Alex Walker Photo: Florence Charvin

Central Hawke’s Bay has more than its fair share of ailing infrastructure, with problems ranging from worrisome wastewater to earthquake-prone buildings and housing shortages. 

There is no denying – it’s a small district, facing some very big challenges. 

CHB stretches across 333,450 hectares including Waipukurau, Waipawa, Ōtāne, Takapau, Tikokino, Pōrangahau, and Ongaonga, with several beach townships at its fringe. 

State Highway 2 cuts through the centre, snaking between rural townships towards Napier’s port and airport, about 70km away. 

In the tight-knit rural community, everybody knows your name; shop owners greet their customers like old friends; and farmers stop to chat in the streets. 

The population of 15,250, is dotted across a large geographic area, and requires more water and wastewater treatment infrastructure than its larger counterparts. 

Napier, for example, has just one wastewater treatment plant for a ratepayer base of over 25,000; Central Hawke’s Bay has six, and is still struggling to keep up. 

CHB Mayor Alex Walker says it’s a harsh reality she and her council are now trying to tackle head-on. 

“Our situation in Central Hawke’s Bay is complex and brings with it unique challenges. We are a small population and ratepayer base, spread across a large geographical region. We require more water and wastewater treatment plants than smaller districts, with larger populations,” she says. 

“If you add decades of underinvestment in these infrastructural assets to that layer of complexity, you’re facing some very sobering realities. 

“As mayor of our wonderful district, uncovering these truths has been absolutely heart-breaking. For decades’ rates have been kept artificially low, at the expense of the region’s assets.” 

CHB Council’s Long Term Plan for 2021-2031, shows just how “challenging” the road ahead will be – outlining gaping holes in essential infrastructure and assets. 

Increases to rates, development contributions and Council’s overall debt limits are all being proposed in a bid to remedy the “dire” situation. 

“We now know more than we have ever known about the state of our infrastructure. Quite frankly, it’s frightening. 

“We’re faced with a situation where we require huge investment in our infrastructure and assets across the district, which now cannot be paid for with rates alone. 

“We have pipes that are over 100 years old, infrastructure that is literally crumbling away and buildings that we thought were earthquake tolerant, which are not.” 

It’s become a balancing act of servicing the debt the Council already holds, and spreading additional spend over time, in order to lessen the burden on a single generation. 

Mayor Walker reveals four key areas where Council is covering swift ground, in order to secure a brighter future for CHB. You can’t discuss Central Hawke’s Bay’s ‘issues’ without mentioning water – and you can’t fix them without a solid plan. 

Waste water

Central Hawke’s Bay’s on-going wastewater woes reflect a system that has long been “broken”.

It is the problem child that’s cost CHB millions and still fails to meet strict environmental standards.

Despite $8.4 million worth of upgrades to wastewater plants at Waipawa and Waipukurau between 2013 and 2017, exceedances of ammonia (a form of nitrogen) continue to appear in waste entering the Tukituki and Waipawa rivers.

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants. Small amounts are a natural component of healthy rivers, but agricultural and urban land use, plus infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants, can disrupt the natural balance. Too much nitrogen can lead to excessive growth of algae, which in turn, deteriorates river habitats. 

“Wastewater epitomises the challenges we have in rural areas,” Walker says.

“We meet all consent conditions except the removal of ammonia. Everything else is treated, but that one final part we struggle with. The difference is we are rural and we are discharging into rivers, and the bar for us is higher than for [urban] coastal discharge.”

CHB Council has laid out a 10-year plan to remove waste discharge from local rivers, but it’s set to cost them in time, money and infrastructure.

“We do want to approach our wastewater issues and have already made a big investment in wastewater strategy. The Council wants to stop discharging into the rivers as soon as possible.

“First by bringing Ōtāne to Waipawa and Waipukurau to Waipawa to land, then building a super treatment plant.”

Like many small rural councils, CHB is in need of further funding to update infrastructure that discharges waste to waterways and to replace ageing pipework.

Enter the Government’s $760 million Three Waters package to bring drinking, waste and storm water infrastructure up to scratch throughout the country.

