Category Archives: Local body politics

A completely biased and self-serving Insiders Guide to Local Elections

It is difficult to know who to vote for in local elections. Most people don’t really know what councils do. They’ve never heard half of the names before. They are confused by the council reports and plans. And that’s just the candidates.

So here is a completely self-interested and biased guide to council elections. You’re welcome.

First of all, you are voting for three completely different things: Regional councillors; District Health Board members; and the District Council mayor and councillors. The first two of those cover the whole Bay of Plenty. As we know, people from the Western Bay have the same attitude to east of Te Puke as Aucklanders have to south of the Bombays. They barely know it’s there, and kind of wish it weren’t, so getting more Eastern Bay voices on those two is important.

The tricky thing for district council elections is how to tell which candidates will do the best job. That means, firstly, figuring out which sitting councillors did a good job last time and, secondly, which new councillors might do a good job next time. Unless you spend days sitting through council meetings (and frankly who would do that if they weren’t being paid for it?) it is very hard to answer that.

You can use attendance rates. The Beacon recently published the percentage of full council meetings each WDC councillor attended. It would have been good to see those figures across all the meetings we have to attend, and how many other responsibilities each councillor has put their hand up for, but it was helpful. Of course some people have good reasons for struggling to make meetings over the past year, and it’s partly about what they do when they ARE there. Being in the room is not the same as being present.

Effective councillors need to do more than just turn up. They need to understand the machinery of council: it grinds slow (this is even more important for the mayor). They need to read the reports, ask questions about things they don’t understand or are unsure about, test ideas and recommendations from staff, propose new initiatives, engage with and advocate for a broad community of people, and make good decisions on behalf of the whole district. They need political nous. Some sitting councillors are very good at all this. One or two others are a little more….. well, let’s just say that you don’t want any councillors on stand-by mode.

Media reports of council meetings are useful in trying to understand how different councillors perform. You do have to treat them with caution though. When the media reports on debates in council, the focus is on memorable quotes rather than quality of participation. This is particularly annoying when they put a good quote in someone else’s mouth. And no, I’m not bitter about that article from May 2017.

Candidate meetings are good for evaluating new candidates, and not enough people go to them. You can get the vibe of the contenders, suss their energy, hear their broad vision (if any). It can all get a bit wishful though. I heard one candidate for WDC talking about getting the regional council to pay for something. Asking for money from the regional council is like suggesting boat ramp fees for Whakatāne fishermen. Those two fingers are not a V for Victory sign.

So what do you do? You have to weigh up all the different bits of information available to you and give it your best shot. You have to think what you are looking for in broad terms. The role of a councillor is a governance role, which means big picture thinking. Good councillors have vision and can see what is on the horizon in global, national and local terms. A good council is diverse, with a mix of genders, ethnicities, ages and experiences to inform discussion. Councillors need the ability to work with other people and debate the issues without getting personal or factionalised.

Finally, full respect to everyone who has put their name forward. Joking aside, it takes courage to put yourself up for public office. You won’t always agree with them but councillors are all there to do service for the community. Lord knows you wouldn’t do it for the pay!

(A slightly edited version of this was published in the Whakatāne Beacon 24/9/19)

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Why I am standing in local elections

Whakatāne is a spectacular place with a great community, and it’s been an honour serving on our Council since 2016. Like any community around the country we face some serious challenges – but also exciting opportunities. By becoming more sustainable, more resilient and more regenerative, we both prepare for those challenges and make the most of our opportunities. What that means locally is reducing our resource use, building our capacity to adapt to change, and enhancing natural ecosystems where ever we can.

Since my election three years ago the Whakatāne District Council (WDC) is starting to take these issues more seriously. The Climate Change Steering Committee, which I chair, is only new, but it is driving that change.

Sustainability

We know that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital. The Climate Change committee has measured council emissions and begun reducing them. For example, we have to earthquake strengthen the Civic Centre because it is the Civil Defence HQ in any disaster. This is a great opportunity to make it more energy efficient at the same time. I also expect to see solar PV panels on at least some of our public buildings starting this term. All of this will have long term cost savings as well as environmental benefits.

