ORC criticised for environmental stance

ORC Chairwoman Gretchen Robertson. Photo: Supplied
ORC Chairwoman Gretchen Robertson. Photo: Supplied
An independent panel has accused the Otago Regional Council of putting the protection of the environment ahead of "enabling" food growing.

The Otago Regional Council notified its regional policy statement (RPS) after accepting a series of recommendations from an independent hearings panel last week and now staff must incorporate those changes into the council’s contentious land and water plan before it is notified by October 31.

Chairwoman Gretchen Robertson said there was "plenty" of time for staff to incorporate the RPS changes into the plan.

However, several councillors disagreed, saying the plan fell victim to the same flawed approach as the draft RPS.

The panel’s recommendation report, released on Saturday, highlighted concerns from a wide array of groups "including the infrastructure providers and operators, the rural sector, the mining and quarrying and skifield operators, and aquaculture developers in particular" that the underlying philosophy of the draft RPS was not "enabling" as the Resource Management Act (RMA) intended.

Submitters had complained the council had adopted a default position that "too strictly" prevented their activities.

The common thread was that their particular activity had either not been provided for or the draft RPS did not contain a "consent pathway" for them, the report said.

Furthermore, a list of "significant regional values" was found lacking because "food production" or primary production had not made the draft while heritage and recreation opportunities had.

Cr Kate Wilson said the RPS took "quite a different direction" after the council took on board the panel’s recommendations.

"They said you cannot be so controlling," Cr Wilson said. "You actually have to be enabling.

"We’ve been writing a plan in one direction — it’s been told to change direction.

"The RPS — the foundation document — has changed, the floor plan has changed. You cannot keep building the same house on the floor plan.

"Things have changed."

Cr Andrew Noone said there had been "far too much emphasis" on environmental protection rather than acknowledging sustainable management of natural resources.

"Being that far off the mark as a fundamental concept is concerning knowing the [land and water plan] is tainted with the same approach."

The RMA clearly stated that when forming an RPS or plan a council must ensure it enabled people to provide for their social, economic, cultural wellbeing and health and safety, Cr Kevin Malcolm said.

"Our RPS simply didn’t.

"The changes made by the panel to the [RPS] are a powerful criticism of the direction the statement sought to take."

Cr Gary Kelliher said the panel had recognised Otago’s food producers had been "totally disregarded and disrespected".

Cr Michael Laws said the council’s interpretation of Te Mana o Te Wai had been "a good part" of the problem.

"It is a significant criticism of the council’s lack of policy balance when it comes to economic development in the region," he said.

On the other hand, deputy chairman Cr Lloyd McCall said the next seven months allowed time for changes to the land and water plan following stakeholder feedback and the implications of the RPS.

"There is sufficient time to make significant changes if the council so desires."

Cr Alan Somerville said food production had always been seen as an important part of Otago’s economy in writing the RPS.

"It’s time we stopped talking about the environment and economy as having separate interests that have to be traded off one against the other," he said.

Cr Robertson said the council’s job was to ensure Otago’s people "can live, work, play and produce food not just now but into the future".

"It’s not just about the short-term flashes in the pan, it’s having a think about where the real value lies both now and into the future.

"This is actually very simple, Otago’s people want to look after our region and waterways."