New HB Hospital? Inspiration from Australia.

[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]

From health services to long-term economic development to environmental sustainability, Hawke’s Bay faces huge challenges … and opportunities. 

Appropriately, minds are focused these cyclone recovery days – especially at our councils – on infrastructure repair and resilience.

Plus, there are tough relocation choices ahead for some homeowners and businesses in the face of future flood risk. And a horticulture and pastoral farming sector that wants to get re-established as soon as possible.

But those near-term needs don’t exhaust the long-term planning and re-thinking that’s required for our region, especially when additional factors like population and climate change must be addressed.

From health services to long-term economic development to environmental sustainability, Hawke’s Bay faces huge challenges … and opportunities.

And in that context there are some ‘big ideas’ floating around that deserve consideration. Fortunately, some of them seem to offer win/win possibilities, helping economic, social and environmental bottom lines to be met. Here are a few I’m curious about. What would you add (or subtract) from this list?

Modern hospital No one really disputes that the hospital we have is well past its use-by date – already overcrowded, deteriorating, even unsafe in some respects. And facing escalating demand as our ageing population places heavier burdens on in-hospital care – older patients presenting more frequently, with multiple, complex needs and requiring more bed days.

As Dr Tim Frendin has written in BayBuzz, “Population ageing is climate change for healthcare.” Full article here. Already back in 2020 elective surgery at the hospital was increasing 3% per year, with a shortfall in surgical theatre hours estimated at 2,721 hours, which meant around 1,500 procedures not performed. Our Emergency Department (ED), designed to care for 37,000 presentations per year, was then seeing 45,000. And that number had increased 34% over the past ten years. Experts consider an 85% occupancy rate as the maximum for safety (patients and staff), while our hospital often reaches and even exceeds 100%. “Hospital wards consistently operate with occupancy at or close to 100% exhibiting a lack of resilience when demand surges.” (Sapere Report). Hence beds in corridors, etc. Of course Covid has not helped. 

Apparently, a new clinical review is underway – to be released soon for public consultation – that will officially establish current and projected demand for hospital services. The review is certain to identify a widening gap between demand and capacity. 

The Ministry of Health establishes the pecking order in which the country’s hospitals are renewed and rebuilt. And also, how – patch up the facility’s wounds or rebuild from scratch? And, if the latter, on what site? 

Recently, noise has intensified about prospects for the Hawke’s Bay Hospital getting a makeover. Tukituki MP Anna Lorck (a former DHB Board member) claimed plans were afoot at the Ministry, our mayors fretted that they were unaware and out of the loop, and local businessman, corporate director (and former DHB Board member) Dan Druzianic proposed building a brand-new hospital modeled on illustrative plans from a current Australian build (Tweed Valley, NSW). 

Druzianic has identified a site at York Road and the Expressway (near Flaxmere) that is well-suited for a ‘greenfields’ new build. Accessible and on solid ground (ie. non-liquefaction and non-flood prone … a major factor in any health location). He argues for a new build on grounds that space is too limited at the present location for the expansion needed, the existing structure is too unfit to patch up, and the congestion/disruption caused by refurbishing on a major scale at the current site while concurrently providing health services would simply be unmanageable. 

A case on its face deserving of careful consideration. 

All of this has caused the Ministry of Health to publicly comment: yes, we are looking at this, but it ain’t going to happen quickly. Sort of, ‘Cool your jets Hawke’s Bay’. That said, BayBuzz is told our region’s ‘ask’ has been working its way up the list. 

With no DHB Board (and articulate chair like Kevin Atkinson) to champion our cause, and no leadership from our resident hospital bureaucracy, it falls to voices outside the sector – like Druzianic, our MPs and ideally our mayors (who are pre-occupied at present with other political/budget priorities) to lead the charge for a modern hospital for Hawke’s Bay. 

Once the public has the opportunity – via the pending clinical review – to see just how bleak our hospital capabilities are, and will worsen, hopefully that charge will begin with broad-based community support. 

It’s hard to imagine an asset that would affect and bring more benefit to more people in our region. 

Film industry

On a faster track, hopefully, is the building of a state-of-the-art $60 million film studio complex in Te Awanga, to be called Parkhill Studios. The facility will be totally off the grid, solar powered with its own sewage and storm water systems. 