We have developed a set of Climate Change Principles to make sure all future decision-making takes climate change into account. This is about reducing emissions and preparing for the impacts of global warming. Those have been out for consultation, and the community has been overwhelmingly supportive.

We are moving towards more electric and hybrid vehicles. It is not just changing vehicles, but changing how we use them. Even more, the Active Whakatāne Strategy is about supporting people in council and the community to get out of their cars and in to other transport modes, which has environmental, health, safety, and economic benefits. That ties to disability access too. If it works for mobility scooters and wheel chairs it will work for pedestrians and others as well.

Resilience

We face big infrastructure challenges, such as the ‘three waters’ (drinking water, waste water / sewerage, and storm water). It’s big money. How we did things in the past won’t always be good enough today, so we have to do things better. Climate change adds huge pressure on top of that. Councils all across the country face these same issues and so being able to talk to Central Government is critical. It is helpful to have councillors who know their way around the Beehive and who have good relationships with key ministers.

It is not just about hard infrastructure though. Just as important for resilience is strong communities. The Edgecumbe flood demonstrated that very clearly. As well as pipes and asphalt, we need to be able to to work with communities to understand and support their aspirations and build connections. The work I have done with Whakatāne Ki Mua, with Greenprint for Whakatāne (while helped spark both Waste Zero Whakatāne, and the Food Sovereignty Network), and with Awatapu Otamakaukau Kaitiaki Trust are examples.

Collaborating with mana whenua is also important. It is about respecting local hapū and iwi. They have an intergenerational commitment to this place as kaitiaki and are important for the expertise and the resources they can bring to the table. The Whakatāne Regeneration Program is a nation-leading example of how Council can work with tangata whenua for the good of everyone.

Regenerative

Integrating nature into our solutions, such as wetlands for flood protection and water holding, is the way of the future. People talk about ‘Biophilic Design’ as a way to benefit people and nature and provide long term, low energy solutions to infrastructure problems. We need more of this kind of thinking. Council has great staff with great ideas but they need supportive political leadership who understand that we need to do things differently in the 21st century.

Becoming More Strategic

Tying it all together is the need for strategic prioritisation. The WDC is really good at leveraging money out of central government and out of funding bodies. The downside is that council can become too opportunistic. We can end up chasing the money. With the big challenges in front of us – and of course challenges are just opportunities to do things better – we have to be very disciplined about how we spend money. I don’t think this means just doing pipes and roads, the hard engineering stuff. We need to have a much more holistic understand of what helps communities thrive. But it does mean being very clear how our spending leads us towards our strategic priorities. We need to become very good at synergising activities to fulfil multiple functions where we can (permaculture thinking), and we have to be prepared to say “no” to things that may sound great and we can get some co-funding for, but which don’t lead to where we need to go.

This is a really important time in history. Council has a really important role to play. To do that it needs to have a clear strategy. Whoever you vote for, it is important to choose people who can see the big picture, who can exercise strong governance leadership, and who know how to get things done. Importantly we also need more diversity around the council table. A wider range of skills, and of life experiences, will lead to better decision-making.

Above all we need people with vision. Vote for me and make a difference.

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RESPONDING TO CLIMATE CHANGE IN WHAKATĀNE

This is an amazing moment in history. Young people, sick of seeing decades of denial, procrastination and evasion on climate change from political and business leaders are taking to the streets. School children are striking from school. Youth are organising direct action movements. People are demanding action.

They need to. Local Government New Zealand has drafted a Climate Change Declaration setting out some principles and aspirations for how local government can address the challenges of climate change. It is not radical – it asks councils to promote walking and public transport, improve resource efficiency and healthy homes and support renewable energy and electric vehicles. It recognises that local government needs to work with central government and with their communities.

Some 56 councils have signed but around 24 still refuse to do so. Thames-Coromandel Mayor Sandra Goudie says that the issue is ‘politically charged’  (because politics is anathema for a politician!). Meanwhile the West Coast Regional Council is opposing the Government’s Zero Carbon bill because “the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt”. Apparently near unanimous agreement in the international scientific community is not sufficient.

