This electoral term marks the first time since 2005 that a Labour Government has held both Hamilton seats. What can Waikato business people expect? At the start of a new term and a new year, Hamilton East MP Jamie Strange and Hamilton West’s Gaurav Sharma talk to Waikato Business News.
The train link to Auckland is top of mind for Hamilton’s two Labour MPs, with a crucial report due this term into the viability of fast rail. The result of the Ministry of Transport detailed business case study is due in 18 months, and an initial business case study is also being conducted into rapid rail from Hamilton to Tauranga, says Hamilton East MP Jamie Strange.
Meanwhile, both Strange and newly elected Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma are touting the value of the delayed Te Huia rail service once it is running.
“Getting that train to Auckland is one of the biggest things on our radar. It’s a promise that we’ve made in the past, and we’re hoping to deliver on it soon,” Sharma says.
Strange says the key is productivity. “Being able to get on the train, open the laptop, work all the way up, work all the way back, there’s a cafe on board.”
But the game changer would be a rapid link, one which Strange says would effectively unite the cities’ labour markets.
“For some, it might sound like a pipe dream, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it in that category,” Strange says.
He sees potential for a public-private partnership, with the government partnering with iwi and business, and points to the possibilities around ACC, Super Fund and Kiwisaver as investment funds totalling $120 billion. “A lot of them invest in overseas infrastructure, so it’s encouraging to see ongoing discussions with the managers of those funds to see what their appetite is for investment in New Zealand.”
Such a link would be a multi billion dollar investment, with tilt trains potentially travelling the existing gauge track at 160 km/h, but a train on wider gauge track able to clock 250 km/hr.
The “gold plated” version would involve building new tracks, which for the Auckland section could utilise the existing rail corridor.
“I always say the problem in New Zealand has always been that short-sightedness,” Sharma says. “If we had invested $2 billion in the 1960s, we wouldn’t be putting in $30 million for an upgrade now. The problem is, every time the government looks at it, and it says, ‘Well, it’s a $10 billion investment that we don’t want to do now’, it just means that in 2040, we’ll still be having the same conversation, in 2080, we’ll still be having the same conversation.
“I think the thing we have to realise is, like any city, we are only going to get denser and grow more. It’s not that Hamilton’s population in the next 50 years is going to get less. So we need to be looking forward and thinking, how can we make it easier for our populations to connect with regions that matter to us?
“Having a business case to look at [a fast train]is important, because then we can say hand on heart that at least we’ve looked at it.”
Both Strange and Sharma say the Government is investing heavily in upgrading the rail infrastructure, to make up for historic lack of investment.
“Getting more trucks off the road, and more freight on rail is a priority of this Government,” Strange says.
On an expressway to Tauranga
Strange says as government MPs, they will lobby for all forms of transport in the region, and points out the Government Policy Statement on transport has a multi-modal approach.
Strange says an expressway to Tauranga is important to continue the region’s economic growth. “It links into the work that’s happening at Ruakura. It connects Hamilton at a high level with Auckland and Tauranga and that Golden Triangle.
“Our job as local MPs is to continue to raise the profile, and to articulate the economic benefits of the extension to Tauranga now, and also the Southern Links. Both of those are incredibly important, and they work together.”
But any decision will be for NZTA through the Land Transport Fund, he says, and it will be up to local authorities to form regional transport plans and submit them to the agency.
Sharma says public transport is the way of the future. “But you do need to have roads to go with that, you do need to have other modes that go along with it.”
He sees their role as bringing stakeholders together, which is likely to get a boost with a projected visit to the city in March from new Transport Minister Michael Wood.
On the Sleepyhead development
Strange is supporting the planned development of a Sleepyhead factory and medium density housing community in Ohinewai, just north of Huntly. He points out the government has fast tracked the RMA process for the factory, should it get past the hurdle of a district planning commissioners’ hearing, with a ruling imminent at time of writing.
“That will create job opportunities for people living in and around the Huntly area.”
He says the parent company, Comfort Group, is keen to find pragmatic solutions to any issues.
He also says he has heard there are around half a dozen other Auckland businesses who are considering doing something similar and watching the outcome closely.
Strange says the Hamilton to Auckland corridor plan points to Pokeno and Hamilton as the most obvious areas for development. However, he says the Sleepyhead proposal fits within the plan in terms of boosting river communities.
Sharma describes housing as probably their biggest area to address, as Hamilton’s population grows rapidly. The Waikato looks set to gain up to 600 public rental houses over the next four years, the bulk of them in Hamilton. In general, Strange acknowledges it is a challenge to keep up with housing demand, and both going up and going out are needed, with more intensification on the outskirts than in the past.
