Thursday, February 22, 2024

Water turmoil may put deadlines at risk

Neal Wallace
But councils turn down Feds request to pause work on freshwater plans.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Regional councils could fail to meet next year’s deadline for implementing land and water plans as they wait policy change details from the coalition government.

Doug Leeder, Local Government NZ’s regional sector chair, said most regional councils are likely to continue developing the plans but at a slower pace, which could mean deferring the implementation deadline of December next year.

“Regional councils are likely to say, ‘Let’s slow the process until we know the direction of the new government,’” Leeder said.

But a Federated Farmers letter to Northland, Horizons and Southland regional councils, seeking a pause in work that is already well advanced, appears to have gone unheeded.

Southland and Horizons have told the Farmers Weekly they will continue, although they have extended deadlines for submissions and consultation.

The letter says the pace of the process is causing stress among farmers and the plans may not be consistent with the policies of the new government.

Leeder said most councils are in the early stages of developing plans.

He said the principles behind Farm Environment Plans, a key component of the policy, remain but some specific criteria in plans, such as fertiliser application, could change.

Councils can still set regulations within their own regions but these cannot be less than national guidelines.

Horizons Regional Council chief executive Michael McCartney said the council will continue its policy work but will be watching for any adjustments made by central government.

The time frame for community engagement has been extended to acknowledge the pressure.

Similarly, Environment Southland has no intention of pausing its work.

Writing to Federated Farmers, chair Nicol Horrell and chief executive Wilma Falconer said the council is looking for a “Southland solution” to improve the state of the region’s rivers and estuaries.

“While the national regulatory framework may change, the underlying need for continued improvement in environmental outcomes in the region remains an imperative.”

Otago Regional Council chief executive Richard Saunders said its aim is to notify its new plan by the end of June next year.

While it has national obligations, Saunders said the council has to improve water quality and its current plan is out of date and needs replacing.

“There will be time before notification to reassess the plan against any changes that may be made, however, it is important that we carry on with this significant piece of work.”

The coalition agreement between coalition partners NZ First, ACT and National calls for the replacement of the NPS for Freshwater Management and the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater to “better reflect the interests of all water users and to give councils more flexibility in how they meet environmental limits”.

The agreement will also investigate how to exempt councils from obligations under the NPS for Freshwater Management.

• In Northland, the newly elected chair of Northland Regional Council, Geoff Crawford, says he is awaiting a freshwater policy redirection from the National-led coalition government.

Hugh Stringleman reports that the NRC consultation on stock exclusion proposals will continue in order to collect data and have landowners and submitters make their views known.

“We all want better outcomes for water, farmers included, but it is a multi-generational journey,” Crawford said.

The previous government’s National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management was “dictating to future generations”.

“It hit the speed-dial and risked potentially disastrous outcomes for waterways, farms and the regional economy,” he said.

Crawford and fellow councillors and farmers John Blackwell and Joe Carr, along with former chair Tui Shortland and Te Rāki Māori Constituency councillor Peter-Lucas Jones, voted to supplant four left-leaning councillors on leading committees.

Crawford said the replacements will lead to positive outcomes for the region and that all councillors are passionate about their roles.

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