ORC may seek costs following plan chaos

Photo: Supplied
Photo: supplied
The Otago Regional Council is considering asking central government to pay costs after blaming it for the "Alice in Wonderland legal scenario" it faced developing a framework to manage Otago’s natural resources.

The previous government’s introduction of a new planning process intended to fast-track freshwater improvements turned a straightforward process into a costly and confused one, an independent hearings panel said.

The hearings panel’s 505-page regional policy statement (RPS) recommendations report said the council faced "procedural difficulties imposed by inadequate central legislation".

The complicated, expensive process the council went through over the past two years "was no fault at all" of the council, it said.

"The ORC just happened to be the first regional council off the block throughout the country required to apply these new mandatory provisions which central government had laid down that it must follow."

After a decision in the High Court in 2022, the council was required to split its RPS development into freshwater and non-freshwater parts.

This created the "Alice in Wonderland legal scenario" of the same panel preparing two separate recommendation reports to the council for two separate procedural processes for the same "integrated document", the report said.

Council chairwoman Cr Gretchen Robertson said the extra costs associated with separate hearings processes for the freshwater and non-freshwater parts were considerable, but were not yet known.

"They have not been calculated at this time, however, we know they [the separate processes] added significant additional time, cost and complexity to the process," Cr Robertson said. "This impacted not just council but all parties involved in the RPS process."

The council had not approached the government to recoup costs yet "as the RPS decision has only just been received".

Cr Robertson said the government might consider "some support for costs" following the comments from the panel.

Furthermore, the council’s course of action brought attention to issues with the original legislation which were thereafter amended, she said.

"After council has had a chance to consider the many aspects of the report, we will then likely seek to make an approach. As Otago was the first cab off the rank, on a flawed government process which has since been changed, costs may be appropriate, given ORC will have assisted other regional councils to rectify this situation."

The hearings panel report noted the two processes to create the RPS appeared to also have created two different appeals processes.

Appeals of non-freshwater parts of the RPS would go to the Environment Court where they would be subject to a re-hearing.

Freshwater appeals would go to the High Court, but would be restricted to points of law.

Beyond the significant extra cost to the council in conducting freshwater and non-freshwater processes in the development of its RPS, the council still faced "major ongoing extra cost and uncertainty in trying to align any appeal processes", the report said.

"It seems wrong that simply being at the front of the queue should result in ORC having to carry such an extra cost burden, that other later regional councils will not have to bear."