Parkhill Studios artist rendering

Industry entrepreneur Derek Slade has previously told BayBuzz the studio would bring in between US$4-5 million per week and require a wide range of service providers, from film-making technicians to carpenters and caterers … to say nothing of aspiring local on-screen talent! Approximately 70 staff would occupy the site permanently. During the filming of a production there could be over 350 additional people (actors and support crew) involved. 

As I write, the last obstacle to overcome for the studio to proceed is an appeal by one party against the consent awarded by a HDC-appointed hearing commissioner. The Environment Court ordered mediation to be undertaken between the studio (applicant) and that party, which has now occurred. The objections relate to disturbance of the rural amenity state of the Te Awanga area. Hopefully all will be resolved, with construction beginning soon.

Like the hospital, a film studio is more the ‘hub’ than a complete answer. There are many other services, venues and facilities involved in meeting the region’s healthcare needs. Similarly, the studio should be the hub that draws upon and encourages a range of associated services and activities. The sponsors have talked with EIT about creating relevant training programmes.

Local film entrepreneur Daniel Betty underscores the point that the studio would drive ongoing need for film production skills and, importantly, thereby provide a platform of consistent work that enabled a permanent creative base to produce other film projects, including more locally-focused. Is there a BayFlix on the horizon?

So, the potential here is an industry, not just a studio, with well-paying, permanent, non-weather dependent jobs. Hopefully, the job training possibilities of this might catch the eye and encouragement of our new Regional Economic Development Agency, one of whose directors happens also to be chair of the Arts Council of NZ.

Another spin-off I would personally lobby for would be an IMAX film facility. How about releasing all the marine critters and converting the Aquarium into a science/nature-focused IMAX theatre and virtual reality experience. Conversion to IMAX is affordable these days and the experience delivered beats anything the Aquarium will otherwise offer.

Resilient environment

The cyclone aftermath and, longer term, the likelihood of an increasingly disruptive climate force a reconsideration of how we treat our land and the waste we create from it – be that slash or greenhouse gas emissions. Two opportunities in Hawke’s Bay involve waste and two involve land use.

Waste to energy

Next to silt, slash (woody waste, more accurately) is the most visible environmental remnant of Cyclone Gabrielle. Some of our wood debris is from poorly-managed plantation logging, but it appears even more has come from water-logged hillsides simply collapsing into waterways, no matter what the ground cover, including riparian planting, might have been.

As a result of the government review conducted post-cyclone, it is highly likely that logging practices will be more rigorously regulated, perhaps to the point of ‘no slash’ allowed – all logging waste picked up and disposed of.

In any event, piles of wood debris across HB have re-surfaced interest in producing energy from biomass. The recovery plans submitted to the HB Regional Recovery Agency include a $500,000 request to investigate this proposition. As presented in the HDC Locality Plan, “This project would determine feasible options for organic waste materials (e.g., woody biomass and organic feedstock) with a view to creating a pathway for sustainable local energy generation.”

Hawke’s Bay presently sports two versions of biomass co-generation – at Pan Pac and at the Ōmarunui Landfill, jointly operated by HDC and NCC.

Pan Pac

According to its 2022 Sustainability Report, Pan Pac plans to, “Reduce GHG emissions from our production activities by improving the efficiency of energy consumption and increasing the use of renewable energy.” They are targeting at least a 70% reduction in GHG by 2030 as compared to 2018. 

The company reports that 12% of its electricity needs are met by its biofuel boilers, capable of producing 36 MW. They use 50 tonnes of biomass per hour. The fuel comprises coarse green wood residues sourced from Pan Pac’s forestry operation and dry shavings, a by-product from their sawmilling operation – consuming 320,000 tonnes per year.

Additionally, in 2021, 30,500 tonnes of community waste from HB, including treated timber, was diverted from landfill and converted to energy in Pan Pac’s biomass boiler. One hundred percent of the drying energy at its Otago site is generated by bioenergy.

Apart from expanding its own biomass use, arguably going forward Pan Pac (presently closed due to cyclone damage, with lumber operations set to restart in August) can serve as a supplier and expert technical advisor to any additional biomass-to-energy initiative the region undertakes. 

Liquid biofuels made from wood residues would be a valuable substitute for this region’s use of diesel in the primary sector. Crown research arm Scion’s Biofuels Roadmap projects that if 30% of NZ’s future liquid fuels were made from plants or forests grown on non-arable land, this could reduce GHG emissions by 5 million tonnes per year by 2050. We currently have around 145,000 diesel-powered heavy vehicles, along with 650,000 light diesel vehicles, guzzling over 630 million litres annually and growing each year.