Here in Whakatāne, climate change is already real for us. The flooding in Edgecumbe last year put our vulnerability to rising sea levels and increased storms into sharp focus. We know we can expect more of that. We know that the water table in the Rangitaiki Plains – once a wetland covering some 300km2 – is rising. A number of our people live under escarpments, along the coastline or clustered around our rivers. We have no room for complacency.

edgecumbe

Like much of local government, our council has been developing scattered pieces of work over the years, adjusting our district plan to incorporate climate change related hazards, but it has been piecemeal. There have been some attempts in the past to develop a Sustainability Strategy, but that never really went very far. What the organisation needed was more leadership at a political level, more strategic governance that recognises the real threat that climate change poses for our council and for our community. That leadership is now there.

Our Mayor, Tony Bonne, gets it. He signed the Mayors Declaration as soon as he found out about it. The issues of climate change and of sustainability are now being regularly raised around the council table, and not just by me. There is, I think, a strong acceptance around the table that climate change is real, that it poses a significant threat, and that we need to address it hand in hand with our communities.

In our organisation we are taking real steps. Our new CEO, Steph O’Sullivan, has a strong background understanding of climate change, of resilience and of partnering across communities, businesses and with the Crown. We have developed a high level Climate Change Steering Group with representation from senior leadership and with myself as the political representation. We have a Climate Change Project Team that has representation from the people that will be implementing our strategies. We are developing Climate Change principles based on the LGNZ declaration but drilling down into how they apply to our district, with input from across the organisation. The key thing about those principles is that they will flow through into decision-making across the organisation so that sustainability becomes embedded into decision-making rather than remaining a clip-on.

We have begun the process of bench-marking our own emissions so that we can improve and change, by signing up to the CEMARS programme. We have also done an energy audit to see where our bulk energy use is and how we can reduce it. That has given us a number of potential places where we can save money and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The next step is a more detailed investigation to see which of those possibilities might work in practice. This includes exploring the potential for adding solar generation to our buildings, which has highlighted that we need to address our approach to new public buildings and incorporate basic sustainable building design principles – something we have so far failed to do.

Council needs to address our own emissions, our own robustness (ability to withstand shocks), and our own resilience (ability to spring back from shocks). This is about showing leadership. Perhaps even more importantly, though, we need to be leading a deep discussion in our communities. Neither council nor government will ‘fix’ climate change. We can help or hinder but the most significant decisions will be made elsewhere. In this district, for example, the decisions around land use are critical both in terms of our emissions as a district and in terms of how we adapt to climate change. Council has an important role in making sure that people have good information when they make their own decisions about their homes, their businesses, their farms, their marae. We need community discussions that are non-judgemental, open and honest, and resourced with reliable information.

That process has begun, even though it has a long way to go. Whakatāne Ki Mua is the biggest community engagement that council has ever done, establishing a foundation for what the community wants for our communities. The GreenPrint forums have been exploring sustainability, resilience and regenerative design for our district and that has led to two community initiatives – Waste Zero and the Food Sovereignty network. A number of cool projects are being showcased during this months Sustainable Backyards which, for Whakatāne, is based out of Wharaurangi. In making that site available to Envirohub for the month, council has also committed to engaging our community around climate change, as the first step towards that deep discussion.

The horizon on climate change doesn’t stop in 2080 or 2100. The world will keep warming, oceans will keep rising, storms will keep getting stronger regardless of what we do. However we can influence how much worse it will get, for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Imagine what our own great grandparents would say to us if we refuse to act now, when we know.

This isn’t about blame or judgement, it is about coming together to talk about how we are going to respond, collectively and individually, to this challenge. Most importantly it is about recognising climate change as an opportunity. Not for a few people to enrich themselves, but to genuinely change how we do things. We can create a future that is better than our past and present. By becoming genuinely sustainable and resilient, by building stronger community networks and looking out for each other, we can solve not just climate change but many of our other issues as well. Climate is just a symptom of a deeper problem. We have become disconnected from the rest of life and we have become disconnected from each other. The results are not just ecological but social, economic and cultural. Redesigning our way of life to put people and planet at the centre is worth doing regardless of climate change. Climate change is just the driver.

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To Thine Own Self Be True

(Profile piece on me by Jenny Michie in local Plenty magazine August 2017)

Nandor Tanczos may well have one of the most mispronounced names in the country. Certainly in my head he’s always been Nandor Tandor but I know that’s not right, so while his dog and my dog establish sprawling space at the café where we meet, I need to establish the correct way to say his name.

