In many ways, politically in Hawke’s Bay we seem to be adrift in the calm before the storm. A variety of critically important decisions loom before us, or in some cases have just been made, that will have far-reaching impact on our region.

Amalgamation

Perhaps the most ‘pregnant’ pause involves the fate of amalgamation. The Local Government Commission is presumably in the process of preparing its final official reorganisation plan. The Commission made no announcement in April, and will meet next in late May, at which time their plan is expected.

Public notification would trigger the 60 working day time frame during which petitions demanding a region-wide referendum on the plan would need to be gathered. Ten percent of voters in any jurisdiction affected by the plan can force a referendum.

Meantime, elected councillors and council staffs across the region wait expectantly.

On the one hand, in some respects it’s ‘business as usual’ as councils go about awarding and monitoring of consents, repairing roads, maintaining reserves, enforcing by-laws and preparing their five separate Long Term Plans (LTPs) for 2015-2025.

On the other hand, important major decision-making processes involving the overall well-being of the region either sit

in the ‘politically too difficult’ box, or move in slow motion, or continue to surface the competitive instincts deeply embedded in

our councils’ DNA. Some examples …

Economic development

Believe it or not, there has been an official regional economic development strategy in place (REDS to those in the know), honoured more in the breach than in execution. Somewhere in the multi-council labyrinth REDS is in the process of being updated, or at least dusted off to look fresh on the shelf. A rather big issue to be progressed so quietly.

Coastal erosion

We have a multi-council Joint Committee charged with developing a strategy for mitigating the coastal erosion (and even inundation) predicted to intensify from Clifton to Tangoio as a result of global warming. The Committee was created in April 2014; its terms of reference were adopted nearly a year later, in March 2015. The Committee is working at the same pace as climate change – it’s hard work merely getting people from three councils in the same room. Fortunately, we might have 50-100 years for this group to deliver its recommendations.

Sports facilities

Our five councils have signed an agreement pledging to rationally approach the selection, siting and funding of high priority sports facilities in the region. Several codes have been jointly identified as in special need of improved or expanded facilities – gymsports, cricket, indoor court sports (basketball, volleyball), and softball.

I strongly support this agreement as a much-needed first step toward intelligent facilities planning, but of course the verdict is out on whether it will actually change the erratic and competitive behavior of territorial authorities and sport codes. For example, how does a Napier velodrome fit into the new regional strategy?

And it does nothing to relieve the financial and administrative stress on the hearty band of volunteers who keep most of HB’s sports activity afloat.

Shared services

In 2012, our five councils organised HBLASS (Hawke’s Bay Local Authority Shared Services), whose mission is to achieve cost and service delivery efficiencies for the region in areas like procurement and information management. When was the last time you heard of a savings announcement from HBLASS?! (Regional councillors were recently informed of a $930,000 savings for the five councils in insurance premiums, the first achievement of note.)

With four councils opposing amalgamation, one would think HBLASS would be showcased as the vibrant alternative engine of local body collaboration and savings. But even its chairman has termed its results “disappointing”. HBLASS is run by the chief executives of our five councils. Enough said.

LTPs

Finally, the Long Term Plan process now underway itself underscores the need for amalgamation. Some aspects of LTPs are largely local – eg, how should Hastings deal with a withering CBD, or new toilet facilities for Pandora Pond? But the fact is, no one knows how much ratepayer money is being spent across the region in critical areas like tourism and events promotion, maintaining parks and reserves, expensive and potentially duplicative recreational facilities, and economic development. However, that doesn’t deter advocates of these programmes in the least from pitching each council for more ratepayer funds.

These are some of the more practical problems raised by having five councils in Hawke’s Bay … five councils whose temporary zeal for ‘collaboration’ at any time is directly proportional to their fear of being consolidated.

Water and the dam

The second major third-party decision affecting Hawke’s Bay and anxiously awaited as I write (but revealed by the time you are reading this) is in the hands of the Tukituki Board of Inquiry (BOI).

Recall that, after a successful appeal to the High Court by Fish & Game, Forest & Bird and the Environmental Defence Society, the BOI was instructed to revisit and reinstate conditions that would more stringently limit nitrogen discharges into

the Tukituki catchment.

The BOI’s ultimate decision could render the CHB dam proposed by HBRIC unviable if it effectively blocks the farming intensification assumed in the economic case for the dam. Whatever the BOI proposes, its decision can be appealed to the High Court by any party to the dispute.