The government, like 60-odd other countries, has in place a biofuels mandate. From 2023, fuel wholesalers must cut their total greenhouse gas emissions by selling biofuels as part of their fuel mix. But last year Z Energy shut down its high profile trial production plant as uneconomic (due to sharply rising feedstock prices, like tallow). Instead it imports biofuels.

Ōmarunui Landfill

As Dom Salmon of 3R has written in this edition, ideally our goal is to reduce the sheer volume of waste, especially organic food waste (methane-producing) going to the landfill. Nationally, 4% of our total GHG emissions arise from landfills. Moreover, here in Hawke’s Bay, the Ōmarunui Landfill will require a $20 million expansion to keep taking rubbish another thirty years; the main site will be full in three years at present rate of use.

Ōmarunui Landfill Photo Tim Whittaker

The Ōmarunui Landfill, operating since 2015 but also damaged by cyclone flooding, offers other biomass opportunities. There, current partner LMS Energy produces landfill gas (55% methane) that generates 0.9MW feeding into the Unison grid and capable of powering 1,000 homes. A modest upgrade is planned that would lift output to 1.1MW. An additional engine is also likely to be established at the site once the newly consented Area B is open and receiving waste.

Meantime, however, converting some of that waste to biogas is indeed useful. 

Dom cites the example of Auckland’s EcoGas in Reporoa. That plant, “uses organic waste in the country’s first anaerobic digestion system. It creates biogas, which is used to generate electricity, heat water for local glasshouses, make biomethane which is fed into New Zealand’s natural gas network, and create fertiliser for over 3,000 hectares of crop production. The plant also makes bottled, food-grade carbon dioxide which is needed by our food producers and is currently imported into New Zealand.” 

A lot of boxes ticked there. Time for LMS Energy, or someone, to help us lift our biogas game?

I should note these are not the only biomass players in HB. Both Napier Pine and AFFCO are installing biogas boilers with ‘Decarbonising’ funding support from the Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority.

Land use initiatives

Other than protecting water quality, the two biggest environmental challenges Hawke’s Bay’s primary sector faces are sequestering carbon (better still, reducing farming emissions) and averting soil erosion. Here are two initiatives aimed at those challenges.

For years we’ve been hearing the ‘right tree, right place’ mantra from afforestation advocates, including the HB Regional Council. Combatting hill country soil erosion is HBRC’s primary aim – around 252,000 hectares of HB land is highly erodible, with around 6.8 million tonnes of sediment entering our waterways every year; while the lure of earning carbon credits carries additional appeal for many farmers.

A huge Scion-led project, Forest Flows, is measuring the water retention capacity of forests throughout NZ. Data just released indicates that of all the torrential rainwater that fell in the Mahurangi Forest near Auckland during the Anniversary Weekend floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, nearly 60% was captured in the forest, which acted as a sponge, rather than flowing immediately into waterways. Trees = flood + erosion control. Planting heaps in hill country is a no-brainer.

With Government funding available to match its own resources, HBRC initially – during my tenure as a councillor – invited hill country farmers to apply on generous terms to embark upon tree planting. Early response was good. 

However, backlash from some in the pastoral farming community over mounting conversions of sheep & beef production to pine plantations, and from others alarmed that mono-culture pine forests would supplant native restoration, has seemed to put a damper on tree-planting enthusiasm.

By 2021, HBRC’s ambition had narrowed to a new programme with a pilot of up to five farms. And now HBRC has launched ‘Land For Life’ – another trial with thirteen farms, offering a loan to landowners to plant trees on their erodible land, with the expectation of delivering a return to farmer partners on this investment through manuka honey or timber production, and carbon credits. HBRC has committed $4.8 million over three years to this initiative.

‘Land for Life’ has attracted the interest of the international heavyweight environment group, The Nature Conservancy, who is said to be looking at a $50-$100 million scale-up of the programme to 50-100 farms across Hawke’s Bay … $1 million per farm?

Wow! From big government co-funded programme to tiny trial to small trial to $100 million roll-out. Could this be for real? Afforestation on steroids.

Indeed, HBRC has upped the ante, as a response to Cyclone Gabrielle, proposing to move from a 50 farm pilot to approximately 600 farms in a multi-region programme. As a staff paper explains: “Council, TNC and MPI have identified the opportunity to reposition the project to contribute to recovery and long-term resilience of pastoral farms in Hawke’s Bay.” The multi-region feature presumably needed to meet the nation-wide ambitions of potential partners MPI and The Nature Conservancy.

