Ministers tell ORC to stop work on plan

"We gave a very clear message that there would be changes and that it would be unwise to spend...
"We gave a very clear message that there would be changes and that it would be unwise to spend ratepayers money on a plan that may change substantially within the next 18 months" — Environment Minister Penny Simmonds. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARTDSON
The Otago Regional Council could be on a collision course with the government, which has warned it against ploughing ahead with a controversial water plan.

Yesterday, councillors called for the issue to be discussed at a meeting next week after chairwoman Cr Gretchen Robertson indicated a decision on the direction of the plan would be made next month or April.

On Monday, Cr Robertson, deputy chairman Cr Lloyd McCall and senior council staff met Resource Management Act Reform Minister Chris Bishop, Environment Minister Penny Simmonds and Agriculture Minister Todd McClay to discuss how the new government’s plan to update national freshwater management policies would affect the council’s under-development land and water plan.

The council’s plan, five years in the making, remains on track to be notified at the end of June and about 55 stakeholders are expected to provide high-level feedback on a draft by tomorrow.

When Mr Bishop informed the council in December their June deadline had changed, the council issued a statement the following day saying, no, it had not.

Mr Bishop said at this week’s meeting the three ministers reiterated the government position regarding "replacing and rebalancing" the national policy statement for freshwater management (NPS-FM) and the government position that all regional councils’ freshwater plans had a new deadline of December 31, 2027.

"That applies to Otago Regional Council as it does to other regional councils.

"This means that they can focus on the process of helping develop the replacement NPS-FM rather than implementing the current one that will soon no longer exist," Mr Bishop said.

"We gave a very clear message that there would be changes and that it would be unwise to spend ratepayers money on a plan that may change substantially within the next 18 months," Ms Simmonds said.

After the meeting, initially, Cr Robertson said the council would "need time" to consider the information received along with the present plan process and a decision would be made late next month or early April.

Yesterday, after a council spokesman confirmed councillors had called for a discussion to happen earlier, she said councillors would receive a "short paper" that noted ministerial advice to enable a transparent discussion.

A further workshop for councillors might be needed after next week’s meeting in Oamaru for councillors to consider the future approach in more detail, she said.

"No decision has been made to date.

"We are respectful of the ministers’ advice, signalled legislative changes, and of the needs of our environment and the communities we serve," she said.

Gretchen Robertson
Gretchen Robertson
Cr Andrew Noone, who was council chairman when Ms Simmonds’ predecessor David Parker ordered an investigation of the council, said he was "keen to avoid the recommendation being withdrawn and replaced with a directive to act".

"It would seem a risky approach to not take heed of the recommendation considering the powers to intervene that are held by Minister Simmonds."

It was "remarkably clear" the council should heed Ms Simmonds’ direction, Cr Kevin Malcolm said.

Cr Michael Laws said now was the time to "pause and reconsider" given both the inadequacy of the council’s consultation and the changed policy imperatives from Wellington.

Cr Gary Kelliher said the ministers had been "crystal clear" that work on the plan was to halt.

However, internally at the council there had been "deliberate bulldozing" toward a plan that created "some environmental showpiece" regardless of the cost.

Cr Bryan Scott said he supported notifying the plan in June.

"Healthy rivers are not something that can be traded away by politics or economics.

"Healthy rivers are not something that can be delayed."

Cr Elliot Weir said their priorities remained in place regardless of who was in charge in Wellington.

"The influx of regressive statutory and legislative change around te taiao [the natural environment] are yet to be formally communicated with the council and what the implications will actually be for our work as a council are not 100% clear at this stage."

Once the plan was notified there was an established process to consider its provisions further, Cr Alan Somerville said.

"Putting off decisions about better rules and guidance for land and water use will lead to continued pollution and delay improvements to water quality."