Government backtracking frustrates mayor

Andrew Hoggard. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Andrew Hoggard. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Last week, the government played saviour to landowners worried about their land being classified as significant natural areas (SNAs), but it has since taken the statement back after being told that it was illegal.

The move has left the Waitaki District Council in an awkward position and frustrated Mayor Gary Kircher, who said the government needed to "get themselves sorted".

Associate Environment Minister Andrew Hoggard’s announcement said councils should not bother putting the classification in their new district plans, as the government was "committed to ceasing the implementation of new SNAs", which would have changed how the council approached the draft of its new plan.

But the very next day Mr Hoggard walked back on his statement after being challenged by legal experts who called the move unlawful.

Mr Kircher said it was like the government telling drivers they were free to speed in an 80kmph zone, because it would be made into 100kmph at some point in the future.

"Until they do, the law is the law."

The government was a new three-way coalition and he understood it took some time to "take the training wheels off", especially for a first-time minister such as Mr Hoggard.

"He needs to make sure he keeps his training wheels on a bit longer."

The council had contacted the government asking it to change the law so it could proceed accordingly.

University of Otago faculty of law Assoc Prof Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere said directing anybody to ignore a law was stepping into the shoes of Parliament, which was responsible for creating laws.

It bypassed all the normal processes laws went through to be created or repealed, which included scrutiny and debate.

The legal precedent on the matter was set in 1976, when former prime minister Robert Muldoon released a press release telling government agencies to stop paying into a superannuation scheme which would soon be repealed.

Mr Muldoon was taken to court and the move was found to be illegal.

So where does that leave the Waitaki District Council?

The plan is still being reviewed by a subcommittee of councillors, who recently purged all instances of "outstanding natural landscapes" from land modified for agricultural, or industrial use.

The subcommittee found no weight was placed on economic wellbeing when the land was assessed, which is a legal requirement under the Resource Management Act.

The classification would have been placed on 5% of the district’s freehold land.

Significant natural areas are still in the plan and the subcommittee is in a hard place. The minister has told it not to bother, but it could face legal action for not following the letter of the law.

Mr Kircher, who is also a subcommittee member, said the council was trying to find out if it was possible to delay that aspect of the plan while going ahead with the rest, because it was holding up much-needed change.

A council spokesman said until the obligations were amended, the council had to follow them, as they were.

In the meantime, there were other changes that needed to be made to the plan, such as enabling more land for housing. — additional reporting RNZ