million grant to last year's $18.5m funding package from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF). This will further progress water storage projects in Kaikohe and Kaipara for our horticulture and industry. This is great news for the Kaikohe and whole region, and brings total funding for these projects to $31.2m.

As you know, our water supplies are under serious pressure right across the Far North with Level 4 water restrictions now in place for both Kaitaia and Kaikohe. This is an unprecedented situation and is due to the unusually dry winter we experienced in 2019. Northland Regional Council has confirmed it was the driest year in decades in many parts of Northland. This weather has continued with high temperatures and very little rainfall this summer. Unfortunately, forecasters are predicting this will continue for weeks or even months.

Some of you have asked how the Council has allowed this to happen. The simple answer is our water sources cope well in normal summer conditions, as do our treatment plants and other infrastructure. However, they were not designed for the record-breaking weather conditions we are now experiencing. Building water supplies to cope with extraordinary weather events is hugely expensive and your elected members have chosen to follow a more balanced planning approach.

Climate change means we need to reassess our plans and we are working with other Northland councils on ways to meet the challenges we now face in the years and decades to come. We are also working on solutions right now. For Kaitaia, we are pressing ahead with a project to make the Aupouri aquifer a supplementary water source for Kaitaia. We are committed to this project and plan to have it completed next year. We are fast-tracking a temporary supply for bulk water carriers so they can resupply water tanks for our rural residents in Te Hiku without travelling across the district. That supply should be operational within weeks. We have also completed work on a new water bore for our Opononi and Omapere. The Smoothy Road bore is now undergoing final tests and will begin supplying customers next week.

Without doubt we are facing very serious water shortages right across the district. The solution is rain, and plenty of it. Until that happens, we are asking everyone to help conserve the water supplies we have.



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