Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Rules to add costs to councils

Neal Wallace
Regional councils face higher costs, increased staffing needs and delays in implementing water plans because of the Government’s Essential Freshwater policy proposals, they warn.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

While there is uncertainty about the effects until the proposed national policy statement freshwater standards are finalised, some councils say the new standard should be incorporated as plans are reviewed but others face long and involved processes.

Six regional councils approached said they face significant costs to plans and need more staff.

Ministry for the Environment principal adviser Bryan Smith says councils need to look at the Government’s new direction and proposed regulations and assess if they need to alter their plans in part or in their entirety or if they comply.

He expects some councils to withdraw their plans to develop them further but believes much of the work done is still relevant and can be reused. 

The introduction of farm environment plans, good practice guidelines and science will generate more information councils can use.

Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council (Horizons) strategy and regulation group manager Dr Nic Peet says the council will need to adjust its plans. 

“The proposals as they stand would require significant plan changes for Horizons and extra investment in regulatory services, science and monitoring.”

Environment Southland’s chief executive Rob Phillips describes the Government’s proposals as wide-reaching and ambitious, which could have a significant impact.

“The package is very ambitious and we believe there will need to be some prioritising.”

The council is assessing the potential impact of the significant amount of regulatory change proposed and what it will mean for work programmes as well as for farmers and communities.

Other councils are better placed to meet the new police statement because of the timing of plan reviews.

Otago Regional Council policy, science and strategy manager Gwyneth Elsum says a proposed plan change about to be notified will address a range of issues such as stock exclusion, farm plans, improving the policy framework for discharges and the use of dust suppressants on roads.

“The water plan was due to be fully reviewed and we are already in that process.

“The Government package has tightened time frames but we intended to do this work regardless.”

But the council will need more resources to manage the new standards. The exact number and their roles has not been assessed.

Other councils do not expect a major reset of their regional water plans.

Environment Canterbury’s strategy and planning director Katherine Trought says the proposals did not surprise because the council incorporates many of the suggested standards.

“For example, we have been working with the farming community to bring down nutrient limits for nearly a decade.

“Proposed Plan Change Seven is a further development of this approach, with specific rules for Orari, Temuka, Opihi, Pareora and Waimakariri (sub-regions) as well as new region-wide rules.

“Land use consent to farm, farm environment plans and independent audits have been features of Canterbury’s planning regime for some time.

“We have in place rules around stock exclusion and winter grazing and the farming community has responded to these as they have been introduced.”

Bay of Plenty Regional Council’s policy and planning manager Julie Bevan says because it has not yet publicly notified any of its Water Management Area plan changes, it will be able to incorporate new national requirements before doing so.

The proposed rules are expected to add to workloads, which will require prioritising or adding extra capacity. 

“It’s likely that we will need to reconsider the scope, time frames and community involvement methods of the plan change programme we have currently committed to.”

The Government is also streamlining the process for notifying plans based on the process used for the Auckland Unitary Plan.

Traditionally, a council committee led by a commissioner holds planning hearings and makes recommendations to the council. The result is then open to Environment Court appeals.

The Government is instead proposing a process where hearings will be run by a panel of two people nominated by central Government, two from the regional council and one appointed by tangata whenua.

Smith says if a council wants to reject a panel recommendation it can do so only on a point of law or by showing its alternative option is more likely to achieve the aims of the policy statement and unlikely to be subject to an Environment Court appeal.

Elsum welcomed having access to specialist or expert commissioners to hear plans but fears the panel might be inundated, which could slow the process.

“We are also keen to ensure that the specialist commissioners understand the differences faced by each region in relation to freshwater challenges.”

Trought can see merit in the new planning process.

“We also support restrictions on appeals on decisions on freshwater plans and support the proposed mixed model for the appointment of hearing panels.”

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