“There’s certainly enough land. We need to go up as well as out, and then when we do go out, there’s various options out there, and they’re all being explored.”
He says a piece of land on Hamilton’s outskirts rezoned from rural to residential can quadruple in value, meaning there’s enough money to build the infrastructure and deliver affordable housing.
“That’s the conversation I had with Minister Megan Woods just a couple of days ago. I said, you know, the land is there, if you work with councils around rezoning.”
This term, Sharma, a GP and Fulbright scholar with an MBA from George Washington University, is on the Health Select Committee.
That comes at a time when the health system faces an overhaul on the back of the Heather Simpson report, and Sharma says a lot of focus will be on primary care, which is where his background in general practice will help. “Because we’re very good at catching people at the bottom of the cliff. But can we stop them at the top?”
He stresses the importance of access to mental health resources, especially in primary care. He is hoping for the development of a full drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Hamilton. The announcement of a drug and alcohol court for the city could help boost the centre’s development.
The court includes a wraparound service and its introduction could see Waikato offenders, who currently have to go to Auckland for three months of treatment, taking them away from family and support, doing the full rehab in Hamilton instead.
Sharma says his role on the committee is around outreach, organising three to four visits a year to different parts of New Zealand.”The idea is to take the Minister, the Associate Minister, MPs involved in the health caucus to visit various cities and my aim is to visit non-mainstream providers, not just the DHB.”
Sharma is also enthusiastic about an Auckland pilot which has seen psychologists based at medical centres providing free appointments, and hopes to bring the concept to Waikato.
On city developments
Timing may be on the two MPs’ side this electoral term. Strange says the Ruakura inland port will be operational before the next election, with a goal of having a number of tenants in place and the roading infrastructure, assisted by $56 million in government funding, completed.
He expects to see more big retail companies setting up central dark stores to service online customers, with Ruakura in prime position to attract them. “The obvious place for it is right in the heart of the Golden Triangle.”
Meanwhile, the 1300-seat Regional Theatre is set for completion in election year. Strange says it will be the top theatre in Australasia. “Every time a theatre has been built in a CBD around the world, it’s transformed the CBD. It’s really given uplift.”
The theatre is set to play its part in an inner city revitalisation that also includes
Tristram Precinct, the ACC building and Union Square. Also in the mix in the northern end of the CBD is the Pacific Hub which, along with the theatre, received PGF funding from the Government last term.
“It’s exciting to see discussions go on between the Union Square developers and government agencies,” Strange says. “Hamilton is an attractive proposition for government agencies in terms of the cost of rent, in terms of things like resilience, in terms of proximity to Auckland.”
On Covid and the economy
This term, Strange is chairing the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to do it, it’s an area of particular interest for me,” he says. “I see the opportunities for our country on a global scale, huge opportunities for exports, to continue to grow our economy and to continue to diversify our economy and add value to products here in New Zealand. And from a Waikato point of view, we’ve got a number of companies who successfully export, and I think it’s important that the government continue to support those businesses.”
Strange acknowledges the difficulties faced by tourism and hospitality under Covid but says Waikato’s economy has proved more resilient in the face of the pandemic than many others around New Zealand, citing the agricultural sector, tech, manufacturing and the government sector.
Sharma says he saw positivity when he caught up recently with migrant business owners in Taupō, particularly in the hospitality and tourism sectors. He says they told them their summer had been as busy as ever, and their biggest problem was finding enough staff.
Meanwhile, the PGF is gone, and in its place is a regional development fund which is likely to involve regions presenting their plans for economic development as a region. That follows an election pledge of $200 million to support capability for economic development agencies around the country, Strange says.
On having Labour Government MPs
Strange says he and Sharma have a long standing friendship and points out their complementary skills, with his education background as a former teacher and Sharma’s health background as a GP.
Sharma says he is able to tap into the experience of both Strange and Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, who also has her electoral office in Hamilton.
“It’s great for Hamilton to have three government MPs representing Hamilton city,” Strange says.”We’re a strong team, we’re going to work together.”
On the next three years
Sharma notes that Hamilton is officially one of the two most beautiful cities in New Zealand, but says it needs to be also the most livable city. That will come down to better transport, both locally and to other cities, better housing and better health care access. “People living here should have access to the best of everything and at a price that is affordable.”
Strange says when it comes to the next three years, population growth is coming and economic development is continuing.
“A lot of people are coming to Hamilton, a lot of businesses are relocating here because they like the lifestyle. It’s important that we get ahead of the curve in terms of areas like transport, housing, general livability.
“There is a unique opportunity, though. As one party in government – and we are certainly humbled to receive that support – there is an opportunity for us as a party to bring about some positive change.”