More than a whiff of leniency

Last updated 08:02 25/01/2014
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Martin van Beynen

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: A factory rendering animals to make gelatine is never going to smell pretty.

The most you can hope for is the factory complies with its consent.

In the case of the Woolston Gelita factory, highlighted in The Press this week, the consent forbids it from emitting offensive smells.

Over the last three years it has failed to do so, generating 160 complaints, only in the last year. Why hasn't it been shut down? In other words why are our enforcement authorities so flippin' useless?

After many years writing stories about people who conduct activities in defiance of laws designed to ensure nuisances and worse are not allowed to continue, I have to conclude something is very wrong with the way we monitor and enforce environmental standards.

Councils are very good at pouncing on some poor householder who has built a treehouse for his kids in contravention of building regulations, but in harder cases they seem ineffectual and toothless.

I don't know whether this is a problem with the powers they are given under their various acts or whether the people attracted to these enforcement jobs are averse to dealing with difficult or unpleasant individuals.

After all, why make life hard for yourself?

Over the last few years I have noticed the growth of a culture within local authorities where the prevailing attitude seems to be that bending over backwards to work with miscreants to remedy the problem is the right way to go.

This gives the rule-breaker some valuable breathing space in which more money can be made from the breach and an edge can be gained over competitors.

In the meantime surrounding property owners who have to continue living with the nuisance become frustrated and lose faith in the people who should be protecting them.

The lenient approach is inevitably exploited by the rule- breaker who knows he or she can play the system without any real penalty.

A good recent example is English overstayer Chris Skelly, who was able to rent a huge KiwiRail-owned warehouse in Sydenham for a recycling yard.

He proceeded to fill the building and yard with demolition rubble and in breach of his resource consent dumped a large pile of crushed concrete outside, from which, on a windy day, dust and God knows what else blew all over Sydenham.

This was allowed to continue for many months with Skelly given various deadlines, none of which were met. In the end it was Skelly's creditors - he was behind on all his bills including rent and fuel - who put a stop to the business, not council enforcement.

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If ever there was a case for the heavy hand of Environment Canterbury or the Christchurch City Council descending to shut down an operation for continual flouting of consent conditions and just general lack of consideration for others, this was it.

In the end it was a graphic demonstration of how appeasement in the hope conflict can be avoided was a doomed tactic.

Then we come to the Owaka Pit in Hornby. What a sorry saga this has been with various operators over decades dumping various kinds of industrial and domestic rubbish at the site and allowing what the locals call "mountains" of waste to accumulate.

For surrounding residents, the pit, which should take only clean fill, has been a nightmare, made all the worse by their complaints and calls for action falling on deaf ears. Fires at the site have several times over recent years billowed toxic smoke over large areas of Christchurch.

The council and the courts have conceded monitoring and enforcement has been lacking if not lamentable.

So why didn't the local authority step in and close the place down after giving the operators a chance to mend their ways? Why wasn't the site continually monitored instead of relying on hard-pressed local citizens to raise the alarm? Search me.

If the problem lies in the council's powers or the legislation it is trying to administer, you would think we would have heard. The system, in theory, seems to be fairly straight forward. A breach of consent is discovered, a warning is delivered, a notice to desist or remedy is issued and if compliance is still lacking, fines are imposed or the place is shut down.

But in practice there seems to be so much prevaricating, hand-wringing and excuses for inaction, that parties in the wrong get not only second chances but third chances and more.

It's accepted that dealing with clever and often unpleasant rule breakers is never easy and these cases are often complex.

That's why enforcement authorities need to ensure the law is simple and effective and they have the people for the job.

- The Press


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