Once labelled a ‘zombie town’, Whanganui has reinvented itself as a city alive with art, commerce and people. But current housing stock can’t keep up with the burgeoning city – an issue already creating fresh perils for Whanganui District Council.
In 2014, economist Shamubeel Eaqub implied Whanganui was a “zombie town”, in need of reinventing itself if it was to maintain economic relevance. The now infamous description of declining regional economies fired up residents. Fast-forward to 2022, Whanganui’s mayor is proud of what he sees: a thriving place to live, full of opportunity – except it’s struggling to house everyone. Whanganui District Council (WDC) is overseeing revitalisation, but is the city at risk of becoming lifeless again?
Why is Whanganui the best place in the world?
The river city punches above its weight. Known for its historical and contemporary art scene, and a flourishing glassworks industry, Whanganui is New Zealand’s sole Unesco “city of design”. The Whanganui river is also a “legal person”, the second natural feature in Aotearoa (after Te Urewera) to receive the same rights and liabilities that companies and trusts possess. Cooks Gardens is where Sir Peter Snell broke the world record for the four-minute mile in 1962. And then there’s the elevator and playground.
What is the contest?
Covering an area of nearly 2,400 square kilometres, the Whanganui district is bounded by the districts of Ruapehu to the north, Rangitikei to the east and Taranaki to the west, with the Tasman Sea to its south. Flowing through is the 290km Te Awa Tupua o Whanganui, a taonga to local hapū and iwi and the country’s third-longest river. The majority of the district’s 48,400 people live in Whanganui, but Kai Iwi, Fordell, Upokongaro and other smaller settlements reflect the district’s ruralness.
Some 27 people are standing for 12 spots on the district council, while three are contesting the mayoralty, including incumbent Hamish McDouall. Three rural community boards exist, although no elections will occur this year because the same number of candidates are contesting the same number of seats. Overlapping the district council is Horizons Regional Council, for which two Whanganui seats are up for grabs. Stalwart local representative Alan Taylor, first elected in 2005, has stepped down from his district council seat to contest Horizons.
Who is in the race?
Two-thirds of the current council are seeking re-election, including former Olympic rower and sports hall of fame inductee Philippa Baker-Hogan, first elected in 2006. The trained radiographer says “experience, discipline and common sense” will be critical as the council rebuilds in a post-Covid world.
Michael Law – not former “Wanganui” mayor Michael Laws, who stridently opposed the inclusion of the letter H in the city’s name – is running for the first time. The independent candidate with 16 years of working in business development is prioritising fixing the city’s housing crisis “and then sending the invoice to the central government” and championing greater transparency on funding.
First-time candidate Dan Jackson says he’d rather do things right the first time. Jackson’s whānau has been in Whanganui since at least the 1850s; it’s the former journalist and scrap metal recycler’s home. Improving the district’s recycling and waste system is one of his priorities, as is supporting local manufacturing. “I can cut things up, weld them back together and write about doing it.”
McDouall, first elected mayor in 2016 and re-elected unopposed in 2019, is eyeing up one last term. “I want to finish what I started,” he says, pitching himself as the most experienced, capable and best-qualified candidate to see through the port’s revitalisation as a modern marine precinct and employer. Already, nearly 100 people have found jobs within the port upgrade, primarily in building infrastructure and facilities.
McDouall’s competition is management consultant and former ice-cream scooper Andrew Tripe, who is leaning on his experience working at IT multinational IBM in the UK, and leading cultural change at National Australia Bank, as evidence of his team-building skills. Tripe has already prioritised iwi engagement to match up strategies for economic growth. Former Whanganui UCOL music lecturer Daniel “DC” Harding is standing for mayor and the council. He describes his mission of placing the voice of Whanganui at the council table as an “easy one to meet … If I’ve achieved that, then I’ve done my job.”
What is at stake?
With a leaner executive team gearing up for the next three years, WDC has already recognised its housing shortage needs urgent and longer-term action. By 2031, an estimated 51,200 people will call Whanganui home – a nearly 6% rise from the district’s current population. By mid-century, an additional 4,300 people will live in the district.
In 2019, the council chose to focus on homelessness, falling rates of homeownership and rising rents. According to its pre-election report, the council has so far rezoned land in Springvale and Castlecliff, opened up underused land for development, promoted infill housing, supported the conversion of town centre buildings into residential properties, and worked with social services to explore social housing and homelessness solutions. Whanganui voters recently expressed concern for the city’s homeless, with one wanting investment directed at a safe place that could meet people’s basic needs.
All three mayoral candidates have prioritised housing. Tripe would like to see new partnerships with iwi and community housing providers build up to 75 affordable houses by 2025, at no cost to ratepayers. Harding wants community wellbeing to sit at the heart of housing solutions. McDouall wants to increase the council’s pensioner housing stock.
While WDC isn’t one of the 34 councils introducing Māori wards in October, mayoral candidates have publicly deferred to tangata whenua on the initiative’s future. McDouall has said it would be “entirely dependent” on Māori whether they wanted a Māori ward. Regardless, “we need the Māori worldview at the decision-making table.” Tripe echoed the current mayor’s comments, saying iwi wanted to be consulted right from the start of any process. Harding was adamant Māori views should be present, saying: “Only Māori should vote on what Māori need.”
Iwi-council relations have deepened since 2017, when the Whanganui river was granted legal personhood as part of Te Awa Tupua treaty settlement act between Whanganui iwi and the Crown. The recognition of iwi and the awa as an “indivisible and living whole” – best embodied in the whakatauki “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” (“I am the river and the river is me”) – has meant practically that local, regional and central government bodies, iwi and individuals and organisations are responsible for upholding the river’s interests, including maintaining its health and wellbeing. WDC, in its pre-election report, says it will continue to strengthen and develop strategic relationships with tangata whenua, develop culturally competent staff through an internal work programme, and better understand Te Awa Tupua legislation.
The race in a sentence?
Zombie town no more, Whanganui is thriving – but that vitality is throwing up a slew of problems that could drain the district of its life force.
The brass tacks
The Whanganui election is voted under the first past the post vote system. Voting papers should be with you by now. If not, you can cast a special vote. The last day to enrol (for a special vote) is October 7. Your vote needs to be received by midday on Saturday, October 8. Read more race briefings and other Spinoff coverage of the local elections here.