A 47-year-old pipe is spewing contaminants into Hawke Bay. Where is the regional council? Is it neglecting its basic mission?

Arguably, the current term of the regional council has seen a transformation of culture and priorities.

The Ruataniwha dam was taken off the table, saving nearly $60m. Resources were re-focused on the environment, with critical projects now under way at Lake Tutira, the Ahuriri Estuary, along the Karamu stream, and Whakaki Lake.

We launched a new farmer-led Future Farming Initiative that will confirm how profitable farming and green farming are one and the same in Hawke's Bay.

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We have created a Sustainable Homes programme that – at no cost to ratepayers – will encourage homeowner investment in solar systems, residential water storage, and modern septic systems, and upgraded reserves at Waitangi Estuary and Pakowhai Park.

We've issued a new 20-year biosecurity plan that extends our commitment to protecting farming productivity – and our biodiversity – from plant and animal pests, seed-funded our new Biodiversity Trust, and initiated a $4.86m plan (including Predator Free NZ) to make Mahia predator free.

Having declared Hawke's Bay off limits to oil and gas development, we're pursuing carbon neutral status by 2040. And we've led development of a 100-year protection plan for the Napier and Hastings coastal areas to address the looming reality of climate change-induced sea level rise and storm damage.

This year, our TANK programme will be notified, setting the course for managing all surface and aquifer waters in the Heretaunga Plains for optimum quality and security of supply.

And we've begun design of a major afforestation programme, which, with public endorsement, will bring immense erosion control, biodiversity and financial benefits.

All this is future-oriented and vital to our community's long term environmental well being. But what about today … and spewing pipelines?

All of these major initiatives depend on public support and permission, which in turn must be based upon ratepayer confidence that the regional council is – first and foremost – competent, forceful and dependable in its most basic function – ensuring compliance with the bottom line environmental rules designed to protect our ecosystems and our human health.

Nothing erodes HBRC credibility more than failures of compliance - be that feedlots on riverbeds, shifting of deadlines for water quality, cows and toxic algae in streams, faulty municipal bores, sewage in estuaries (if not in the streets or drinking water), stink or smoke in the air, and god-knows-what pouring into the Bay from a 47-year-old pipe.

Under our five council hydra-headed regional governance, true accountability for many of these issues is blurred … with action bogged down in inter-council 'negotiation'. And let's not forget that in fact the 'bad apple' is usually a private citizen or enterprise.

Nevertheless, whatever the real root of the problem, the murky jurisdictions, the limited authority to act, these failures, as public perceptions go, tend to be laid at the doorstep of the HBRC, the region's presumed environmental protector.

When someone – be it a private party or another council – appears to get away with environmental abuse, it's the regional council that appears either totally inept, totally blasé or totally subservient to some special interest.

Which would be bad enough in 'normal' times (ie, all previous regional councils) ... but could be especially damaging when we are fronting bold programmes that require of the public either worrisome change (e.g. selling Port shares), greater personal sacrifice (e.g. higher rates) or transformed practices (e.g. land use change).

If HBRC isn't seen to get the basics right, we'll lose permission to tackle to larger issues.

That would be tragic for the region. So, in that regard we must look at ourselves closely in the coming year.

This regional council took one significant step to elevate the importance of basic compliance by initiating our first official public report on HBRC compliance efforts – covering every area from feedlots to tyre storage, from orcharding operations to forestry practices, from dairying to marine safety, plus 1095 citizen complaints.

It's a shame this report, which names names, didn't receive more media attention.

This regional council is serious about compliance, and will invest an additional $900k and five new positions in compliance over the next three years. Increasingly we are firmly 'in the face' of our sister local councils to their consternation. Yet to many we still look like our feet are up on the desk. Siesta time.

That perception must change. And the only way it will change is if transgressors – whether private parties or local councils – feel HBRC's enforcement boot and are publicly called out, not coddled.

We need to demonstrate we will enforce compliance vigorously, that there's a sheriff in town, so that we have permission to address the larger environmental challenges that confront our region. And we will.

* Tom Belford is a Hawke's Bay Regional Councillor