12 Feb 2017

Minister wants over-budget Southland cycle trail completed

8:43 am on 12 February 2017

The government put $4.5 million towards a Southland council's now over-budget and unfinished cycle trail on the condition it would be completed, the Minister of Tourism says.

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So far the council has spent $9.8m on the trail, which includes legal costs for an Environment Court case. Photo: Supplied

Southland District Council's management of the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail has come under fire, and angry ratepayers are now calling on the council to stop spending money on the 70 percent-completed trail.

The 180km upper Southland trail is designed in a loop from Kingston down to Mossburn and up to Walter Peak, however a section between Centre Hill and Mavora has not been finished.

An initial engineer's report in 2009 put the estimated cost of the trail at $11m-$13m, but the council signed off on a total budget of $8m in 2013.

So far the council has spent $9.8m on the trail, which includes legal costs for an Environment Court case against Fish and Game over part of the trail route on the upper Oreti River.

At a council meeting earlier this month, ratepayer protesters

told the council to stop "bleeding money" on the project.

Mayor Gary Tong told RNZ at the meeting, the council would soon make a decision on whether to spend more money to finish the trail, or leave it in its current state.

Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett said it was too early to comment on the government's response if the council did not finish the trail. Photo: RNZ /Claire Eastham-Farrelly

However, Tourism Minister Paula Bennett said this week, the terms of a 2013 funding agreement between the council and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) still stood.

MBIE agreed to part-fund stage one of the trail and in return the council passed a binding resolution to complete the entire trail.

"Southland District Council committed to completing the trail as part of its funding agreement with MBIE. We expect the terms of this agreement to be met," Mrs Bennett said.

The Minister said it was too soon to comment on what the government's response would be if the council did not finish the trail.

"There is no point speculating about what the council's future actions might be - there are many possible outcomes.

"Likewise the ministry's response will depend entirely on what decisions are made by the council," Mrs Bennett said.

Southland National MP Todd Barclay said growing numbers of his constituents had told him they were angry at the cost blow-out, particularly in the wake of a damning report by Deloitte which said project had been "poorly" mismanaged].

"There is a growing concern from the ratepayers over whether or not the council has the capacity to be able to deliver on the cycle trail," he said.

"The growing frustration from people is that they just want to see the thing finished and see visitors start to use it."

Some people had expressed anger at ratepayer money being used to fund the court case against Fish and Game, he said.

Mr Barclay said he wanted the council to make a decision on the trail quickly and market it positively because it was an asset to the Southland district, and to New Zealand cycle tourism.

"It was one of the first trails to attract government funding and at this point it's one of the last to probably be complete."

The council's chief executive, Steve Ruru, said councillors would be made aware of the provisions of the 2013 agreement, as well as the community's views, when it came time to consider whether to finish the trail.

The council had recently bought a 1km stretch of land near Parawa to realign a section of the trail, after angry farmers locked gates and wouldn't let cyclists cross their land.

Mr Ruru was unsure of how much had been spent to purchase the land.

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