Community involvement is crucial for water plan
Environment Canterbury commissioner Professor PETER SKELTON outlines the value of planning when it comes to water quality.
"The [proposed Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan] may be a future model for other parts of the country."
This welcome statement came from the judges at the recent New Zealand Planning Institute conference in Queenstown, where Environment Canterbury received the best practice award for district and regional planning.
Another comment from the judges revealed more about the way the planning discipline can and should be approached: "[This] plan is a very good example of a multidisciplinary staff team working with consultants . . . to balance technical and community interests" (emphasis added).
The judges recognised what can be achieved with collaborative effort and by engaging the community. This approach is being used successfully with the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.
Planning often flies under the radar, partly because it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Its value should never be underestimated, however.
Without a workable delivery mechanism that is backed and understood by the community, making things happen on the ground (or in the water) becomes challenging. For this reason the Land & Water Regional Plan is crucial in ensuring that the vision of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy can be made tangible and its water quality targets practically achievable.
The planning process is prescribed by the Resource Management Act 1991 to make sure the public is offered several opportunities to have a say.
The Canterbury Water Management Strategy is not a statutory document, but community participation is key to its success as well. And the way the Land & Water Regional Plan has been formulated encourages community collaboration in deciding water quality outcomes for individual catchments.
Zone committees have been working together and with their communities for several years to develop Zone Implementation Programmes (ZIPs). They are then charged with drawing together a "ZIP Addendum", which contributes directly towards creating a "variation" or sub- regional section of the Land & Water Regional Plan.
This is happening in Selwyn-Waihora, where the public submissions phase has just finished; the hearings are about to follow. Next cabs off the rank are the Hinds Plains catchment south of Ashburton, the variation for which will be notified this year, and the coastal streams area north of the Waitaki River in early 2015. Other catchment-based sub-regional plans will follow, each focused on recommendations from a local water management zone committee. Hurunui-Waiau already has an operative plan of its own, separate from the Land & Water Regional Plan.
Zone committees are a valuable way for the commissioners who sit on them to build relationships with local communities and the relevant territorial authorities who are partners with Environment Canterbury in the formation of the committees.
We greatly value the opportunity to be involved with them and to be part of the excellent work they do to improve water quality in Canterbury.
RMA planning process
All resource management plans are required to follow a rigorous statutory process. Throughout New Zealand the Resource Management Act prescribes that process.
With the commissioners in place rather than councillors, there is a slightly different legislative framework - the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act 2010.
This legislation has streamlined the appeal process for plans and policy statements. There are currently no appeals to the Environment Court; only appeals on points of law to the High Court are permitted. This is the stage the proposed Land & Water Regional plan has now reached. See the flow diagram.
As the diagram shows, public submissions are considered by an independent hearing panel. The panel is appointed by council - in other words by the ECan commissioners at a properly constituted council meeting.
Hearing panels consider all submissions on proposed plans and plan changes. The panel's recommendations are considered by council, and either adopted in full or not - in which case the hearing process starts again. All planning decisions by Environment Canterbury are made in public.
The same applies to all significant Environment Canterbury policy decisions which are made at public council meetings, as are decisions on annual and long- term plans and the setting of regional rates - following full public consultation. The Environment Canterbury Performance, Audit and Risk Committee, comprising three commissioners, also sits in public and has a publicly- available agenda.
Under the Resource Management Act, resource consent applications are considered either by Environment Canterbury staff acting under delegated authority in cases where public input is not required (usually because the activity is unlikely to have significant environmental or community effects) or where public input is required, by an independent hearing panel at a public hearing.
As a matter of policy the commissioners decided at the outset not to be involved in making decisions on resource consent applications. Independent hearing panels are appointed by the Regulations Hearing Committee made up of four commissioners. The committee sits in public with a publicly-available agenda.
Operating together, the planning process and zone committee collaborative work under the Canterbury Water Management Strategy are not only fostering and enhancing community relationships but are also enabling the commissioners to meet the expectations of the Government that:
Canterbury's natural resources are effectively managed in an integrated, comprehensive and forward- looking manner within a robust regional planning and policy framework with freshwater management having a particular focus; and
Environment Canterbury is displaying best practice for regional government in New Zealand in effectively carrying out its functions as a regional council and meeting its statutory obligations, including those reflected in its annual and long-term plans.
The recent best planning award Environment Canterbury received from the New Zealand Planning Institute tells us we are on the right path.
The Environment Canterbury planning process
The process when a plan is either made operative or undergoes changes or variations:
- Extensive pre-notification consultation with stakeholders and the public
- Public notification (notices appear in newspapers and on websites)
- Public submissions
- Hearings by an independent hearing panel (submitters may appear to support their submissions)
- Decisions made by Environment Canterbury in public on receipt of the hearing panel's report and recommendations
- Appeals to the High Court
- Court decisions
- Plan changed according to court decisions
- Plan operative (in full effect)