Weighing pros and cons of regional policy statement

Bridget Irving

As seen in the Otago Daily Times, July 13th 2015.

The 3rd Chapter of the Proposed Regional Policy Statement for Otago (“PRPS”) seeks that “Communities in Otago are resilient, safe and healthy”. The chapter focusses on natural hazards, climate change, infrastructure, energy supply and urban design. This is a broad range of issues to cover in one section and as a result some of the topics have not received the level of attention they deserve.

The first objective of the chapter seeks to recognise ‘environmental constraints’. While I think I understand what the ORC is trying to get at, it is already addressed by assessing the effects (particularly cumulative effects) of an activity. In that sense the objective does not add anything. I am also concerned about the potential for this policy to be rolled out as opposition to just about anything given the broad definition of ‘environment’ in the Act. Environmental constraints must include consideration of amenity, social, economic, aesthetic and cultural conditions. Those matters are already addressed in other sections. Overall, the policy just creates a fertile ground for argument about whether the environment is constrained without actually advancing the assessment.

Objective 3.2 seeks to minimise natural hazard risk. Natural hazard management has been a hot topic for the ORC for some time.  At the risk of putting words in the ORC’s mouth I think they have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of regulatory control exercised by District Council’s in response to natural hazards. As a result of that the PRPS includes a comprehensive suite of policies in relation to natural hazards.

The real challenge with these provisions is to establish an acceptable balance between an overarching approach seeking to minimise risk with individual property rights and personal responsibility. The classic example of this dynamic playing out is at Karitane where the Holt’s came up with an ingenious solution to flood hazard risks at their estuary front property.  Essentially they will have a home on stilts with a boat on davits to get access to and from the house in the event of a significant flood event. Sure, it is a not a location that will appeal to everyone, but for the Holt’s it is a dream spot.

I think there is sufficient scope within the PRPS to allow for bespoke solutions like the Holt house. The more fraught issue will remain the battle that applicants’ end up having with the ORC to convince them they should be allowed to accept the risk if they wish. Where people are aware of risks they should be entitled to accept them if that is what they want to do. To allow for this I would like to see a policy that specifically recognises the ability for individuals to accept risk.

The ORCs policies on climate change are good. They set clear parameters for recognising the effects of climate change. However, I believe that there could be more corresponding policy that focusses on enabling activities that reduce carbon emissions, sequester carbon and displace fossil fuels.  Such policies are particularly important for projects such as Mihinerangi and the Blueskin Wind Cluster that I mentioned in my last article. If there are policies that focus on the negative effects of those activities then there also needs to be recognition of the positive effects so that those activities have a reasonable chance of obtaining consent.

This leads on to Objective 3.6 that seeks to achieve secure and sustainable energy supplies. The first policy in this suite gives preferential treatment to existing renewable generation capacity over new locations. Ensuring existing infrastructure is fully utilised is a no brainer. However, given the complex relationships in the electricity industry I am concerned that the policy could be used to stifle development of new projects for no good reason. On the flip side other water users need to be wary of policy 3.6.3 that seeks to protect the generation capacity of renewable electricity generation. Irrigators who may wish to obtain some irrigation supply during the early spring and late autumn are likely to struggle in the face of this policy.   

The final section of this chapter focusses on urban design and generally speaking it works. There are some missed opportunities to pursue some of the other objectives in the section. For example Policy 3.6.2 encourages low impact design, however it does not identify design techniques that reduce demand on infrastructure which would also help manage natural hazard risks (such as low impact stormwater systems). A similar lacuna exists in Policy 3.7.3 which relates to designing warmer buildings. The policy refers to maximising solar gain and insulation, but does not mention solar generation capacity in new homes. Including that would help achieve the PRPS objectives for energy supply and climate change.

The urban design section does include one provision that presents significant uncertainty. It seeks to avoid development beyond an urban growth boundary. However, no boundaries for any of the Regions urban areas have been identified. This makes it completely impossible to understand the significance of that provision. It is a disappointing and hugely significant omission from the PRPS.  Also, the growth patterns and resource issues will vary widely across the region (e.g Queenstown versus Dunedin) so I question whether one policy is going to adequately address the different issues faced by different urban centres.

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