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by Chris Tobin

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern brought some good news for Timaru and answered several pressing questions about the Provincial Growth Fund and the need for skilled overseas workers during a visit to Timaru on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister announced $11.6million from the Government’s Infrastructure Fund would go towards a major upgrade of Timaru’s Theatre Royal and the construction of a new connected Heritage Facility museum and exhibition space.

The total cost of the project was expected to be $12million.

The Timaru District Council applied for the funding as part of the Government’s shovel-ready funding scheme.

No decision has yet been made on two other projects Timaru applied for – the $21 million replacement of the Pareora pipeline and the $23million Downlands water supply project.

Timaru Mayor Nigel Bowen welcomed the announcement.

“It [the project] is very important culturally, socially and economically,” Mr Bowen said.

Mackenzie Mayor Graham Smith asked the Prime Minister why so much money from the Provincial Growth Fund was going to Northland.

“It’s extremely frustrating with the number of applications being turned down [in Canterbury] when there’s a really good chance for Canterbury to lead the recovery,” Mr Smith said.

Ms Ardern said the fund was designed to focus on areas with high levels of unemployment and deprivation, in Northland, the East Coast, Bay of Plenty and parts of Taranaki.

“In terms of the future, there will be an announcement soon regarding regional economic development and the role of ongoing investment in regional economies.”

Temuka farmer Murray Turley said he needed to employ 15 to 20 highly skilled harvesting operators from overseas and asked the Prime Minister what was being done.

“At present, there’s no pathway to recruit overseas,” Mr Turley said.

The timeliness of the operation was critical, he said.

Signed…Jacinda Ardern hands over a signed copy of a book about her to a young admirer. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

Ms Ardern said while the emphasis was on returning New Zealanders entering the country, the Government wanted to incrementally provide extra capacity for skilled workers and had already established a pathway for skilled workers trying to return.

The Government was going through other sectors also, to assess where the need was critical and exemptions might be needed, she said.

“We’ll have to assess what is critical and the first thing is to source locally.”

She said the Government should have the answer shortly.

South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce deputy chief executive Fiona Stevens expressed concern about the Government’s proposal to reduce the number of district health boards around the country from 20 to between eight and 12 in the next five years, and its impact in Timaru and South Canterbury, where the local DHB was performing well.

Ms Ardern said there was a lot of room for improvement for the health system around the country.

A review [led by health economist and former Helen Clark confidant Heather Simpson] was a starting point, she said, and it was a matter of finding how it could be improved.

However, nothing had been determined at this stage.

“We’ve said before, there’s a need to consolidate.”

Ms Ardern’s visit was the first she has made to Timaru as prime minister.