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Worst Possible Site Chosen For Northland Prison

Worst Possible Site Chosen For New Northland Prison
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

The Government's decision to go ahead and build a new regional prison on what has to be the most unsuitable site in Northland, is precisely why government's ability to get it's hands on taxpayers money should be strictly limited.

The Environment Court's ruling in the government's favour has just been released, after what was a classic David and Goliath battle over the proposed site. The Government spent well over a million dollars on the case while opposition families could only muster a few thousand. Latest estimates for building the 350-bed prison now stand at over $100 million, up from the $40 million when the prison site was bought in 1999 - an outrageous waste of $60 million of taxpayer's money.

The process, which led to the choosing of a crazy site, was questionable right from the start. A site bought for a Northland prison by the Labour Government in the late 1980s and still owned by the government was never even considered. In a bizarre series of events, the final site chosen ranked 34th in terms of suitability. After it was announced to be the winner, the owners withdrew it from sale. In a move that smacked more of election year politics rather than good management, the National Government quickly paid an inflated price for the neighbouring dairy farm. That property was not subjected to the same level of scrutiny regarding its suitability for a prison, as all of the others.

When the new Labour-Alliance Government came to power, they had the chance to reject the site and choose something more suitable. In fact, it was brought to their attention that only a few kilometres away they already owned a prison site. Curiously, they chose to go ahead with Ngäwhä.

As we now know, the new Northland regional prison is going to be built on a property that floods and has geothermal fault lines running through it. It is in a geothermal valley, which records the highest rainfall in the country.

Scientists from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences have stated that it is difficult to imagine a site with so many disadvantages, which will be both difficult and costly to mitigate against. They believe there is a possibility that the site chosen for the prison could erupt and they have warned that hazardous gas emissions from the site could potentially be fatal.

The site is low lying, wet and swampy. There is the real possibility that there are underground lava caves. Because of the ground water problem more that 21,500 wick wells of up to 20 metres deep will need to be drilled for drainage purposes. Thousands of cubic metres of earth contaminated with mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, will need to be removed and then contained because of the possibility of leaching contaminants. Equally, large quantities of replacement fill will need to be transported onto the site and then compacted to create a building platform.

Treasury holds the view that the chosen site will cause an escalation of costs: "The site that has been chosen for the prison is particularly unsuitable, given the presence of a stream that runs through the facility, the lack of a flat building platform, and geothermal issues, to name a few specific problems. These issues significantly raise the cost of the prison".

The $60 million escalation in the cost of this prison is largely due to the difficulties of building such a large complex on land that has geothermal fault lines running through it and is flood-prone. Because of the extremely unsuitable nature of the site, the project will invariably be dogged by the sorts of delays and cost overruns that will be reminiscent of the building of the Clyde Dam.

The reality is that a geothermal site with hot springs and boiling mud is eminently suitable for tourism and power generation. Both of these already operate in the area. Outside of that valley are ample Northland sites, which have solid ground and would be perfectly suited for the building something as big as a prison.

The Government has consulted widely with Maori regarding the design of this new prison. As a result, as well as a football field and possibly some hot pools, it will have a marae. In spite of having maximum-security prisoners, locals are describing it as a 'rehabilitation centre', and some Maori elders have stated that it looks like it will be so nice that they know their grandchildren and great grandchildren will be happy there!

Yet common sense tells us that prisons must act as a deterrent to crime. A prison sentence must punish offenders for the offences they have committed against other New Zealanders. People who contemplate crime should be well aware that the consequences if they are caught will be unpleasant. Serving time in a $100 million plus prison that resembles a holiday camp hardly seems like the sort of deterrent that 92% of New Zealanders wanted when they asked this government to get tough on crime.


Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

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