HBRC’s big picture: “In the context of the primary sector recovery framework led by HBRC and MPI, the project has the opportunity to be a cornerstone component of rural recovery … At scale, the project provides a mechanism to have real impact on the future resilience of Hawke’s Bay’s farmland, waterways, environment and biodiversity, climate change, communities and wider regional economy. The opportunity to re-imagine a more resilient farm landscape and Hawke’s Bay’s productive base.”

A key element of this ambitious programme is: “Supporting improvements in pastoral farm systems and regenerative farming practices that are good for farmers’ bottom lines and the environment.”

And that’s the reason I hope Land For Life is not simply HBRC hyperbole.

Carbon Farming

Trees are not the only way to store carbon (or hold soil or water or nutrients) on farmland.

The soil itself can be managed to do that, especially through practices generally referred to as ‘regenerative farming’.

The Hawke’s Bay Future Farming Trust is a strong advocate of such practices. It’s involved in a $3 million (largely MPI-funded), six-year project at the Hastings LandWISE microfarm to test whether soil carbon can be regenerated – and to what extent – in soils used for intensive field cropping.

But more to the point here, in view of the Land For Life initiative, the Trust has already demonstrated on dairy farms in HB (Patoka) that regenerative practices can appreciably increase soil carbon … in fact, on a scale comparable (or better) to a pine forest. Says Paul Smith, one of the soil scientists involved: “The great thing with soil carbon, compared to forestry, is that you can claim the GHG benefit, keep the carbon in the ground where is improving the water holding and nutrient holding ability of the soil, and keep growing low GHG food on the land – there aren’t too many downsides.”

Given that potential, the Trust is proposing a wider project aimed at pastoral farms, similar in scale to the LandWISE project, to establish more comprehensively that soil carbon can indeed be ‘grown’ on HB farms, generating that full complement of environmental benefits – GHG mitigation and offsets, less synthetic inputs, nutrient retention, and significantly better soil and water retention. Again, a lot of boxes ticked.

So, it appears Hawke’s Bay doesn’t lack for big, inspiring ideas that can carry our region well beyond recovery. These are a few on BayBuzz’s radar. Any more out there hiding in the bushes? 


Join the Conversation


  1. Wow Tom, very exciting. Especially the Land for Life one. I’m surprised ( as a bit of a greenie and partner of a pastoral farmer) I hadn’t heard about til now. At some point I would love to discuss with you a new initiative just launched by a friend of mine called Accel – aim
    is to get cars off the road through an EV sharing model that can work in companies, apartment complexes, even neighbourhoods.

    1. Hi Robyn, Tom. Just offering a bit of clarification on the various HBRC hill country schemes.
      HBRC has been operating its Erosion Control Scheme for a number of years now, offering around $30m of co-funding to support farmers to protect highly erodible land. This also received a $5m top-up via the Hill Country Erosion scheme. More recently, HBRC developed the “Right Tree Right Place” pilot scheme, with the intention (at least in part) to create opportunities for new financing sources beyond the funding constraints of HBRC & landowners – hence the interest in working with The Nature Conservancy.
      Earlier this year, “Right Tree Right Place” was rebranded as “Land for Life”, reflecting the opportunities the approach brings to farm succession planning & avoiding wholesale forestry conversions. This programme is the one that we are considering scaling up to cover 600 farms across Hawke’s Bay.
      I would make the point that we need to consider this proposition very carefully and not leap to the assumption that it is the panacea for HB hill country. We know that we need to work with landowners to help them keep soil on the hills & out of the waterways. Building higher stopbanks is ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff stuff – if we are ever to find a way to live safely & comfortably on the Plains then it needs to start with how we manage our hill country. But we also need to be alive to the questions of how farmers make decisions, who they listen to, the impact of national policy settings such as the ETS, what other players such as MPI & B+LNZ are up to and what other levers HBRC can & should be pulling.

    2. A wonderful heartening article! Thank you. I like the note regarding forests that are able to absorb their own water, and Xan’s comment that the secret to managing the plains starts in the hills!
      And I am very keen to see NCC start organic waste collection. Post Gabrielle our freezer waste went to Reporoa; surely this would not be hard for our cities to do this onna regulat basis.
      Thank you Bay Buzz.

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