In the meantime, at the March HB Regional Council meeting, HBRIC reported that purchase commitments for only 15 million cubic metres of water had been secured from CHB farmers, against a minimum requirement now estimated to be 46-47 million cubes. Nevertheless, with the BOI decision still pending and with only modest water purchases (all conditional on that decision), councillors voted 5-4 to give authority to HBRIC to borrow up to $2 million in additional funding to carry on the campaign for the dam into 2016.

Councillors Barker, Beaven, Graham and Belford opposed the borrowing authority, taking the view the dam is not viable … enough is enough. At the subsequent Regional Council meeting in April, no additional water purchases were reported by HBRIC.

The BOI decision is not the only obstacle the dam must still overcome. Part of the land required for the reservoir the dam would create was secured via a ‘land swap’ whereby DoC exchanged currently protected conservation land for other land of less conservation importance outside the footprint of the reservoir.

Forest & Bird has appealed DoC’s decision through a DoC-conducted hearing process. The appeal was heard in April and parties await DoC’s decision. Forest & Bird has indicated they will appeal to the High Court any decision to proceed with the swap.

If the land in question is not made available for water storage, a very significant portion of the proposed storage capacity of the dam scheme would be eliminated … another challenge to the scheme’s viability.

No degradation

Still more bad news for Regional Council water policy-makers came down in March from a strongly-worded Environment Court decision.

In this case, Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Inc (NKII), Māoridom’s largest representative entity in Hawke’s Bay, challenged key changes proposed by the HBRC to its overall Regional Resource Management Plan.

Basically, HBRC in its new Plan Change 5 proposed to relax existing objectives in its current plan, which do not allow the degradation of current groundwater quality in the region’s aquifers, and to adopt an ‘overs and unders’ approach to managing overall water quality. Under HBRC’s interpretation, water quality could be allowed to degrade in some waterways so long as it was improved in others.

The Environment Court said ‘Balderdash!’ to both positions, although couched in more formal legal terms. Said the Court:

“…it is a function of every regional council to control the use of land to maintain and enhance the quality of water in water bodies – ie including water in aquifers, and to control the discharges of contaminants into water (again, including water in aquifers). This function is not an option – it is something a regional council is required to do, whether it be difficult or easy.”

And regarding the ‘overs and unders’ approach:

“We conclude that [the Council’s] approach to the interpretation of overall quality is fundamentally flawed, and that drafting and/or interpreting the Change 5 objectives in that way could result in a more degraded and unacceptable water outcome.”

The Environment Court went on to chide the HBRC for being the only regional council in NZ to espouse the it’s “too hard” approach. And noted: “…even if what has been done is the past is irreversible, it would be irresponsible to use that as an excuse not to try to apply better standards from this point on.” Finishing with: “To not aspire to and attempt to at least maintain the quality of water abdicates the functions of a regional council …”

Pretty stern stuff. And HBRC, at last acting wisely, opted to not appeal the decision.

What this decision means is that any rules developed by HBRC with respect to water quality going forward can be tested and challenged as to whether they might permit further degradation of water quality in the region. Embarrassing that the Environment Court needed to tell us that.

Where’s the accountability?

The stronger protection of water quality in Hawke’s Bay secured by the Environment Court decision was achieved by NKII, challenging the Regional Council, at its own expense, for the greater good.

NKII didn’t even have legal counsel. They were represented by two policy wonks and chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana. This team defeated a battery of HBRC senior scientists, policy planners and outside legal counsel.

Back at the BOI, this same HBRC and HBRIC team, but augmented by more consultants and lawyers, put forward a water quality scheme that was initially rejected by the Board, upon hearing the counter-evidence of environmentalists.

When the BOI back-tracked on a key aspect of the environmentalist-backed approach it had just endorsed, the environmental team again prevailed in the High Court, against lawyers for HBRC and HBRIC.

Then NKII prevailed over the HBRC team in the Environment Court.

And as noted above, another legal challenge may await the DoC ‘land swap’.

Isn’t it time to ask: Who’s responsible for driving HBRC/HBRIC policy and strategy down a consistently losing course on these matters? Councillors or HBRIC directors? Senior staff? Outside consultants and lawyers? What is the quality of advice being given? And how much more of it should we take?

I’d like to hear from BayBuzz readers on that.

Now add water bottling

Two editions ago, BayBuzz reported on the situation regarding consents granted for extraction of water from the Heretaunga aquifer for bottling and sale overseas. [See Exporting Our Water to China.] We noted that seven consents have been issued that would permit close to 3 million cubic metres of water per year to be extracted.

