12 Oct 2013

Lobby group fears lack of regional council vote will cause problems

4:41 pm on 12 October 2013

Canterbury environmental groups say the lack of a public vote on the make-up of the regional council could lead to health and environmental problems in the future.

Environment Canterbury (ECAN), was sacked in May 2010, and replaced by Government appointed commissioners who will remain in place until 2016.

A month after the regional council was dismantled more than 3000 people marched through the streets of Christchurch protesting against the lack of democracy.

However a snapshot of public opinion from Christchurch's streets now finds many people aren't bothered they don't get to chose their regional councillors. "I wasn't aware there was no elections for ECAN," said one man. "I think we've got enough on our plate in this district without worrying about something like that as well."

Malvern Hills Protection Society spokesperson Rosalie Snoyinik says the lack of an election should be a huge concern to people. She says the appointed commissioners are approving new irrigation schemes that increase the numbers of dairy cows on the Canterbury Plains.

"If you get nitrate contamination of, especially, groundwater there is no way that you can clean that up. Once we reach that point of no return, there's nothing we can do about it, we'll just have to live with the pollution and find alternative drinking water and that's going to be a very costly exercise."

Water Rights Trust member Murray Rodgers says the longer the commissioners are in place, the more irrigation schemes will be approved, making it increasingly difficult to improve the situation.

"You have this enormous investment going into establishing dairy farms - it's capital intensive - and then to unwind from that becomes very problematic."

South Canterbury Federated Farmers president Ivon Hurst says the appointed commissioners have done an excellent job at progressing the water issues in the region. He says keeping the appointed commissioners on has allowed them to cement in place the strategies they have developed.

"The advantage of keeping them in place has been that they've been given a wee bit more time to allow consultation with the wider Canterbury community. They have been pushing their legislation through as fast as they possibly could, simply because they had a finite time in which to do it in, and the issues that we're dealing with are huge, they require an awful lot of thought and they're the sort of issues that you cannot just make a snap judgement on."

The former chair of Environment Canterbury, Sir Kerry Burke, says he assumes the only reason the Government didn't allow for fresh elections is that all of the water had not been allocated.

"I think that it's basically an outrageous situation where one region across the whole of the country - only one region - is chosen to have its democracy withdrawn. People who are being taxed should be represented by people they vote for like they are now in the local elections everywhere else in New Zealand except for the Canterbury region."

Another former regional councillor Jo Kane says she understands that many Cantabrians have other things to focus on at the moment, but she says the lack of elections could have a major impact down the track.

"My worry is that what is happening, what they don't know about, and how quickly some of the work is then accelerated, especially in water quality and quantity. They're going to wake up one day and say 'when did this happen?'."

The Minister for Local Government and the Minister for the Environment were not available to comment on the issue, nor were any of the regional council commissioners.