Jacinda Ardern visits the Civil Defence base in Richmond at the height of the Tasman fires. Photo: Evan Barnes.

$500,000 fire fund ‘fizzles’ out

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A Government programme announced in February to use jobless people to help clean up after the Nelson and Tasman fires has been labelled a “farce and a fizzer” by Nelson MP Nick Smith.

The $500,000 grant and programme was designed to provide 10,000 hours of support for fire clean-up work in the wake of the Tasman fires.

The programme was approved by cabinet on February 18 and announced by Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni.

Nick says it was championed as generous Government assistance for the fires by the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Internal Affairs, Civil Defence and Primary Industries.

“It turns out that not one dollar was spent and not one hour of work was done.”

The scheme was quietly shut down on 7 May.

“This fire fund for Nelson and Tasman has been a complete fizzer. It was designed to make the Government look good but was impractical and unworkable. It is like so many programmes of the Government, whether it be Kiwibuild or Zero Student Fees, where much was promised but little delivered.

Nick says that the Government was told in February that the fund was not likely needed.

Nelson has only 4 percent unemployment and autumn was the peak of the apple and kiwifruit harvest so there would be very few appropriately-skilled people on benefits to rebuild driveways and fences and to restore pasture and landscaping.

“It was foolish of the Government to continue with the scheme when property owners, council and myself told them it would not work.”

Nick says the Government would have been better to commit this $500,000 directly into fixing the damage Fire and Emergency NZ did to create firebreaks to contain the fire.

“This work was absolutely required but it has been unfair on property owners leaving them at the mercy of the Mayoral Relief Fund and private donations for these repairs.

“The Government has dismissed calls to fund these property repairs, required by the damage caused by the fire breaks, on the basis of this $500,000 Taskforce Green Scheme being available. They need to reconsider now it has been withdrawn.

Nick says Fire and Emergency NZ and the Nelson Tasman Civil Defence team did a good job of managing the extraordinary emergency and says he acknowledges the Government contributions to the Mayoral Relief Fund.

“However, this $500,000 grant and scheme for Taskforce Green was an unhelpful distraction and an impractical response to the fire emergency. The Government needs to listen better in major emergencies to the views from locals about what will and will not work.”

The Ministry of Social Development’s regional commissioner Craig Churchill said in response that given the “devastating effect” of the fires, it was important to activate Enhanced Taskforce Green to enable recovery work to start swiftly.

He said the ministry worked closely with the cross-agency group responsible for dealing with the fires so that we could be as responsive as possible.

“However, because the fires continued to burn underground long after they were put out above, it took some time to be able to determine what sort of recovery work was going to be needed. Once it was safe to make an assessment, it became clear that Enhanced Taskforce Green funding wouldn’t cover the sort of remedial work needed.”

Craig said a major component of the recovery work was rehabilitating land that had been turned into firebreaks, work requiring people experienced in driving heavy machinery and erecting fences and that these types of roles require specialist skills.

“The other major area of work was in replanting trees for commercial forestry, something that’s not covered by Enhanced Taskforce Green. Enhanced Taskforce Green funding does remain available as an option for the Tasman District Council.”