23 Dec 2015

Government backs West Coast development

10:17 am on 23 December 2015

A road linking the West Coast and the Nelson-Tasman region could be on the cards after the government agreed to consider studying the viability of the route.

Negotiating Hawks Crag in the Buller Gorge might be a thing of the past if a new road to the West Coast is built.

Negotiating Hawks Crag in the Buller Gorge might be a thing of the past if a new road to the West Coast is built. Photo: RNZ/Tracy Neal

The 56km Wangapeka Road would cut through the country's second-largest national park, the Kahurangi National Park, and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce was working with the Buller District Council on the idea of studying the proposed route.

The council last week voted unanimously on a recommendation to ask the government for help with an investigation into the proposed road, which would run from Little Wanganui near Karamea, through the Wangapeka to the Motueka Valley, south of Nelson. The council also agreed that the project should be given a high priority in the coast's regional action plan.

The proposed Wangapeka Road would run from Little Wanganui, near Karamea, to the Motueka Valley

The proposed Wangapeka Road would run from Little Wanganui, near Karamea, to the Motueka Valley Photo: Google Maps

The government was happy to have a look at the proposed road as part of the new West Coast Regional Growth Study, Mr Joyce told RNZ.

"We are interested in all projects that help grow investment, jobs and incomes in the West Coast region," Mr Joyce said.

"Buller has had some tough challenges recently and the government is working with the district on a number of possibilities for new developments in the area. I have visited Buller twice this year and I'm in regular contact with Mayor Garry Howard, who has forwarded his proposal to me in regards to the road.

National MP, Steven Joyce.

National MP, Steven Joyce. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

"The West Coast has many natural assets and the West Coast regional growth study will help identify the key opportunities for diversification of the economy, investment and job growth," Mr Joyce said.

He wouldn't say whether money had been set aside for the investigation.

Better access to and from the West Coast was critical to future developments, Mr Howard said, and the council wanted to start with facts before there was wider debate about it.

Buller mayor Garry Howard

Buller mayor Garry Howard Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

A study would look at economic, environmental and social impacts of a new road, which could cost up to $2 million a kilometre to build, Mr Howard said.

The district was a serious casualty of the mining downturn and, by June next year, 600 jobs and $50m in annual wages would have been slashed from its economy in just two years, Mr Howard said.

The idea drew swift criticism from environmental groups, including Forest & Bird, with a spokesperson saying it was "nuts".

There were better options, said former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who co-wrote the report Jobs After Coal, which looked into viable economic alternatives for the Coast.

no caption

Photo: 123RF

Roads dispersed pests and weeds, and a better use of the money would be encouraging tourists to stay longer on the Coast, Ms Fitzsimons said.

"There are lots of beautiful places in New Zealand that you can zoom through in a motor car. The future of tourism is to try and slow people down," Ms Fitzsimons said, adding that the Coast could be gambling with its future with this project.

"The point is being made (that) this is only an investigation - but if it's not a good idea in the first place, then all the money spent could have been better spent on something else," Ms Fitzsimons said.

The "bucket of money" held by Mr Joyce was not unlimited and if the coast was allocated funds for the project, it might miss out on something else, she said.

Mr Howard stressed it was part of a long term vision, and he did not underestimate how much effort it would take to get it over the start line.