Friday, April 12, 2024

Welcome changes to Te Mana o te Wai

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Federated Farmers say they’ve opposed these new rules from the outset and have never stopped engaging with the government on behalf of their members.
Former arable farmer of the year and Feds arable chair Colin Hurst says the awards are the sector’s time to shine.
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By Colin Hurst, Federated Farmers vice president

The concept of ‘Te Mana o Te Wai’ has been a major concern for many farmers since the previous Labour government introduced its Essential Freshwater reforms in 2020. 

That concern doesn’t stem from an unwillingness to make changes to improve water quality, but from uncertainty about how this vague new concept will be interpreted and applied by councils, and the impact this could have on our farming businesses and rural communities. 

Under these new rules, the health and wellbeing of water is put ahead of all other considerations, including human health, and social, cultural and economic wellbeing. From my perspective, that seems wildly imbalanced. 

I was incredibly frustrated to hear reports that, in my home community of Canterbury, the Regional Council have been assessing each and every individual resource consent against the Te Mana o Te Wai concept. 

Using a strict interpretation of the new rules meant any application that wasn’t explicitly improving water quality was notified, and likely to be declined. 

This inflexible approach has the potential to freeze current activities in place. Horror stories have already been emerging of farmers unable to put in septic tanks or shift a bore.

Federated Farmers opposed these new rules from the outset and have never stopped engaging with the Government on behalf of our members for changes that would increase certainty, reduce cost, and actually improve water quality. 

That’s why it’s so pleasing to see the new Government moving quickly to rebalance the concept and fix up some of these unworkable, expensive freshwater rules. They have a big job ahead of them and it’s not going to be able to be unpicked overnight.

In the last few weeks, the Minister responsible, Hon. Chris Bishop, has written to stakeholders informing them he is looking to urgently address how Te Mana o Te Wai is being applied to individual resource consents. 

Amendments to the Resource Management Act are expected in the next few months, which will be welcome relief for farmers who currently have projects that have ground to a halt due to the current interpretation of the rules.

As part of the Minister’s consultation, I have also taken the opportunity to highlight the growing concern in rural communities about the way co-governance of water is becoming a divisive issue. 

Under the new regulations, regional councils must actively involve tangata whenua in freshwater management, including decision-making processes. What this means in practice is still being worked through, but one aspect that seems to be emerging is the increased use of cultural impact assessments.

Where farmers must pay professional service fees for cultural impacts, the impression of a ‘pay-for-play’ regime starts to emerge – and that doesn’t sit right with me. 

Situations like what has recently played out in Waitaki, with electricity generators Meridian and Genesis reportedly paying $180m to ‘smooth the consent path’ for the reconsenting of the Waitaki hydro scheme, only add to this perception.

The $180m included payments to the Department of Conservation and three South Island hapū to redress past damage in exchange for these parties supporting the consenting process.

I think putting tangata whenua in the position of being asked to be ones who say ‘no’ to consent applications risks creating further division in rural communities. 

As part of this consultation, Federated Farmers have also offered our feedback on a proposed ‘fast-track’ consenting regime. 

It’s a telling sign that our resource management system has become so broken that a fast-track regime is needed to enable any investment in new infrastructure like water storage, resilience projects to avoid floods, and transport infrastructure – but that’s exactly where we’ve found ourselves. 

While Federated Farmers have expressed our support for a temporary fast-track regime, we are cautioning that it should only be seen as a temporary solution. 

Unfortunately, this kind of process will only ever benefit the big end of town, while mum and dad farmers, businesses, or homeowners will be stuck in the currently broken system. 

We support the fast-track provisions at this stage because farmers, rural communities and businesses will benefit from the desperately needed infrastructure it will enable. But we are clear that this should only be a temporary stopgap measure to grease the wheels of progress while more meaningful and permanent RMA reform is worked on. 

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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