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