'Virtual amalgamation' closer

The inaugural meeting of the ninth Environment Southland Council was held this month and at the beginning of this new triennium we have a fresh set of challenges, one new councillor and renewed enthusiasm to get on with the job!

It is also a good time to look back and reflect on the past three years and what has been achieved by the previous council and staff.

It has been a period of increased cooperation with the other Southland councils. We have undertaken a joint review of the Regional Policy Statement with Southland District Council, air quality issues are being tackled cooperatively with the Invercargill City and Gore District councils, and IT teams from Environment Southland, Southland District, Clutha District and Invercargill City councils are working together through Shared Services. A fibre-optic link has been established and the next two projects will look at a shared service desk and a data centre to host the collective systems on site.

This work will together enable us to offer a more comprehensive range of IT services than if we worked independently. It has resulted in some significant cost savings - the quoted cost of high- speed fibre was $200,000 but through shared services we have received it for just over $5000.

There have been some calls for amalgamation or reorganisation of the four Southland councils but that debate hasn't gained traction.

The government has provided for an easier mechanism for this - if that is what the community wants. But just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

There are plenty of other ways for financial gains to be made from your councils working together and I'm determined to push forward with these in the next three years.

Shared services continue to go from strength to strength. The chief executives are scoping out other functions and we can work together on. The future face of this may well be a "virtual" all of Southland council, while still maintaining the same level of local representation Southlanders seem to want.

Across New Zealand, regional councils also work together to share projects and ideas. We will soon be visited by Environment Canterbury who will tell us about how they are dealing with their water quality and land use initiatives.

I've seen a groundswell of change take place, particularly across the rural community. That change is the acceptance by farmers of the responsibility they have in improving Southland's surface and groundwater quality.

But this is only the start. We need to make these responsibilities relevant to all sectors of the community, both urban and rural.

This council's biggest task over the next three years will be the implementation of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater, and our response to this government initiative, the Water and Land 2020 & Beyond project.

This will require all of us to work in a different way when we make our decisions - it's called collaboration.

At Environment Southland we have already done some good groundwork in this regard, resulting in real buy-in by those most affected by these decisions.

I would like to thank those involved so far. They continue to commit large amounts of their time to this project, and it will be the better for it as we move onto the next stage.

The collaborative process will test us all. As decision-makers we will have to relinquish some of our current powers to the collective power of the community to make final and binding decisions.

In the meantime, we're getting on with promoting best practice around a host of activities which have a high potential to affect water quality. These include riparian fencing and planting, where you wash your car, nutrient management and the biggie for Southland - the wintering of stock. It turns out there are no ideal soil types to winter heavy animals. The free- draining soils leak nitrogen to groundwater and the heavier types cause pugging and loss of silt and phosphorus to waterways.

The good news is we have the results of the Southern Wintering Systems investigations that indicate adopting best practices results in significant reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and silt. And these best practices aren't expensive to implement.

But more science needs to be done around wintering in Southland, and sooner rather than later. This is the main reason I've been lobbying against the severe staff cutbacks planned by AgResearch at Invermay.

It's vital that southern-specific local science continues to support the positive changes needed for all farmers to lift their environmental game.

Looking forward to this three- year term of council, it has never been more important that we get alongside and work with all of our different communities, sector and industry groups toward commonly agreed goals.

The council needs to focus on these big challenges and goals. As a governance body that's our role, while it's the role of staff to get on with the implementation.

» Ali Timms is the chairman of Environment Southland.

The Southland Times