From potholed roads to rotting houses, Northland’s infrastructure is crumbling while its population grows, reports Dileepa Fonseka from the election campaign trail

Kawakawa Tyres’ Wiorana Paewhenua says Northland’s roads don’t have potholes.

“They’re not potholes they’re hangi holes. Any bigger you’d be able to fit your whole vehicle in them.”

People bring their tyres in week after week to be patched up as stones puncture or cut through tyre walls on the unsealed roads that make up over half of the region’s roading network. 

Further along State Highway 1(SH1) Hirau Karaka of Healthy Homes Te Tai Tokerau in Moerewa is patching up rotting houses tradespeople won’t work on.

“They just walk out saying ‘I’m not touching that’. They raise health issues. The smell.”

Homeowners in the wider township are just thankful a downpour hasn’t caused another surge of water to move down their street (which has no stormwater system) flooding septic tanks and spreading sewage water through the town as happened during floods earlier this year.

They aren’t as badly placed as the people moving back into the region thanks to border closures and an economic downturn. Some of them are sleeping in campervans, cabins, sleepouts and even tents thanks to a shortage of housing.

Big promises

Parties of all stripes are lining up to make big infrastructure promises in a bid to control the Northland electorate seat – which may decide whether NZ First returns to Parliament or not. 

They include a four lane highway connecting Whangarei to Auckland (Labour) or from Ruakaka with a tunnel through the Brynderwyn hills south of Whangarei (National). NZ First has championed a major shift of the port from Auckland north and a heavy investment in rail.

Labour’s Northland candidate Willow-Jean Prime says Northlanders in places like her hometown of Moerewa are resilient, but that isn’t always a good thing.

“They don’t complain here, because they’re used to nobody doing anything anyway.

“So they get described as being resilient because they will just tough it out.

“The community will come together and they’ll support one another with a temporary solution.”

Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime says Northlanders have grown used to not complaining. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Infrastructure issues and service delivery issues in the electorate are being more regularly discussed thanks in part to an influx of Aucklanders-turned-Northlanders moving into the Mangawhai township to retire or commute.

They’re raising issues about an intermittent quality of rural service that they’re not used to, but others have experienced for years.

Rotting houses

Northland’s current electorate MP Matt King largely blames the Resource Management Act for housing supply issues in the region.

The electorate played a part in that. A by-election there in 2015 altered the balance of power against the then-National government nixing their attempts to throw out the legislation. 

Prime draws on her time on council to highlight infrastructure and rating issues. Councils haven’t paid for – or can’t afford – the infrastructure needed to supply the homes needed.

“[One woman had spent] ten years with no hot water. And this was an 80-year old. Amazing. So all the people up here just make do with what they’ve got.”

Population forecasts councils relied on to build for growth predicted the region would lose people. Instead, when the census came in it showed Northland had experienced the second-highest level of growth in the country.

Prime favours finding ways to put smaller cabins on the large sections common in the electorate in a way that would bypass the need for a consent altogether. 

Karaka is exploring similar options. On a whiteboard in the Healthy Homes Te Tai Tokerau offices in Moerewa he draws pictures of cabins facing one another with a canvas strung between them. Tiny homes which don’t need a consent, but still have a common living area for large families. 

A lot of people around places like Moerewa own their homes.

Like Prime’s parents they were able to capitalise their family benefit to put down a deposit. They’ve passed these homes down the generations, but haven’t been able to afford the upkeep. 

Some of them sell, but outside investors often snap them up when they do. Karaka’s preference is for families to hold onto them and for the organisation to fix the 40-50 year old homes.

The roofs often needed replacing and some have rotting floors, but once the issues are fixed with new materials they can last and the new materials carry a warranty.

“Our people have, you know, they’ve run out of hot water or their hot water cylinder has packed up and they’ve just had to make do. They can’t afford to get a plumber in. 

“[One woman had spent] ten years with no hot water. And this was an 80-year old. Amazing. So all the people up here just make do with what they’ve got.

“Leaking roofs – just putting a canvas or something underneath to catch the water to run it outside. Amazing. We don’t know how lucky we are.”

The Roads

Northland’s current electorate MP is National’s Matt King. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

On the issue of roads, National’s Matt King also heaps a fair bit of blame on Labour. Labour’s reset of transport priorities pushed many State Highway projects into the background – including the four-lane highway between Whangarei and Auckland. 

Labour eventually reversed course and decided to fully fund it off the Crown balance sheet through the NZ Upgrade Programme, rather than the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) which such projects are normally funded through. 

In doing so Labour muted a key attack line from National. It could now legitimately say it set aside funds for these projects while National hadn’t (as explained in this Newsroom piece).

King also says Northland isn’t big enough to rely on rail. Logging volumes are not large enough. Northland exports a lot of logs. To transport them it has to use trucks in the first instance.

Shifting between modes (from truck to rail) can add thirty percent to shipping costs according to one study – so most producers would simply keep them on trucks even if more rail  was built in Northland.

“Every time they have to replace a tyre because of the gravel roads that they drive on that’s extra economy out of their already-stretched budget, because they’re on $24,000 – if you’re lucky – per person, per year.”

“These guys spent the last three years bagging us. ‘Tarmacking to extinction’ are the words Shane Jones used and ‘that’s a pipe dream’…now all of a sudden ‘oh, we like it!’.”

Jones doesn’t accept these arguments. Build it and businesses will increase the amount they produce – and use the roads, he says. 

He advocated for a four-lane highway when he ran for the Whangarei seat in 2017 and blames the Greens for the delay in getting it underway.

“The Green Party are antagonistic towards pouring dough into four-laning. They think it’s an awful return on investment. They think it encourages excessive car use. 

“And what they think was what I disagreed with. However, we were a party in transport policy that had to contend with both Labour and Greens. Their priorities changed drastically earlier this year.”

“I don’t want to exaggerate my influence, but I certainly agitated and advocated with Labour. We had to recalibrate our roading expenditure.”

Prime says although roads seems to have shifted off the campaign trail as the biggest issue (that’s now housing – she believes) it’s still a top priority and big cost for many.

What people are most concerned about are not just the large four-lane highway projects, but the quality of the region’s roads and the maintenance of them – which affects the poor disproportionately.

“If you just drive south a bit on State Highway 1 you will feel it all the way to Whangarei affecting your shocks, affecting your tyres.

“Why do we have to constantly have the metal roads that cost people in repairs that nobody in Auckland would have a clue?

“Every time they have to replace a tyre because of the gravel roads that they drive on that’s extra economy out of their already-stretched budget, because they’re on $24,000 – if you’re lucky – per person, per year.”

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