The cost of dissent

Graeme Purches
Graeme Purches
Not for the first time, TrustPower's community relations manager Graeme Purches has converted his job description into an oxymoron, with reported comments that "lobby groups" and one of Trustpower's competitors have "hijacked" the Resource Management Act consents and appeal process.

Mr Purches, himself a paid lobbyist for the company he represents, leaves the impression TrustPower's costs for the Environment Court hearing into the Mahinerangi wind farm should somehow be alleviated by the Government, since it supports the wind farm.

Furthermore, Trustpower appears to believe those permitted to oppose such projects should be confined to the immediate vicinity.

By such logic, the shoreline of Lake Manapouri would have been destroyed, the salt marsh at Aramoana would today be an industrial site, there would be five or more hydro dams on the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers, probably another two or three on the Waitaki, and a nuclear power station in Manukau.

We have heard the arguments espoused many times before. They have, indeed, become part of political policy by the National and Act New Zealand parties.

National's proposals to scrap the inexpensive provision of legal aid for objectors and to reintroduce security for costs from objectors are nothing more than a bare-faced attempt to erase basic rights of dissent, while its ideas for diminishing the rights of local government in resource consent matters would actually extinguish a basic premise of the Act, which is that communities most affected by applications should have the principal say in decision-making.

In this instance, Mr Purches' particular bete noir seems to be the Upland Protection Society, a group of concerned citizens initiated in Otago and formed substantially of a local membership.

How local would Trustpower like the objectors (if any) to be? Wind farm site residents only?

It is most curious that the requirements of the Act are said to sometimes have caused investors in large projects to change their minds, for from whence came the country's long period of economic progress of the recent past, the confidence to invest in the sheer variety of modern business ventures, the record low unemployment rates, the property boom, the transformation of the agricultural sector? All has been achieved within the application of that fiend, the Resource Management Act.

The Act most certainly has caused irritations but it has also helped ensure individual rights cannot always be ignored, or simply bulldozed over.

Those with memories longer than yesterday's headlines or last years profits will recall with bitter clarity the state of the community's "rights" prior to the existence of the Act.

Some aspects of gaining resource consents can be maddeningly slow, and the hurdles seem at times to be impossibly high.

Waving a chequebook around in an effort to reduce delays by buying-off objectors has been one regrettable consequence, as has been attempting to meet extortion disguised as satisfying Treaty of Waitangi "principles".

Smaller local bodies sometimes struggle with implementing the Act and meeting the consultative requirements, and the burden of processing consents as well as the cost has been great.

For a period, too, the environment courts had trouble making reasonable progress through a backlog of appeal cases, but that situation has been improved.

Whether all of this, as Mr Purches appears to believe in his company's particular case, means ratepayers and electricity users will be the financial "losers" rather depends on whether people want a process that will deliver a result to meet a fair balance between the concerns of individuals and groups with the ambitions of those who promote such "projects of national importance".

The Act was conceived, in part, to provide a legislative brake on the potential deleterious consequences of short-term planning, and as a means of ensuring local communities would themselves have a significant say in development projects.

The environment is, after all, a "commons", to be preserved and protected against unlimited exploitation for the enjoyment of future generations.

Is it to have no defenders? The Act's objective of sustainable management of the collectively-shared environment may be an idealistic statute, but it does represent a frame-work within which we all - Davids and Goliaths, defenders and exploiters - may come to terms with how we should live in and on it.

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