Unexpectedly, the Otago Regional Council yesterday cleared
the way to consider contributing capital of up to $3.5
million - and potential charges over five years totalling
about $2 million - to a large Tarras irrigation scheme.
After about 90 minutes debate, it overturned the
recommendation of its hearings panel and agreed its long-term
plan could be amended to allow for this council
The arguments for regional council support are significant,
and the proposal gained traction before being rejected by the
hearings panel. Irrigation is vital to production in Otago
and essential for wider wellbeing and the income of this
country. The Lindis River would benefit from reduced
pressure, and farmers would have secured water for when the
Lindis scheme expires in eight years. Regional council
support seemed vital for the proposed scheme's viability, and
such investment seems closer to the land and council core
business than funding, for example, for Forsyth Barr Stadium.
But what really swung the day appears to have been an
emotional plea from some Tarras farmers that the regional
council backing was essential and that without the scheme the
region would die. There was also one view that the council
had already committed itself to backing the scheme morally,
if not in fact, and scheme proposals had been developed on
The case against a council contribution, however, is strong.
Crucial is potential conflict of interest. The fundamental
regional council role is its oversight of the environment:
the land, the water and the air. It grants consents and water
use and water pollution are two of its most challenging and
contentious areas. Irrigation is at the heart of this,
affecting river health and beauty, fishing and other
recreation. Yet, the regional council, the regulator, would
also be a major investor in an irrigation scheme. Even if
councillors and council staff could completely divorce
council financial interest in the scheme from regulatory
decisions, and even if the integrity of those on hearings
panel is impeccable, the perception of conflict remains.
Public confidence in the council would be dented.
While the council has a fine record of avoiding conflict
between its 100% interest in Port Otago Ltd and harbour
environmental regulation, this investment was inherited,
rather than made, and the port has operated as an altogether
separate business. It should not provide a reason to extend
council investments into sensitive areas.
There is also the matter of a public body investing in
private enterprise, of the regional council using public
money for private gain, which distinguishes it further from
the port company holding. Sometimes, positive private
spin-offs will arise from council environmental work, notably
in flood protection. But there is, surely, a difference
between protecting land from deluge and damage and promoting
productivity through irrigation. Such projects often run over
budget, and their outcome is never predictable, putting any
council investment at risk.
The idea that farmers would, as time went on, take up the
regional council's portion is also inherently a gamble. The
council proposal to ''invest'' at Tarras could have been
immediately stymied because of changes to the Local
Government Act, as the Government endeavoured to restrict the
scope of local authorities. A council legal opinion, however,
says the investment was still within the purpose of the Act
because it supported good quality infrastructure.
The council yesterday - despite the conflict of interest, the
promotion of private interests and the financial risks - left
the door open to part-fund the 6000ha scheme by amending its
long-term plan. It can now go ahead and consider whether to
''invest'' in the Tarras Water scheme. That door should have
been closed, and the regional council should stick, wherever
possible, to its core regulatory and strategic roles.
And another thing
Apparently, according to chairman Lyndon Weggery, the Dunedin
Ratepayers and Householders' Association, which has but a
handful of members, represents all city ratepayers, unless
individuals write to the association to opt out. Really?