Unclear if new minister's directive will impact ORC policy shake up

by Kim Bowden - Dec 15, 2023

After "thousands of hours of voluntary community input and huge ratepayer investment in science and planning" to create new rules for managing land and water that sit comfortably within national regulatory frameworks, the Otago Regional Council has received a letter from a new government minister advising of major rethinks on policy direction.

The letter from Chris Bishop, the minister responsible for RMA reform, was delivered to council on the same day as an Environmental Science and Policy Committee full day briefing in Dunedin where a draft of the new Land and Water Regional Management Plan was presented to councillors.

It is unclear what impact, if any, this pivot from Wellington will have on the exhaustive new plan, scheduled to be notified mid next year.

However, in a statement to media yesterday afternoon, ORC chair Gretchen Robertson says the council has sought a meeting with Mr Bishop to discuss the context for Otago.

“Given Otago’s work to date and intent to notify a new plan in June 2024, it’s critical now because our council and the wider community desperately need certainty about any future changes and how they may impact our plan process,” she says.

“Whether it’s an irrigator, an exporter relying on strong environmental-stewardship reputation, or a camper swimming in a local waterway - we all need certainty."

The ORC has been working to meet a ministerial imposed notification deadline for the new plan, one of the council’s biggest policy shake-ups in years and set to replace a current plan not fit for purpose.

Councillor Robertson says the new government has not removed this specific timing requirement for the ORC.

However according to Mr Bishop's letter other councils, which had been working towards a December 2024 deadline, are receiving a three-year reprieve.

Mr Bishop says the coalition government will review and replace the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020, with particular attention to "the hierarchy of obligations contained in the Te Mana o te Wai provisions" of the statement.

Te Mana o te Wai emphasises the health of a waterway must come first, above other needs, and it has guided the ORC's latest policy rethink.

Councillor Robertson says councillors have had the chance to discuss the contents of the minister's letter and will shortly send an invitation to him and the minister for the environment to meet with them.

“All New Zealanders value healthy rivers, lakes and streams and local government needs to be actively involved with central government, we’re both key players. We need to start discussion with key ministers, invite it and welcome it.

“Both local and central government want to ensure we can thrive and retain not only a strong international, but also domestic reputation. We also don’t want to stifle both economies and community visions with any uncertainty."

Mr Bishop’s letter acknowledges the significant time and resources the ORC has committed to responding to broader resource management reforms.

Cr Robertson agrees the investment has been "significant" and it is clear she doesn't want to see it go to waste. 

The council has developed a new Regional Policy Statement, which has been notified, in addition to the draft land and water plan.

There have already been three consultation rounds on the land and water plan completed during the past two years - the third of which finished in November and comprised 12 public drop-in sessions around Otago and two on-line meetings, ultimately prompting a total 573 online public responses from individuals and organisations being lodged with the council.

Cr Robertson says the ORC and communities across the region "face real challenges" as existing rules are "old and unworkable" and people have voiced a vision for a new way of doing things.

“We have a bulk of expiring short-term water take consents in 2026-27 awaiting certainty through a new plan. ORC is best to proceed given the likely length of time involved in the statutory processes in developing a resource management framework reform for New Zealand."



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