The window closes next Monday the 15th on the Regional Council’s ‘public consultation’ on its plans for the Tukituki, including the proposed CHB dam.

For the Regional Council to call the high-speed process it has engineered ‘consultation’ is disingenuous at best, deceitful at worst.

All the BS about ‘years’ of study, millions spent on consultants’ analyses, scores of briefings to this and that group is just that … a load of cowpies.

Sure, the money was spent and the time consumed. BUT, in fact and more importantly…

The most pertinent information on which to base any judgment about the environmental issues associated with either Tukituki Choices or the dam feasibility study was not tabled until the 9th of August, then amended on the 17th. Note that this was not a release of information to the public; only to five members of a sub-committee of the Stakeholders Group assembled to advise on the dam.

Meantime, the economic work that has been cited so ecstatically to support the claimed benefits of the HBRC’s scheme to individual farmers and the Bay’s economy has only been dribbled out through September.

Of course, there are critical linkages between the environmental and economic aspects of the Council’s plans, but no outsiders have been in a position to connect those dots (or challenge whether they do connect) until they have seen and evaluated both sides of the equation.

This lack of information has not stopped some illustrious voices in the region’s farming and business circles from pre-determining the dam to be well and truly a miracle of the highest order. Even as I write, Councillors and the Chief Executive are preparing for sainthood.

But as knowledgeable people in the community have begun to see the Council’s material, more and more critical questions are being asked.

The most penetrating on the economic side come from farmers and growers, farm consultants and farm economists who have firsthand experience with farming in CHB.

Here, for example, are some comments I received over the weekend:

“You are right on the money on the dam scheme. I am not remotely concerned about the environmental matters, as the assumptions on economic activity appear to be wildly optimistic. I haven’t heard of anyone wanting to do anything down there. The few who have commented all tell me of ‘better locations’ for labour, processing, access of service industries, transport, or whatever.

There is this odd assumption that there are many investors out there that would start a dairy farm, if only they could find some land. They can find land, and in places where it rains enough such that you hardly need to think about water.

CHB is dry, one of the hotter places in summer and one of the more frosty too. Water is only one of the factors that have seen the area underdeveloped. The scheme would improve the situation for some down there (cost aside) and deliver a trickle of new investment for sure, but not at the levels they are assuming. They have been seduced by their wondrous idea.”

Others have sent BayBuzz cost estimates for on-farm water storage that are less than one-fifth the costs cited by HBRC in blowing off that alternative. Indeed, when I made an Official Information Act request for HBRC material analyzing on-farm storage possibilities, the response I received from the Chief Executive was a two-page letter merely dismissing the option. $8 million spent single-mindedly building the case for a single dam; 2-pages of ‘analysis’ tossing off an alternative of genuine interest to farmers in CHB.

Others are challenging what they assess as seriously over-optimistic and misleading assumptions about CHB farming practices that underlie both the environmental and economic claims made for the water storage scheme. A request I made for access to the on-farm information supposedly driving these assumptions has never been responded to.

It takes time and resources for independent voices – i.e., from people not sucking on the HBRC teat – to really dig into the newly-released information, produce a fully-documented critique, and then bring that critique to public attention. Of course the Council knows that; hence the rush to bless the proposal by month’s end … at that point taking the most important political action the Council will take on the matter.

Contrast HBRC’s approach to that of the Hastings Council on two issues of significant public interest and controversy – ending fluoridation and keeping the Bay GE Free. With fluoridation, the Council conducted a half-day public workshop where both sides brought in experts of their own choosing to illuminate the issues for Councillors. And next year the matter will go to referendum. This month, HDC will conduct a full-day public forum on 24 October on the GMO issue, again with both sides bringing in experts of their choosing to present the arguments to Councillors.

A similar ‘day in court’ is the least the Regional Council owes to citizens concerned about its Tukituki plans.

I say the ‘least’ because sound governance surely would have provided for much more independent scrutiny.

Looking at an investment and policy choice of such magnitude, a prudent HBRC would have assigned a small team with the specific mandate to challenge the prevailing core assumptions and to blow the whistle on ‘Groupthink’. Within an $8 million ‘feasibility’ study, a very modest hedge against a $600 million gamble.

‘Groupthink’ is the term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 to describe a certain dynamic that leads to failed decision-making. Next post … the eight symptoms of Groupthink. Methinks the term applies here!

Tom Belford

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