Another probe ordered as ORC grapples with plan

David Parker. Photo: ODT files
David Parker. Photo: ODT files
The environment minister has ordered an investigation into the Otago Regional Council for the second time in under three years.

The order came after the council brought to David Parker’s attention a likely delay to its land and water plan, due at the end of next year.

The situation will be investigated by former chief freshwater commissioner Prof Peter Skelton, who is due to report back to Mr Parker by the end of the month.

An investigation by Prof Skelton in 2019 resulted in the council agreeing to a series of recommendations, including several milestones to make sure its planning framework was on track.

‘‘Prof Skelton will investigate how ORC is tracking,’’ Mr Parker said.

The main findings of the investigation would be made public.

He had no comment on any possible repercussions for the council.

The council’s land and water regional plan is supposed to be notified before the end of next year, but a preceding planning document, the proposed regional policy statement, became tied up in High Court proceedings between the council and Forest & Bird.

When councillors approved an update to Mr Parker in March they also called on council chairman Andrew Noone to ask him to consider discussing a longer timeframe for the land and water plan.

Mr Parker said although the council had asked to discuss the possibility of an extension, ‘‘at this time they’ve yet to formally request an extension of time’’.

‘‘It is important that ORC has a suitable freshwater planning regime in place,’’ he said.

‘‘I have again asked Prof Peter Skelton to investigate whether ORC is adequately carrying out its functions under section 30(1) of the Resource Management Act 1991 in relation to freshwater management and allocation of resources.’’

Councillors yesterday expressed a range of views on the new investigation.

Cr Gretchen Robertson said council staff had given no indication the minister’s deadlines could not be met, but asking for a delay had ‘‘rung bells’’ with Mr Parker.

The council had not only promised the minister it would deliver freshwater plans by key dates, but had also promised the community ‘‘and rated them accordingly’’, she said.

Mr Parker would want reassurance there were valid reasons for an extended deadline, Cr Alexa Forbes said.

Cr Forbes did not believe the council needed nor should be granted one.

Cr Bryan Scott was concerned about the council’s ability to deliver on its freshwater obligations.

‘‘I fear that unless Minister Parker takes some positive action that our environment and communities will be the loser.’’

Cr Michael Deaker said the second investigation was really just a progress check, but the cost of keeping up with Mr Parker’s recommendations had been ‘‘mighty expensive’’.

‘‘Well-informed ratepayers will see it as a reasonable thing for the minister to do.’’

The council’s deadlines had put pressure on staff and consultation with the community, Cr Kevin Malcolm said.

‘‘Prof Skelton is the absolute expert, so what a sound initiative by the minister to get him down to see how we are progressing and give us advice,’’ he said.

The investigation was welcome and timely, Cr Hilary Calvert said.

Cr Carmen Hope was ‘‘delighted’’ Prof Skelton would meet the council on May 18.

He might have new ideas on how the council carried out its functions, she said.

Mr Noone said the council needed more time to consult and ‘‘to complete some of the incomplete science’’.

The High Court decision on the regional policy statement would not be available until June.

‘‘Prof Skelton will be across this and hearing his view directly will be invaluable for ORC,’’ Mr Noone said.

Council chief executive Sarah Gardner did not respond to Otago Daily Times questions yesterday.

A council spokesman said Mrs Gardner and Mr Noone agreed it was appropriate for the chairman to respond in this instance.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

 

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