At present, for all purposes, about 1,687 consents exist for water extraction from the Heretaunga aquifer, involving 151 million cubic metres per year. The 3 million cubes allocated for bottling constitute about 2% of the total current allocated volume.

There’s nothing stopping other consent holders with existing rights to extract water, say for processing or irrigation, to expand their operations to water bottling (as one recent application to HBRC indeed does).

Before doing so, however, bottlers might want to read HBRC’s latest State of the Environment (2009-2013) report, which mentions that 18% of monitoring sites on the Heretaunga and Ruataniwha aquifers have increasing nitrate concentrations (and more sites show significant levels of manganese and iron). HB bottlers might need to sell their ‘pure’ water as ‘mineral-enriched’.

The defense for these consents from HBRC is that the Resource Management Act only authorizes HBRC to intervene to regulate any effects that such water extraction might have on the environment. HBRC is not authorized to determine that any given use takes priority over another use – eg, that irrigation to keep trees alive should take precedence over bottling water for export. The existing water allocation regime is simply ‘first come, first served’.

The HBRC position assumes of course that in fact there is no significant effect (more than minor) from allowing large-scale water extraction for bottling. Substantial hydrology studies are only now underway to assess the aquifer and its inter-related surface waterways, but won’t be completed for a year or more.

Staff insist that the overall volume of water in the Heretaunga is so great that adverse effects are not likely. A 2006 study estimated about 250 million cubic metres of water is recharged each year from rainfall and flows from the Ngaruroro River.

This view has meant that consents for water bottling have not been publicly notified. And thus no ‘official’ opportunity has been presented for the public to become informed and debate the matter.

When some water users (such as growers on the Heretaunga Plains) are seen to be facing irrigation bans because their water use is deemed to be environmentally damaging (eg, because of lowering surface water flows), it’s rather difficult for Joe Blogg to reconcile that with unrestricted water bottling for China. [And then there’s the environmental impact of all those plastic bottles; but that’s China’s problem.]

So it is not surprising that heaps of people are upset about the water bottling issue. Ngāti Kahungunu has called for a moratorium on water bottling consents.

At the very least, the Regional Council is mucking up the public relations management of this matter. And arguably there’s a case for a much more precautionary approach to such consents … otherwise why go to the expense and trouble of massive hydrological studies of the Heretaunga water system?

But most importantly, the public wants to know: Even if the aquifer extracts prove sustainable, should there be a hierarchy of preferred use, and are we giving away a precious asset without getting commensurate value to the region – a public good – in return?

Maori have arrived

And not just with respect to the water debates already described.

Nine Treaty settlements involving Hawke’s Bay ‘natural groupings’ are wending their way through the Crown-managed negotiation process.

The next one up for final resolution (expected in June) involves Mana Ahuriri, whose sphere of interest includes – as most people in Hawke’s Bay now realize – the airport, as well as the Ahuriri Estuary.

Most Hawke’s Bay residents are relatively clueless about the Treaty settlements; if anything, they might be aware that sums of money are being transferred from the Crown to various Māori groups.

While money is important, what might become more interesting are the other conditions and arrangements that are included in the settlements … and Mana Ahuriri’s expected settlement is an excellent example.

Most readers are aware of the airport name change controversy – with the proposed name being Ahuriri Airport Hawke’s Bay. Fewer people are probably aware that Mana Ahuriri will be given the first right of refusal to buy the Crown’s 50% ownership stake in the airport.

Fewer still might be aware that the settlement will include a statutory committee of eight representatives as caretakers of the Ahuriri Estuary, with four of those reps selected by Manu Ahuriri.

And even fewer realize that a new statutory Regional Planning Committee for Hawke’s Bay has been established at Crown initiative as part of the settlement process. This committee has equal numbers (9 each) of councillors and Māori representatives (one from each of the Treaty settlement groups) and is charged with reviewing and recommending policy on all major RMA-related matters coming before the region – such as Plan Changes.

This article doesn’t aim to debate these specific conditions or others to come like them. The point here is that a very significant empowerment is occurring, changing relations both within Hawke’s Bay Māori community and between Māori and local/regional government. Our political stew will thicken. Much more on this evolving transition to come.

*  *  *  *  *

So it’s all blue skies as I write this piece on a brilliant ANZAC Day. But the political storm is just about to begin. While this magazine is still on your coffee table, we will have heard from both the Local Government Commission and the Board of Inquiry. Then it’s ‘game on’!

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1 Comment

  1. I would imagine Fentons failing follys will be more than enough to see the weight of public opinion see him voted out at the next election and returned to rural obscurity.

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