More transparency needed

By Lawrence Gullery

There are clear guidelines showing how the public must be included in projects such as the Ruataniwha water storage dam, but many councils around New Zealand are falling short of expectations, marked out in law, aimed at accountability to ratepayers and residents.

Massey University Associate Professor Christine Cheyne said the Local Government Act provided "very good principles" for public consultation and transparency over projects which had a major impact on the public.

"But I am not seeing that happening enough, not just here in Hawke's Bay, it's around many big decisions, we need to lift our game.

"Councils, when they are engaging communities, it is complex and challenging but I think it's important not to avoid the challenge and shift it to a board of inquiry, and move away from the local resource consent process which can disenfranchise local people."

Ms Cheyne is a local government specialist and senior lecturer in resource and environmental planning at Massey University. She was also a member of the Local Government Rates Inquiry in 2007.

She lives in Hastings and had kept a close eye on the unfolding work and issues around the Ruataniwha dam as a "resident and ratepayer" of Hawke's Bay.

She was keen to see how well Hawke's Bay Regional Council had engaged the community over decisions made on the Ruataniwha water storage project. It was important the council was accountable to its communities which were "a diverse body of people".

Ms Cheyne said the formation of lobby group Transparent Hawke's Bay and a recently penned letter by the mayors of Napier and Hastings to the regional council, both asking for more time for the public to be involved in the dam, were signs ratepayers weren't comfortable with the pace of the project, the quality and timing of information released.

There were also issues raised around a perceived conflict of interest because there were three regional councillors and the council's chief executive on the regional council's investment company's transitional board which was heading the Ruataniwha project.

"I can well understand the concerns that residents and ratepayers have and I think it's really important with a project of this scale because it is the biggest project in 30 years, for it to be perceived to be under going a robust process.

"The council had a very explicit agenda of wanting to develop this water storage facility and this form of water storage, being a very strong advocate of the project. So when you have been in that position it is going to be seen as having a very close interest and therefore it is going to be difficult to show there are no conflicts when you take up a different role from being a developer.

"I think the onus is on the council to demonstrate much more rigorously, that there is a robust process as we go through further stages."

Ms Cheyne said there were plenty of examples where council control organisations (CCOs) allowed councillors to manage big projects at arms-length.

"But I think this is different, not in the nature of many CCOs. With CCOs there is a whole series of accountability around statement of intents and so I think that this doesn't look like an ordinary CCO, it is unique."

Ms Cheyne questioned whether the Ruataniwha dam should be deemed a project of national significance and its resource consent handled by a board of inquiry. As earlier stated, the move would take some of the local decision making power away from Hawke's Bay people.

"This is a broader concern rather than just Ruataniwha because so many infrastructure projects are being taken away from local and regional communities on the grounds they are matters of national significance. We see that in the transport area and other areas of irrigation and fresh water management."

She said it was somewhat misleading to suggest because the dam had wider implications for the national economy, it was grounds for taking it away from those most affected.

"I would not want to see too much distancing from the region in terms of the decision making process. We need to give proper weight to the people of the region, they are the ones most affected and the ones paying for it in their rates.

The tax payer, through an irrigation fund, will contribute but it is the region where it is located that has to be given proper weight."

The nature and scale of the project meant it was important for the regional council to present information on the dam in a "timely way" which met the principles of the Local Government Act.

"The information needs to be made available to those affected and those with an interest. There are a number of principles in the Act which allow for that and I question whether those have been fully reflected in the decision making process to date.

"Councils are given discretion how they use those as guideline for decisions but I think when you have such a big project, the burden of proof is on the council to demonstrate it has made information available to people who want to be informed in a way those people need."

The regional council had made a "good effort" to make information available but the reports were technical, long and sometimes posted late or just before submission deadlines.

Other councils had used tribunals, panels or community stake holder groups to publicly explain and present technical reports.

"I think that tribunals and advisory panels are mechanisms that council needs to think about using where you have complex decisions to make. There is vast amount of experience internationally about how to have effective engagement around these issues that require public understanding of science."

Ms Cheyne said there were always tensions between making "timely decisions" on big infrastructure projects versus the time needed to hear public submissions and feedback. It was an area of the Resource Management Act which regularly received criticism.

"I agree there is a need for timely decision making but in cases of very large projects like the Ruataniwha water storage, we need to ensure that there isn't indecent haste that too can be very costly in the long term to the community.

"We can find plenty of examples where projects have been ill advised and I think taking extra time is important to get that buy-in and best information for decision making."

She did not think the project needed to be rushed to avoid any impact from possible Hawke's Bay council amalgamation or change over in staff working on the dam.

"There are plenty of opportunities to obtain specialist advice and I don't see a huge turn over in staff. Changes to local government will come about as a democratic process, what the residents of the region want. I don't see a new structure (council) causing the project to stop."

She also did not think a change in government would bring the dam to a grinding halt. It could become an council election issue however, when people go to vote in October.

"It is starting to become more prominent in the media and problem in discussions around the dining tables, when people chat about the direction that the different councils are taking."

The letter by the Napier and Hastings mayors was "really significant" because it indicated there was "disquiet" in the community about the haste of the Ruataniwha project.

"I think that urban ratepayers will be contributing a lot and they probably don't realise quite how much. They haven't had the closeness of the decision making process that perhaps the rural community has had.

"There is a lot of poverty in our urban community and those mayors are needing to take some responsibility for what is quite a big financial burden from urban ratepayers."

Ms Cheyne was familiar with the Manawatu and Wanganui regions where the cost of a flood protection scheme was shared between urban and rural people.

It provided "a clear and direct" benefit to the urban community in Wanganui and Palmerston North because it protected the investment in real estate in urban areas.

"It is fair to say urban community benefits from the productivity of the agricultural sector (in Hawke's Bay), we are inter-connected. But there isn't the direct visible benefit (with the dam) and it's not, I think, immediate. There isn't a complete disconnect but not that really tight connection in the Horizons (Wanganui/Manawatu) region.

"Therefore you have to say who really are the beneficiaries of this expenditure and I think urban ratepayers certainly need to take a lot more interest for what the implications of this is for their rates."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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