PM Bill English: Frustrated Kaikoura locals say town is 'the absolute pits'
Angry and isolated Kaikoura locals rounded on Prime Minister Bill English and his Earthquake Commission minister Gerry Brownlee during a flying visit on Thursday.
English, who is in Kaikoura on his first official visit as prime minister, landed in a Defence Force chopper on the lawn of Kekerengu cafe The Store, to be met with about 40 furious and frustrated locals.
Clarence farmer John Murray told English: "We had a meeting here three weeks ago and Gerry was here, and we left full of hope that something was going to happen … we have sat down there for three weeks and nothing has bloody well happened and it's shocking, it is the absolute pits."
He said progress on opening roads was too slow.
* Kaikoura earthquake: State Highway 1 repairs to cost up to $2 billion
* SH1 south of Kaikoura won't open this week, but it isn't far away
* Southern sections of earthquake-hit State Highway 1 'could reopen in weeks'
* Crews working to clear slips on SH1, restoring access for local residents
* Inland road to Kaikoura could open by the end of next week
"No-one has attacked this northern end, the road's been open from Blenheim, no-one's started tidying this road up at all, they've made patch up repairs all the way through and the roads from Ward and Waipapa bay should have been upgraded and ready to go, so we could just go into the next stage.
"Nothing has been done except patch up, and I reckon it's piss poor, and if that's what our government feels about us, and how they deal with emergencies, then I'm afraid you have lost a lot of votes, and a lot of confidence in this area."
He was also concerned local contractors aren't being used.
But Brownlee fired back: "I don't think I can give you an answer either, but what I can say is NZTA have not been sitting on their backside doing nothing and quite frankly I resent your comments deeply… the amount of work that's gone in to try and sort things out here is just extraordinary.
"I know you might be affected on your farm but we are trying to get a solution to this problem that does see us constantly coming back in what is very changing geology in years to come."
He added: "We're also competing with people who are telling us what we can't do all the time, and there is many of them and there is thousands more than those who are telling us to get on with the job, so from our perspective it's not easy.
"Sorry you're frustrated, but I'm p..... off that you took that attitude quite frankly, and I've just sworn on TV."
The argument continued when the man said: "That's fine Gerry, but I think you'll find everyone here, thinks like I think."
But Brownlee didn't want to let the criticism go answered: "How do you think I feel? Sitting here looking at this and nothing happening, course we're working hard to get it done."
Other locals were worried about expensive airfares and a lack of flights into the area, and access to schools for local kids.
English moved to take the heat out of the discussion.
"The question around this is getting the right amount of communication with you guys because you're on the road, you're going to be watching this every day, and I think it's quite important that you know what's going to happen.
"My understanding is that as we've got the funding that pushes the button for everybody, and so we need to make sure that you do know what is going to happen, and I imagine that's going to come along before too long."
But not all at the meeting felt so strongly. One woman interrupted Murray's tirade to question his assertion that "nothing's been done."
She said later that many of locals understood the challenges the Government faces in rebuilding critical infrastructure.
After the hour long stop off, English flew north to call on Peter Yealand's vineyards. He toured the winery and saw damage done to huge tanks, before flying back to Wellington.
RE-OPENING SH1 THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Re-opening State Highway 1 and funding the dredging of Kaikoura's harbour will "push the button" on the recovery of the quake-hit town, English told local businesses earlier on Thursday.
Bridges said he was confident limited access along the route would be restored in about 12 months.
English said the Government aimed to have the highway repaired swiftly.
"The $2-3 billion cost won't affect any other infrastructure. We want it to be absolutely clear we are re-opening that road as quickly as possible," he told a meeting of around 30 local business owners.
English said the Government was being careful about the timing – but it could be up and running within in a year.
But once projects - such as the road re-opening and a $5m grant to dredge the harbour - get into gear, it will allow the town to "swing into action."
However one farmer disagreed and said the town was being "strangled" because of slow progress on opening the road. He asked for an inquiry on how it was managed.
"I appreciate your point. It's certainly not lost on us," Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Gerry Brownlee said.
Another person was concerned it would take "eight weeks until we get one rock moved" on the northern part of the road.
Brownlee said the process was "quite technical…it's something I'd defend pretty strongly."
There was also concern officials were too cautious about allowing locals with 4wd vehicles access to the road.
"Let locals that know the area take the risk…This would allow people up in Clarence to be part of this community," one man said.
However Brownlee said: "I can only take that on board, I can't respond."
One luxury accommodation owner asked if the Government could work with Air New Zealand to allow the airport to handle larger aircraft.
"Those larger aircraft would be hugely helpful," he said.
Brownlee agreed a longer runway and an upgrade would be "ideal" and the Civil Aviation Authority had been working on it.
He said the quake presented an opportunity for locals to make improvements.
Earlier, English visited whale watch operations at South Bay Marina to hear about lethal underwater rock pinnacles that are preventing access to the slipway. He also had a briefing from district mayor Winston Gray and council officials on repairs to water and sewerage pipes.
English and Brownlee made the wet and blustery half-hour hop to Kaikoura from Wellington in a Defence Force chopper on Thursday morning.
Flying close to the coastline, English was able to get a good look at the rockfalls and slips that closed State Highway 1 following the magnitude 7.8 quake last month.
"God," he exclaimed, as the helicopter looped around one of the largest slips, with the door open.
Spotting cars on a road below, he said "Gerry, how are these locals travelling?"
He wanted to know how equipment would be brought in to clear the roads and how heavy rain might affect the safety of road workers.
"That's pretty amazing progress…in about eight days," Brownlee told him.
Spotting a pod of dolphins below, the pair also joked about the last PM – Brownlee said John Key was good at spotting Maui's dolphins: "He was a much smarter guy than me, hey, I don't know why we didn't make him director of recovery?" English said.
"This is pretty expensive whale-watching kit, Gerry," English said of the helicopter.
English also quizzed a New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) official on board the chopper about safety enhancements to the northern part of State Highway 1, which was less affected.
He was told they would begin work on that "almost straight away."
Work on the major slips would start as early as January 4, English was told.