Of the $50 million Hawke’s Bay is receiving, CHB Council has been allocated just over $11 million to remedy a “broken” system that “just hasn’t worked”.

“The money will be prioritised around a second water supply for Waipukurau, which will connect through to Waipawa, and a wastewater pipe from Ōtāne to Waipawa,” Walker says.

“It’s accelerated our programme of renewals – replacing old sections of pipe is something we have had a problem with historically and we are forever up against.”

For councils to access the money, they must commit to the Government’s wider water reform programme, including new governance arrangements.

While it’s hard to say how this will affect CHB going forward – drinking water and wastewater standards will likely be higher, and more strongly enforced.

Water security

Water is the lifeblood that keeps CHB’s primary sector pumping – but securing enough of it is a daunting task.

For many years, water security and aquifer over-allocation have troubled the region, with no new consents considered by the Regional Council for the catchment since 2008. 

A small number of consent holders with a lion’s share of the supply, means many in need have not been able to get a look in. 

The lock on CHB’s water makes it a liquid gold resource, particularly in periods of low rainfall. 

“The failure of the allocation, regulatory and market system over the past 30 years has resulted in large water volumes being held by only a few businesses in Central Hawke’s Bay. Success for the next 100 years will be righting that inequality and creating a system where water security practices ensure that the mauri, the environment and community values are the top priority,” says Mayor Walker. 

She added: “Plan Change 6 – now approaching five years in effect – has certainly begun to accelerate that change as some businesses work through the reality of operating to new, stronger, environmental bottom lines.” Tukituki Plan Change 6 was adopted by Regional Council almost five years ago to sustainably manage and improve the catchment’s freshwater and improve its water quality. It affects irrigation management going forward. 

In order to meet rules implemented under Plan Change 6, the majority of landowners are required to complete nutrient budgets and farm environmental management plans. 

In a step toward further securing this precious water resource for CHB, Regional Council will roll out a Managed Aquifer Recharge Pilot in the second half of 2021. 

The idea is to use peak winter stream and river flows to supplement the region’s aquifer through natural filtration processes. 

While no ‘one shot’ solution will solve decades old water storage issues, CHB Council is open to the idea and embraces the science behind HBRC’s pilot scheme. 

“Storage is key to securing the future for water in our community and Central Hawke’s Bay District Council will continue to support initiatives that have water storage at their core,” Walker says. 

“For the community to have secure access to water over the growing seasons is vital. We have a naturally significant concentration across the Ruataniwha plains of highly fertile soils that could be a kaleidoscope of colour and crops. 

“We have a lot of the ingredients to make it happen – the climate, the soil, the creative and committed primary sector.” 

However, the importance of agriculture to CHB’s economy makes it particularly vulnerable to adverse growing conditions and conditions in export markets. 

Images of drought-stricken land, and pain on farmers’ faces, remain a poignant reminder of the impact nature can have on rural communities. 

Severe drought conditions last summer saw 187 farmers in Hawke’s Bay use feed transport relief, 143 request feed budgeting assistance and 333 small lifestyle blocks were “feed run” recipients. 

The prediction for 2021 is looking brighter, with more feed available and farmers better prepared, though another damaging dry spell can’t be ruled out. 

Council has come up with a rate postponement for farmers, as part of a wider plan to future-proof farms in the drought prone region. 

“The rural community at the moment is fairly buoyant. It has dried out but we had a good early part to the season – supplementary feed is everywhere if or when we need it,” Walker says.

“We have the right people in place, and a rate postponement policy to help those farmers who need it.”

Housing

A housing shortage is brewing in Central Hawke’s Bay – fuelled by rising sale prices, a lack of rental properties and scarce social housing.

Mayor Walker says the issue isn’t a new one, but is being exacerbated by a lack of suitable homes for families in need.

“We’ve had a minimal presence for social housing for many years – Kāinga Ora (Housing New Zealand) isn’t doing much.

“We’re trying to move the process forward. In the whole of Hawke’s Bay, we have 500 children living in motels – that’s terrible! On our own housing list, we have almost 50 families being housed somewhere, somehow, but that’s not a long-term solution.”