It’s two syllables – first one is Tahnt – rhymes with aunt. Second is zosh. So Tahnt-zosh. My first name is said Naan-dor with a long ‘a’ like the bread” he explains with a smile. I suspect he’s had this conversation before. And with that outa the way and our respective hounds equally sorted, we can begin.

Nandor Tanczos is an immigrant; his father was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising and his Cape Coloured mother left South Africa as it was constructing the brutal racial segregation that was Apartheid. Respectively his parents were a refrigeration engineer and a Home Economics teacher/entrepreneur, so we can assume education and hard work were important family values. They found sanctuary in England, where Nandor and his brother were born, and in 1974 the family immigrated to New Zealand.

Being an early and avid reader, young Nandor had great expectations of coming to a land where Maori culture was dominant. His visions of living in a raupō whare and wearing a puipui to a country school were dashed somewhat when the family moved to Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore. A wonderful place to grow up, digging for pipi on the beach and working in the local dairy for milkshakes and peanut slabs, but not a multicultural experience.

However, those early days as a new migrant gave Nandor both empathy for others, especially second-generation immigrants, and started his own path of self-discovery.

My whole life has been a journey of recreating an identity and sense of belonging, in a way”.

At 14 he spent a year in Hungary with his grandparents. The complete immersion and living under a communist regime had a profound influence on the teenager from Takapuna and fuelled a desire to become a journalist. The family relocated back to England when he finished school and he promptly enrolled in a journalism course in the North of England. Only to drop out towards the end of it.

The reason I wanted to be a journalist was to be a fearless defender of the truth – after a while I realised that was an unlikely career outcome”.

Then followed a complete immersion of another sort. In Thatcher’s Britain there was much to protest and this he did. During the year-long Miners’ Strike the government froze the union’s strike fund; Nandor was on the ground and collected money for the workers, though he was physically prevented from entering mining villages in the North. “That was the first time I’d ever seen the police used so explicitly as a political force. What I saw in Britain was the police used to destroy a movement.”

He was also involved in the anti-nuclear movement and lived on the road; campaigning for peace.

Coming back to New Zealand in 1985 Nandor was keen to continue his studies to understand the world and make it a better place. During his last year at Waikato University he had a Road to Damascus experience with his discovery of Rastafari. “It wasn’t that I became a Rastafari, it’s just that when I discovered who and what Rastafari was, I realised that’s exactly what I was already.”

We of a slightly older generation have known Nandor (in the way that one ever really knows a public figure) since 1999 when he entered Parliament as the dreadlock-wearing, skate-boarding, civil rights and hemp-promoting young Rastafarian List MP for the Green Party. I was working in Parliament at the time and he was a far cry from the usual crop of MPs, both in looks and attitude.

Nandor did in fact introduce a bill to allow hemp production, which was then illegal (it’s a great source of nutrition as well as cloth and the traditional hemp rope) but the Labour-led government of the time decided it was such a good idea “We’re going to think of it ourselves”. They voted his bill down and introduced their own legislation which effectively did the same thing (but not as effectively he says).

Nevertheless, it is still an issue that Nandor is passionate about, but not in the way many people would think.

We’ve taken pastoral farming to an extreme,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of places where we’re trying to grow dairy cows and it’s just not good land use – such as the Canterbury Plains. Our number one environmental issue – and this is true around the world – is pastoral farming. Hemp production, whilst not a magic bullet, is part of the solution of creating mosaics of productive use; that is exploiting the specific niches and microclimates that are in our landscapes instead of this paint-roller effect where we say we’re just going to grow grass everywhere and put cows on it.”

This is in fact permaculture. Nandor’s pet project, which brings us back to how he came to be here in the Bay of Plenty some years after leaving Parliament, which was his ‘home’ for almost nine years (he left after realizing if he stayed any longer, he wouldn’t want to leave, so comfortable is that particular golden cage).

Nandor’s wife is from Murupara and the family moved to the Bay several years ago. But even without his wife’s roots to the Bay, Nandor has long held a torch for this place.

