Ruataniwha Dam moratorium echoed by new regional council majority

By Victoria White

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HALT: The site of the proposed 80-metre Ruataniwha Dam in Central Hawke's Bay. PHOTO/FILE
HALT: The site of the proposed 80-metre Ruataniwha Dam in Central Hawke's Bay. PHOTO/FILE

Although new Hawke's Bay Regional councillors have not even been inducted yet , changes are on the cards for the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme.

Preliminary results of this weekend's local body elections have revealed a perceived 5-4 split in council has shifted, with those who favour the dam - Fenton Wilson, Alan Dick, and Debbie Hewitt -now the minority.

With around $20 million invested, and years of work gone into the scheme, former council chairman Mr Wilson is maintaining his pre-election position that a new council would not mean the end for the dam.

However re-elected Hastings councillor Rex Graham, tipped by some to take the chairman role this term, is joining the call for a moratorium on it.

After spending the past three years as part of the minority - where councillors from the Hastings, and Ngaruroro wards voted in line with concerns on the dam - the public appear to have sent a message through their re-election, and that of staunch anti-dam campaigner Paul Bailey in Napier, over pro-dam hopefuls in both wards.

According to Local Government New Zealand, it is possible for an incoming council to change a decision made by a former council - but this will depend on the significance of the decision, and how far implementation of it had progressed.

In the case of a major or significant decision a council would need to amend its long term plan and consult with the community - a process which could be very costly.

Mr Wilson has echoed this: while a newly-elected council could choose to back-track on up to 50 decisions made around the scheme, this would require huge amounts of time, a revisiting of public consultation, and cost the ratepayer.

When asked if a new council, given the majority, could decide to alter the path forward for the dam, he said, "it's not as simple as changing the direction".

Given the amount already spent on the process, "before that money was written off you'd want to make sure that was absolutely the right decision to make, and people would need to be a little better informed".

Yesterday Ms Hewitt agreed with him. The dice had been rolled, she said, but she hoped to be part of a positive team, which would focus on constructive projects.

"There's no reason why council should be setting out to undermine what the last two councils have worked on."

Mr Dick said, "if the Hastings four plus the one from Napier decide to use their numbers, there'll be some significant changes".

If this would affect the future of the dam, Mr Dick said "time will tell".

As only two councillors voted against conditions precedent being met for the dam in July, Mr Wilson said the fulfilment of this was all needed before the dam would proceed.

But this activity is what Mr Graham is calling to stop, "as soon as possible".

On Saturday returning Napier councillor Neil Kirton also called for a moratorium on any future action until the new council had "got all our ducks in a row".

This would include the Hawke's Bay Regional Council Investment Company's (HBRIC) leave of appeal in the Supreme Court, any activity to secure needed land under the Public Works Act, and discussions with the unannounced institutional investor.

There has been speculation Mr Graham could be chosen to chair the regional council over the next term - yesterday he remained tight-lipped, saying the new council would elect its new chair.

He has been supported in his call by fellow Hastings councillor Tom Belford, and new Napier councillor Paul Bailey.

Hastings councillor Rick Barker said he thought it was time for reflection, and a stock take on the dam, but added "if Rex calls for a moratorium I'd be fine with that too."

Ngaruroro councillor Peter Beaven is currently overseas and could not be reached for comment.

Throughout his campaign Mr Kirton did not declared a stance on the dam.

"I'm not prepared to risk throwing away $20 million in ratepayer investment just because I feel strongly against it. If there was sufficient evidence then it should go forward," he said, subsequent to the conditions around it.

He did not care if he was viewed as sitting on the fence on the issue, "I have to sit there until I have sufficient evidence to come off".

Re-elected Mr Belford said regardless of the amount invested in the dam, stopping it from going forward was "absolutely a possibility".

The $20m invested so far paled in comparison to the total cost of building the dam. Parts of the money had gone toward beneficial things such as soil mapping, and preparations for plan change six.

"It's a matter of political will, not legality."

Forest & Bird lawyer Sally Gepp said she thought the new council would be taking legal advice on the issue as soon as possible.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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