Wairoa Mayor Craig Little
Wairoa Mayor Craig Little

Top of mind for Mayor Craig Little when I interviewed him last week was getting people back in permanent housing, with hundreds of displaced whānau unable to live in their homes. “It’s so sad to see how these people are living and to see what they’ve lost.” Accomplishing this will cost an estimated $7 million.

And key to addressing the housing issue is figuring out future flood protection. 

The Government has earmarked $70 million for flood mitigation in Wairoa. But planning the fixes “involves a lot of very hard conversations” with affected property owners. Moreover, Little is not convinced that HB councils have all the expertise required to develop the best mitigation plans and believes the region should do more to tap outside private sector experts. “Need to have the science behind whatever you put up” to the community.

Wairoa benefits from having a veteran mayor, with Little first elected in 2010 and having served as mayor since 2013. He’s passionate about his community’s recovery being locally led. “We in Wairoa need to sort ourselves out from within,” giving the example of housing, where he’s cobbling together funds from the Red Cross and others to train young locals to do high standard home rebuilding. “We look at this as a work programme training our young people for the future.”

And indeed he sees ‘locally led’ as a necessity given the poor roading that isolates Wairoa from the rest of HB. “Our journey to Napier especially is not enjoyable,” he says. But the issue is more than roading.

He’d like to see Wairoa regarded as a major, significant “land and water mass” for Hawke’s Bay as opposed to a small, ignored population, which he translates into a getting a higher level of priority from the Regional Council. 

For its 2023/24 Annual Plan, adopted after the cyclone, WDC’s rate increase was 10.6%, with rates paying about 51% of the Council’s $36.3 million operating budget (with nearly $15 million devoted to transport). He anticipates rate increases in the double figures for WDC for the fiscal year ahead. “When things go wrong, you’ve gotta pay more.”

Although Wairoa’s full recovery clearly requires outside funding, Little seems more relaxed than our other mayors about his Council’s balance sheet, noting that Wairoa District Council (WDC) has stuck to spending on core essentials – “Wairoa doesn’t do a lot of fancy things!”. WDC appears to have considerable borrowing capacity on a debt-to-revenue basis. “We’re not too concerned there.” But adds, “It doesn’t take too many more hiccups to bring a council down.” 

He acknowledges that meeting wastewater clean-up requirements will definitely require outside funding help. “That’s the one that could kill us.” It’s a much bigger cost than Wairoa’s roughly 4,600 households (7,000 rating units) can carry.

Like our other mayors, he’s doubtful that funding will come from the Government, which means in any regional ‘3 Waters’ plan ultimately adopted for Hawke’s Bay, Wairoa’s help (like similar assistance for CHB) will need to come from Hastings and Napier residents through whatever regional water entity is created.

In my interviews with Mayors Wise and Hazlehurst, they acknowledged as much and said they were committed to such support. Mayor Little is hopeful. “They need to make sure their communities are strong on that!”

Like his mayoral colleagues, he views the present central-local government funding model as unsustainable, with the former “going up on a 45 degree angle while local government is level”.

Little is also eager to see Wairoa’s tourism attractions bounce back, particularly Lake Waikaremoana (“Our jewel in the crown”), the Mōrere Hot Springs and Mahia beaches. He acknowledges the stewardship of Ngāi Tūhoe over Lake Waikaremoana – “They give us the privilege” to enjoy, “it’s not a right, it’s got to be respected.”

Finally, he comes back to the ‘people’ issues stemming from the cyclone, noting in particular that ensuring proper elder care was a significant issue for his community. “We have a lot of people under stress.”

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