Lots of sunshine, it’s beautiful, it’s got some of the richest history in the country, both Māori and Pākeha; it’s one of the earliest places for Maori settlement and it’s a stronghold of te reo Maori – people are still growing up here as native speakers. And we’ve got this amazing geology. The earth moves, it’s so alive!”

They intend to stay. Nandor says he feels more at home here than anywhere else in the country, partly because it’s so welcoming. “There’s loads of beautiful places but in a lot of smaller centres you get the feeling that if you weren’t born and bred there you’re never quite going to belong.”

Last year Nandor was elected to the Whakatane District Council. After so many years in Parliament, why enter local government? “There’s so many amazing things going on here but I felt there was a disconnection, things aren’t quite integrated together.” And this is where his passion about permaculture comes into play. The essence of which is to link things together to create beneficial relationships.

I see the potential for this area to be leader in sustainability, in resilience, in regenerative economic and community development and so I felt like I had a useful perspective to bring to the politics of the place.”

So in two year’s time what is a job well done on Council going to look like? “Apart from competently doing the basic work, the day to day stuff that needs to be done well to keep things moving, there’s a few things that I want to see some progress on.”

One of them is the Awatapu Reserve, a lagoon formed by the diversion of the Whakatane River in the 1950s. The original area is called Otamakaokao and a group of locals has started a kaitiaki group and is engaging with the community and council to restore the mauri of the area. “The water is really degraded because it was cut off from the river, so it’s dying. So we’ve got this project to bring it back to life and I’d like to see some real progress on this – it’s about ecological restoration, about community development and also about food security. I want to see a management plan for the reserve which is grounded in what the community wants.”

Another marker of success would be real progress towards solar power, where we are seeing solar panels on public buildings and some kind of process for helping households into solar hot water.”

Here Nandor sets me right on the Council consent fees for solar panels. I thought there was a hefty fee but in fact there are no consent fees for putting solar panels on your house. “A proposal came to council to start charging fees for solar, but Council decided not to do that. Actually the Mayor was very strong on it. But I’d like to see more done. Whakatane is regularly the sunshine capital and yet there’s barely any solar power here. I’ve got a 3 point solar plan for the District and I want to make progress on that.”

The third area where he’d like to see progress is in the creative sector, and he really sees the creative industries as a cornerstone in the economic development of the area.

Creative workers bring their own work with them; when they work in that sector, they often work primarily online and we’ve got UF broadband here. You can do what you do and live in the most beautiful part of the country. So at the minimum we need a clear strategy in place as to how we are going support the creative sector in this District.”

I’m a huge fan of this idea. I’ve long thought Whakatane should be to the North Island what Nelson is to the South – a natural home for the creative arts.

Nandor wraps up the interview by bringing us back to permaculture.

Most people apply permaculture to land use, around small holdings and lifestyle blocks, but what I teach is social permaculture.” And it is important to recall here that he’s got a postgraduate diploma in management and sustainability from Waikato University and is working on a thesis around applying permaculture design to economic development.

The great model of sustainability is nature itself. So we need to look at what are the characteristics of natural systems and how we can apply that to our own economic systems. And when you start to do that, it’s a very fruitful way of looking at things.”

Despite not being able to sensibly pronounce his name, I’ve kept an eye on Nandor Tanczos for over 20 years. He was an interesting man in Parliament and he is now an interesting man here in the Bay of Plenty, with tangible goals to improve the area and the people in it. What I didn’t realize then but do now is that he also possesses a quality that I’m valuing more and more the older I get. It seems the wise advice Polonius gave to his son Laertes in Hamlet – “To thine own self be true” – embodies the man sitting across from me.

Plus, he’s got a dog. Need I say more?

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Youth Offending in the Eastern Bay

I heard some really interesting news on Wednesday. I was representing the District Council at a meeting of the Youth Offending Team, and the Police Youth Aid Officer was talking about offending rates in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

To give some quick background, the Youth Offending Team is a monthly forum where different agencies working with young people can get together and share what they are up to. Not everyone can make each month of course, but we had people from Oranga Tamariki, REAP, Voyagers, Tūwharetoa Ki Kawerau Hauora, Manna Support, Te Pou Oranga o Whakatōhea and others. It was a really interesting and informative meeting that covered a lot of ground.

