By TONY GEE



The Department of Corrections remains confident its $100 million Northland prison will be built, despite failing to get local authority approval for the project.



The Northland Regional Council yesterday declined a resource consent application, mainly on cultural grounds, for the 350-inmate prison at Ngawha, near Kaikohe.



The decision is a blow to the department's plans for a $100 million jail. But Corrections Minister Matt Robson said an appeal would be made to the Environment Court.

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A council hearings committee made the decision on Maori cultural grounds, after receiving what it called compelling spiritual and cultural evidence.



The committee said the people of Ngati Rangi and Ngapuhi had a significant cultural and traditional relationship with the Ngawha Springs area and the 189ha site of the proposed prison, including the Ngawha stream.



"They are ancestral land and waters," the committee said. "The springs area and the application site are of immense cultural and spiritual significance, and are waahi tapu [sacred places].



"The applications, especially the earthworks and stream diversions, would adversely affect the mauri [life force] of Ngawha Springs."



Mr Robson said he was surprised and disappointed, but the department would not abandon the bid.



"The timing of the project is not affected. We always expected either the department or one of the prison's opponents would lodge an appeal."



The chairman of the hearings committee, Mark Farnsworth, said: "It's quite a remarkable decision really. Technically, the applicants [for the prison] made a very good case that was not questioned by technical witnesses for the submitters.



"But we were also faced with compelling cultural and spiritual evidence from Maori and nor was this seriously challenged by the applicant.



"We believe that moving 440,000 cu m of soil [as sought in the earthworks application] was going to affect the mauri and spirituality of the area."



The committee said that evidence from local Maori during a hearing at Kaikohe last month - that there was a real, physical connection between the hot-water springs and the application site - was confirmed by the department's evidence.



The department wanted to drill thousands of small drains to find water, steam and cold gas outlets.



These would be sealed off with cement grout, meaning the physical connection between the springs and the proposed prison site would be severed.



Opponents told the committee that gases reaching the ground surface at Ngawha were manifestations of the presence of a taniwha, Takauere.



Blocking off the gas to ensure it did not reach the ground would impede the movement of Takauere throughout the prison site.



The taniwha's movement would be "literally attacked by having mud thrown in his eye."



Planned diversion of the Ngawha stream and its waters, which flow through the Waiwhariki swamp, would involve desecrating a Ngapuhi taonga. During the second battle of Waiwhariki, in the late 18th century, the bodies of many dead lay in the swamp.



Shayron Beadle, director of Ginns Ngawha Spa and a leading opponent of the prison project, described the council's decision as "excellent news."



"The site is flawed, the site selection process was flawed."



Shayron Beadle said the department was initially offered 74 sites for its regional prison in Northland. On a weighted selection list, Ngawha came in at number 35 or 36.