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Environment Ministry gives ECan commissioner 'reluctant' approval

Thursday 1st April 2010

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The Ministry for the Environment has backed a government plan to replace Environment Canterbury councillors with a commission, albeit reluctantly.  

MfE director of natural and built systems Mark Sowden said that although the proposal was the only one put forward that will likely meet the government’s objectives, there were “significant risks” in suspending local body elections, and that such a course of action “should only be considered in exceptional circumstances,” according to the ministry’s regulatory impact statement (RIS). The short timeframe to draft the legislation increased the risk that intervention was “incorrectly targeted” and could lead to unintended consequences that would require later legislation, he said.  

“While the ministry has a general preference for using existing intervention powers where possible, there are strong arguments for legislative amendment in this case; and also for replaced the whole ECan council,” Sowden said in the RIS’s agency disclosure statement. “However, on the basis of currently available information, the ministry has not been able to fully quantify the risks/costs of the proposal.”  

Parliament passed the Environment Canterbury Bill last night after the House sat under urgency for two days. The new law sacks ECan’s regional councillors and replaces them with a commission led by Margaret Bazley within the next month.

The legislation follows a damning report over ECan’s failure to successfully manage freshwater demands over the past two decades in a region where much of the water is over-allocated amid growing irrigation, hydro-electric and water storage demands. The government aims to restore local body elections to the region in 2013.  

In February, Prime Minister John Key flagged water as a major resource for New Zealand and a key component to the government’s agenda. In his speech to open Parliament this year, he said the government would act to remove regulatory hurdles to water storage and irrigation in Canterbury.  

Still, the MfE paper said the appointment of commissioners was a “significant intrusion into local government powers” and risked alienating the Canterbury community who may perceive it as “removing the democratic rights of Canterbury without consultation.”  

“This response is unprecedented under the LGA (Local Government Act) and RMA (Resource Management Act), and if unsuccessful is likely to result in the government coming under significant criticism,” the report said.  

With the costs of maintaining the status quo put at a rough estimate of between $2 billion and $3 billion annually in litigation costs, opportunities costs and degradation to New Zealand’s international brand, the MfE report said “central government intervention is necessary and justified to address this issue” with the divide between ECan’s councillors having a material effect on its ability to produce robust central planning.  

The exercise is expected to be revenue neutral, with the savings from not holding an election or paying councillor salaries offset by the commissioners’ fees and drafting costs of the bill.  

The RIS also flagged the need for the commissioners to have a “strong understanding of the Ngai Tahu perspective, rights and interests.”

Any intervention that altered the relationship between the South Island iwi and the agency overseeing decision-making on natural resources need to take the government’s Treaty of Waitangi obligations into account, the report said.

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