One of the things I almost always hear in these kinds of forums are cases of really successful schemes that got funded for a pilot, proved their effectiveness and then struggle for enough on-going funding to work properly. This time it was REAP’s Manaaki Programme, designed to support kids to stay in school. Being disconnected from school can be a real blow to some young people as it can disconnect them from friends, adult support and opportunities. It was great to see different agencies offering advice about where pūtea could be found to support this important initiative.

I was also pleased to hear about a mobile playgroup that is starting up and will be focussed on Awatapu to start. Lots of comments made at the Awatapu community day a few weeks ago highlighted the need for more facilities for childrens, so this should provide a useful service in the area.

But the really interesting news for me came when Tom Brooks started talking about offending rates. Apparently youth offending rates across the country are sinking rapidly, except among young Māori. Youth offending by Māori is going up across the country – but in the Eastern Bay it is going down. Similarly the high teenage pregnancy rates in Kawerau and Opōtiki have plummeted. This is a great story and one that I have not heard before.

“What has caused that?” I asked. In reply I was told that the police are being less precious and are taking a more responsive approach through Problem Oriented Policing (look it up). I heard about the police working with iwi, such as through the Hui-ā-Whānau that Tūhoe is championing. I heard about agencies working with the whole family, including siblings, rather than just focussing on “problem” children. I heard about less reliance on courts to solve problems. Most of all I heard about the community looking for its own solutions and coming up with the goods.

To me this was a reminder that we live in a really resilient, grounded and innovative community here in the Eastern Bay, and that we have a lot going on that other areas on the country can learn from. It was great to be part of the YOT and I look forward to more.

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Risk and Responsibility – some thoughts on Matatā

A couple of weeks ago I voted against a Whakatāne District Council decision to try to force Matatā residents in the Awatarariki fanhead from their homes. I was the sole voice against, but to me it was a step too far.

The issue goes back to 2005, when a debris flow destroyed 27 homes and put the future of the township into question. Many residents were opposed to leaving then and the WDC spent millions exploring engineering solutions to safeguard the town. In 2012 it came to the conclusion that protecting residents against another debris flow is practically impossible.

Since then the focus has been on moving people out of the danger zone. The WDC has been working on a ‘voluntary retreat’ package intended to buy out affected residents at a fair price, if we can get Central Government and the Regional Council to chip in. Most residents have indicated that they are willing to at least entertain the idea, but a small number are adamant that they do not want to leave. They just want to be left alone. It is these people that the vote was aimed at.

Because of the risk of loss of life when the next debris flow happens, the WDC wants to change its own District Plan to stop any new building in the danger zone. It does not have the power, however, to move the people already living there. Only the Bay of Plenty Regional Council can do that, with a change to the Regional Water and Land Plan.

WDC has been asking BOPRC to do that at the same time as the changes to the District Plan. Both councils have legal obligations to minimise risk and this is seen as a way for them to do that. The BOPRC, however, seems unwilling or unable to make a decision either way. Because of this, the District Council is looking at making a private plan change to the Regional Plan. If it goes through, people in the danger zone will have to leave their homes.

I can’t help wondering what level of force the council will be prepared to use to make this happen.

To be clear – I support a District Plan change to stop any new building in the danger zone. I support a voluntary retreat package – although I am very worried about the cost. It will be a big bill that will benefit a small number of people and our rates bills are already high.

But I do not support evicting people from their homes because we think they are at risk. People make lawful choices every day to do far more dangerous things than living in Matatā. As long as people are fully informed, I do not believe it is the role of the Council to decide their risks for them.

I write this not to criticise other councillors, who voted as they did for good reasons: genuine concern for residents, as well as an awareness that councils have a legal responsibility to do everything in their power to mitigate or remove threats to life. But by changing the District Plan, I believe, the WDC has done that.

There is often a tension between the regulation of public safety and people’s right to make choices over their own lives. In going beyond its own area of responsibility in this instance, I believe that the WDC has tipped the balance too far.

Published in the Whakatane Beacon 11/7/17

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Profiting from water should trigger fee

There is something about the idea of taking our purest water, putting it into plastic bottles and shipping it overseas that just doesn’t seem right. Even less when the bottling company pays nothing for the water. The final straw is when it isn’t even a NZ company.