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) reported 42 applicants on the CHB housing register as of December 2019. There were 1030 applicants in the rest of Hawke’s Bay.

The Housing Register features applicants who have been through an assessment process, are deemed eligible, and who are waiting to be matched to a property. 

MSD reported only 34 social housing tenancies in the district in 2018. Prior to 2017, the number of applicants waiting for a house had not broken single digits since the series started in 2014. 

This sharp increase suggests recent house price growth has put pressure on social housing in CHB.

Part of the plan put forward by Council is looking at their own housing portfolio, to see what gaps can be filled. 

“First Council looked at the 48 retirement flats we own – what needs to be done to get them up to scratch, and what the future might look like to sell those on.

“We are not selling or leasing those at the moment, just working to get them up to speed.”

A growing population of commuters, making the trip to Napier and Hastings for work, means rental properties are also hard to come by. When a new route to Palmerston North opens up via State Highway 3, it will offer yet another option for people to commute.

“42% of residents did not live here five-years-ago, and 1,635 people currently work out of district,” Walker says.

Migration to the region is also pushing up house prices, with recent Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) figures showing the median price for CHB in January 2021 is $550,000. Up from $425,000, the same time last year.

Earthquake strengthening

The clock is ticking to complete repairs on buildings that require earthquake strengthening in CHB’s main townships.

Tight turnarounds pose a “big issue” for rural areas like Waipukurau and Waipawa with a number of masonry buildings lining their main retail strips.

The district falls within a high-risk seismic zone, meaning owners have 15 years to complete strengthening work; while un-reinforced masonry buildings classed as a ‘priority’ must be finished in 7.5 years.

“The ball started rolling on the downtown areas that we have to fix quickly, because they are earthquake prone – and the clock is now starting to tick,” Walker says.

“Council is being proactive in facilitating other conversations that might need to happen, such as shortages of builders in the region.”

Among buildings assessed as “earthquake prone” are the Waipukurau Memorial Hall and the Waipukurau Memorial Centennial Library.

Both buildings scored less than 20% of new building standards, despite earlier remedial work to bring them up to scratch.

The library temporarily closed its doors in May last year, and now remains closed for the foreseeable future.

The Memorial Hall stays open, with a number of restrictions in place, because it does not have structural vulnerabilities of the same nature or extent.

As part of Asset Management Plans for Council property assets, desktop seismic assessments of a number of key buildings have been completed to inform the 2021-2031 Long Term Plan, and in some cases are ongoing.

New era ahead?

It’s not all doom and gloom for the district, some promising statistics reflect a positive future for CHB’s burgeoning townships.

Population growth in Central Hawke’s Bay District has exceeded expectations in the past three years. By 2018, it had already surpassed Stats NZ’s high growth projection scenario of 14,500 people by the year 2023.

CHB’s economy is based around primary production, with the largest contributor being agriculture and associated food-processing facilities.

Although accounting for only 5% of Hawke’s Bay’s regional population, CHB punches above its weight, producing 20% of Napier Port’s exports.

Mayor Walker smiles at the thought of a shift away from Kiwi economist Shamubeel Eaqub’s “Zombie Towns” to a future that’s looking bright.

“If we are going to move forward, we need to invest – invest energy, invest in community. National policy has seen people move from Auckland into Hamilton and Tauranga, now it’s flowing into rural New Zealand,” she says.

“We will have 1,500 new houses in ten years, and 4,000 new people by 2031 – that means our population will be approaching 19,000 by then.”

Hurdles hindering further economic growth in the region are being addressed now, in order to pave the way for a positive future.

Council has also been successful in bringing more than $50m of external funding into the district, helping to roll out some of the ‘nice to have’ projects – cementing its proud and prosperous path forwards.

“I know the road ahead is challenging, but I also know that as we face these facts and respond to the challenges together, we will create and secure a thriving Central Hawke’s Bay for our future generations.”

Mayor Walker is the wind of change helping turn the tide on CHB’s most concerning issues … just in time. 

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