Minister ‘out of her depth’ on water issues

Penny Simmonds. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Penny Simmonds. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Dunedin Labour MPs have blasted Environment Minister Penny Simmonds for being "way out of her depth" on Otago’s freshwater issues.

Both Taieri MP Ingrid Leary and Dunedin MP and Labour’s environment spokeswoman Rachel Brooking took aim at the rookie environment minister whose recommendation for the Otago Regional Council to delay notification of its land and water plan has to date been ignored.

Regardless, Ms Simmonds yesterday doubled down and said the council would hear from her again soon.

The council has been at odds with the government since late last year when Resource Management Act (RMA) Reform Minister Chris Bishop told the council its June 30 deadline to notify its land and water plan had been pushed back to December 2027.

The council issued a statement the following day saying, no, it had not.

The council’s need to meet a deadline set by the former environment minister, Labour’s David Parker, had not been removed, it said.

Despite a meeting in Wellington last month between Ms Simmonds, Mr Bishop, Agriculture Minister Todd McClay and senior council leadership — where ministers urged the council to delay their plan until a new national policy statement for freshwater was in place — councillors, days later, voted 8-4 against a delay.

Ms Simmonds then told the Otago Daily Times she was weighing up whether to use her ministerial powers to address the matter.

Ms Leary said a fit-for-purpose water plan had been an issue for Otago since 1991.

"There is no excuse to drag it out further at the cost of our environment", she said.

She said Ms Simmonds was "way out of her depth on freshwater" and should let the council get on with what they were doing.

"It appears the National government is all about localism when it comes to water infrastructure and is happy leaving ratepayers to foot the bill when it suits them, but is quite prepared to run roughshod over the democratic process and local voices when it doesn’t", she said.

Ms Brooking said the Labour government had sought to address Otago’s overdue replacement of historic mining permits that granted holders "unusually large water allocations, including for irrigation and dairying".

"We want future generations to continue to be able to fish and swim in the Manuherikia River and I’m surprised a Minister for the Environment wouldn’t share that ambition", she said.

"We don’t have a view as to what the minimum flow for the Manuherikia should be, but it is absolutely clear it should have one."

The environment minister should let the elected councillors do their job "rather than tell them not to", Ms Brooking said.

Ms Simmonds said yesterday it was important that regional and unitary councils did not waste time and resources by pushing forward with freshwater plans when the government had made it "very clear" it would be reworking the national policy statement for freshwater management within the next 18 months.