This has become a big issue in our district, among other places. The local owners of Otakiri Springs, which takes water of exceptional quality from the Otākiri aquifer, have decided to sell to Nongfu Spring Natural Mineral Water. Some locals, including neighbouring property owner and councillor Mike van der Boom, are objecting. The mayor, Tony Bonne, has welcomed it, saying it will provide jobs for the district. The issue reflects a growing national conflict around water rights and raises a number of questions that are worth exploring in more depth.

Otakiri Springs currently has a consent to take 1200 m3 (1,200,000 L) of water per day specifically for bottling. One report has Nongfu wanting to expand that to 5000m3. It costs them $2003 per year for administration costs on the consent, but they pay nothing for the actual water. The potential turnover with the current consent is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

To put it in context, a random survey of water consents on the Rangitaiki Plains shows that there are dairy farms with much bigger daily allocations than 1200 m3. Dairy farming covers 80% of the plains and at least 10% of the plains is under irrigation. Like the water bottlers, farmers pay consent administration costs but nothing for the water that they use.

Is farming a better use than drinking? The water bottling takes a litre of water, puts it in a plastic bottle and ships it overseas. Dairying, on the other hand, takes close to 1000L of water to make 1L milk, although most of that is not from irrigation. One estimate suggests that across NZ as a whole about 160L of irrigation water go into each L of milk – although it varies from region to region. Ironically most of that milk is dried into powder and exported.

Water bottling has some serious environmental impacts, mostly from the waste from single use plastic bottles. Milk also comes in disposable containers – either plastic bottles or non-recyclable tetrapacks – but has some added environmental problems. Pastoral farming, as a whole, and dairy farming, in particular, is probably the most significant cause of New Zealand’s most serious environmental problems, from climate change to water degradation to soil loss.

Just this January a permanent warning has gone up not to eat pipi from the Waiotahe estuary due to contamination from local dairy farms. While many farmers are trying their best to reduce their environmental impacts, the sheer scale of dairy farming and the increasing intensification (often associated with irrigation) overwhelms these individual efforts.

On the other hand, dairy farming has more significant economic benefits than water bottling. The dairy industry supports a whole load of spin-off businesses that feed money through the local economy. Dairy farms also provide local jobs. Nongfu claims there will be 50 jobs in the bottling plant but it is hard to take that seriously. 50 jobs building the plant, maybe, but once it is up and running no doubt it will be an automated operation with a skeleton crew to oversee and maintain it. There is very little in the way of a supporting industry sector around water bottling.

Probably one of the things that concerns most people, and is the spark for the current debate, is the foreign ownership. Once Otakiri Springs is sold, all the profits will all be siphoned off-shore. This is also true for the increasing number of dairy farms owned off-shore. I do not believe that it is wise to allow New Zealand’s most precious resources – our land and our water – to be owned by overseas interests. I do not oppose all overseas investment, which can bring substantial benefits in terms of new capital, technology transfer and economic diversification. It is an argument for some limits.

The second major issue is the free use of our best water. It is a fallacy to say, as the Government does, that water is owned by no one. Water is owned by everyone, including the non-human users of it. It is a common wealth and should be treated as such, by making sure that anyone who makes a profit from water pays a resource rental back to the community. The rate would be fairly low, but high quality water, for example from the Otakiri aquifer, should attract a higher charge than non-potable water from shallow aquifers.

A resource rental has two benefits. Firstly it puts a price on commercial use of water. This drives more efficient use, in terms of water conservation and also in terms of shifting to higher value uses. There is little reason to use water efficiently when you pay nothing for it.

Secondly, a resource rental generates a fund that can be used in a variety of ways. It could off-set rates, to compensate for the new costs. Alternatively, it could be used to fund the management and restoration of our waterways, administered by a community organisation comprising mana whenua, commercial users, recreational users and environmentalists.

There is not much that can be done about any of this by the local council. The Regional Council deals with water consents and their hands are more or less tied by national legislation. To resolve it will take courage and leadership from the Government. I am not holding my breath.

(Published in the Whakatane Beacon 10 March 2017)

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