Overarching regional policy statement notified

The Otago Regional Council notified its regional policy statement (RPS) at the weekend after voting on 32 recommendations from an independent hearings panel with the public excluded last week.

Crs Gary Kelliher and Michael Laws took issue with council decision-making happening behind closed doors, but in a statement the council said the decisions were made behind closed doors because the hearing panel’s report and recommendations were subject to appeals.

The RPS is an overarching policy framework for the management of Otago’s natural environment, and district plans and regional plans — such as the council’s forthcoming land and water plan — must align with it.

Council chairwoman Cr Gretchen Robertson said it was "fantastic" to have reached this stage.

She thanked the independent panel for providing "their well-thought out report and decision".

She also thanked the many submitters who presented to the panel.

"This was a robust process with plenty of good evidence provided", Cr Robertson said.

Conversely, Cr Laws said the public excluded decision last week was "a rushed process with the council effectively being presented with a fait accompli".

"It seems that local government and open democracy are two foreign concepts", he said.

Cr Kelliher said too much was done in non-public settings at the council and he believed the public should be able to see the council debate on the RPS decision.

He believed the reason the council was "bulldozing ahead" with its land and water plan was that the panel’s RPS recommendations resulted in a "more enabling outcome" than council staff had hoped for.

At present "the race is on" to embed the land and water plan which maintained the previous "less enabling" direction of the draft RPS, he said.

"The honourable and right thing to do is to redraft the [land and water plan] to now meet the RPS outcome, and also the new government’s signalled direction.

"This would be the right thing to do for all of Otago. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening."

Cr Robertson said it was compulsory for the council’s land and water plan to take into account the RPS and the council had given itself time to do that.

There was a lot yet to do to create the plan, she said.

It needed to be notified, submissions needed to come in, a panel needed to consider all the submissions and evidence — relevant legislation was factored in — the council would receive the panel’s recommendations, and its decision was then subject to appeals to the High Court on matters of law.

"This is a very long, robust process", she said.

"It couldn’t possibly be likened to a bulldozer. We’ve had a five-year-long plan development process to date.

"There are another seven months before notification, enabling ORC more time yet for plan development work.

"After notification, the independent freshwater panel ensures everyone’s submissions are considered and if any new national policy emerges, that all gets put into the mix."

Cr Robertson estimated the panel might take a year after notification to make recommendations to the council, "possibly longer".

"Making new plans is more like baking a Christmas cake in a coal range than microwaving a hot-cross bun.

"One has to remember it’s not about us as councillors, [it] is about doing our job to ensure healthy thriving water and communities, not just today but for the future too."

Council policy and science general manager Anita Dawe said submitters could lodge legal appeals on decisions within 30 working days to the Environment Court or 15 working days to the High Court.

There had been a legal requirement to split the RPS into "freshwater" and "non-freshwater" parts, which resulted in about 45 provisions understood to relate directly to the management of freshwater quality or quantity.

Ms Dawe said the hearings panel’s decision drew together the freshwater and non-freshwater parts and the RPS was presented as one integrated document.