22 Aug 2014

Cautious welcome for Dunedin plan

9:40 am on 22 August 2014

Dunedin leaders are cautiously welcoming Labour's election package for their city promising spending of at least $250 million.

Labour leader David Cunliffe has pledged to re-open the Hillside railway workshops, upgrade Dunedin Hospital and stop AgResearch cutting its Invermay centre.

When South Dunedin's Hillside engineering workshops were closed two years ago, ending 130 years of train-making, there was widespread mourning.

So David Cunliffe's promise yesterday to revive that tradition using part of a proposed $200 million regional development fund to re-open Hillside and restore it as KiwiRail's engineering hub in the South Island is just what many wanted to hear.

A view of the Hillside workshops.

The Hillside Workshops in South Dunedin. Photo: RNZ

"We are gonna reopen this and we are gonna rebuild it and we're gonna put millions of dollars in through our regional development fund, subject to the due diligence, and this will run," Mr Cunliffe said.

"This will recharge the apprenticeships and that engineering cluster that made South Dunedin great."

But is it not too late? KiwiRail has already leased part of the site to foundry business Bradken for five years.

Jim Kelly worked at Hillside engineering workshops for more than 30 years and ran the main union. He believes it could easily be done for a few million dollars.

"No, it's not too late. You've got a perfect position there, you've got buildings that are good. The only thing that is needed in there is machinery, because KiwiRail sold or gave away all of the equipment inside the shops."

Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie, who tried to stop Hillside's closure, says he is not sure how Labour proposes to make the workshops financially worthwhile, but it sounds promising.

"There's certainly a lot of economic opportunities in that announcement and if the business case stacks up and the Government does invest in those areas, I think the business community would certainly welcome it."

Dunedin's mayor Dave Cull cautiously agrees.

He is more excited about Mr Cunliffe's pledges to stop AgResearch shifting jobs from its Invermay centre, and start upgrading Dunedin's Hospital within three years at a cost of $250 million - something the National Government appears to be planning for but has not yet agreed to.

"This is very significant - it's well overdue. We're definitely one of the facilities in the country which is most in need of upgrading - I think that would be very welcome."

Dave Cull (left) and AgResearch acting chief executive Andrew McSweeney.

Dave Cull (left) and AgResearch acting chief executive Andrew McSweeney. Photo: RNZ

But the National Party is dismissing Labour's plan as pure election bribery.

Its candidate for the Dunedin South electorate, Hamish Walker, says official figures show the Government has created 23,000 jobs in Otago in the past five years, and the announcements would hurt - not help - the city.

"Dunedin currently has an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent under National, which is one of the lowest in the country. So this is clearly another election bribe from a desperate David Cunliffe."

The Southern District Health Board would not comment on the proposed $250 million hospital upgrade.

But KiwiRail did respond to Labour's pledge to reopen the Hillside Workshops, saying it closed them down because there was not enough work - but if that changed, or if new funding was put in, KiwiRail would look at the situation again.

Dunedin Hospital.

Labour has pledged to upgrade Dunedin Hospital. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer