Proposed policy highly protectionist and lacks important detail

Bridget Irving

This article appeared in the Otago Daily Times, July 6th 2015. 

This week I have been focussing on the second outcome in the Proposed Regional Policy Statement (“PRPS”). You will have to excuse me for beginning to sound like a broken record. I am once again disappointed with the PRPS and am left thinking that the Otago community is entitled to a better document than this.

The outcome sought by Chapter 2 is that “Otago has high quality natural resources and ecosystems”. The purpose of the chapter is the recognition, maintenance and enhancement of natural and physical resources. On first blush it is difficult to argue that there is anything wrong with that idea. However, closer inspection reveals some hugely significant fish hooks.

What struck me first was how the values simply parrot the Act. In my view, the Act provides the skeleton and the RPS should flesh it out. Unfortunately, the PRPS just seems to add more bones. Once again the level of detail required to enable the community to have a robust discussion about when and what is to be recognised, maintained and enhanced within Otago is missing. As a result the PRPS is at risk of adding nothing. We could all simply chuck the PRPS in the bottom draw and forget about it.

However, Objective 2.2 and the policies that support it will certainly prevent any of us from casting the PRPS aside. You may recall the discussion of Environmental Defence Society Incorporated v. The New Zealand King Salmon Co Ltd in my first PRPS article. Objective 2.2 is where that case comes home to roost. The policies that support objective 2.2 use the word ‘avoid’ heavily. We are to avoid effects on a wide range of resources including things like ‘special amenity landscapes’. The last 24 years of RMA experience means we now have a good understanding of concepts like ‘outstanding natural landscapes’ (“ONL”) and ‘outstanding natural features’. But, ‘special amenity landscape’ (“SAL”) is an entirely new category. It is not identified in Part 2 of the Act and frankly I don’t know what they are. The term just begs the question ‘special to whom?’…it is rather subjective.

The issue is that when the PRPS says ‘avoid’ we must to do just that. Avoid the effects. Given that, it is arguable that district councils will be forced by the PRPS to prohibit activities in areas where effects may accrue on the resources protected by Chapter 2. Where an activity is prohibited you cannot apply for consent. The specific features of a proposal don’t matter, however beneficial or unique.

There may be locations where that would be appropriate. But, I would dare say that there are many locations within ONL’s or SAL’s throughout the region where further development will have effects, but avoiding those effects is really a step too far. For example, the Mihinerangi wind farm could well have been prevented by the PRPS as it currently stands. Or alternatively, the Blueskin Bay Wind Cluster may not be able to get over the line. These projects occur in landscapes that are highly valued, but equally the community seeks the benefits of renewable energy generation.  The PRPS’s use of the term ‘avoid’ simply does not acknowledge those shades of grey. Do we really want to shut the door to new wind generation opportunities in Otago, or do we want the opportunity to assess applications as they come along?

Once again the PRPS does not include enough detail to allow us to decide where the answer is going to be black and white and where we would like the opportunity for more flexibility. The result of this chapter is to leave us with a highly protectionist regime with little scope to allow developments that have benefits, but come with some cost to one of the significant values identified in the chapter. In my view this does not achieve sustainable management.

So, how can we fix it? There needs to be a focus on the region. Rather than just parroting Act, we need to look at where and what values are present in Otago. Where are our ONL’s and our outstanding water bodies? The PRPS dips its toe in the water with this degree of specificity in relation to surf breaks. Objective 2.2.10 specifically identifies 4 surf breaks that are to be protected. Why has this not been done for any of the other natural and physical resources the PRPS seek to protect?

I think we can be forgiven for thinking that the ORC thought that having the discussion about what resources are to receive wholesale protection was all just a bit hard. If that is the case then the PRPS should leave the door open for the community to have that discussion another day when we have the information we need to understand the implications of our decisions. Either the ORC need to provide the level of detail necessary to understand where effects are to be avoided and how that will affect us. Or, they should avoid using the word avoid.

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