Eugenie Sage isn’t the only Minister pushing for change in the fragile South Island basin. David Williams and Sam Sachdeva report

David Parker has been quietly pushing for greater environmental protection in the Mackenzie Basin.

Last year the Environment Minister sent letters to the chief executive of Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, and two tiny South Island councils, encouraging their existing work to plug gaps in their respective plans and policy documents. The Ministry for the Environment has also submitted to the Waitaki Council’s district plan review.

These details were revealed in briefing documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act. Officials told Parker a show of ministerial interest might encourage a tightening of rules in the Mackenzie, where sensitive landscapes are potentially threatened by further farm intensification and other development.

Parker pledged his support and encouragement for what’s called the Mackenzie “agency alignment programme” – which involves the Waitaki and Mackenzie councils, ECan, Department of Conservation, and Land Information New Zealand.

The group was formed after a hardening of public mood – and, importantly, a change of Government – following years of haphazard management of the Mackenzie, which allowed more intensive farming on ecologically sensitive and dry landscapes, making the Basin a poster-child for tensions between environmentalists and farmers.

“I have a keen interest in the Mackenzie’s unique combination of landscape and biodiversity,” Parker wrote to Mackenzie Mayor Graham Smith on July 4, adding he’s, “committed to supporting your council and the wider alignment group in any way I can to help safeguard it.”

Smith couldn’t be reached for comment.

“He doesn’t need to be down here, does he? Because he knows we’re not going to vote for him anyway.” – Simon Williamson

Gary Taylor, executive director of lobby group Environmental Defence Society (EDS), is heartened by Parker’s active interest in the Mackenzie. “In many respects the Basin exemplifies what is wrong with the current planning system.”

Simon Williamson farms just south of Twizel. He’s the chair of Federated Farmers’ high country industry group, which is bracing for the Government’s changes to high country management, which will presumably make it harder for more intensive farming on Crown leases, among other things.

Of the alignment group, Williamson says the agencies are talking amongst themselves. “We’ve told them till we’re blue in the face if you don’t involve the people that need to be involved right from the word go, you’re not going to get our buy-in. And they certainly haven’t been doing that.”

Parker’s letters from last July mention a visit to the Mackenzie in the “near future”. The Minister’s office confirms that’s yet to happen, and, while he intends to go, there’s nothing scheduled.

Williamson, who has no beef with Parker, quips matter-of-factly: “He doesn’t need to be down here, does he? Because he knows we’re not going to vote for him anyway.”

Complex consenting

The Mackenzie Basin is split between the Waitaki and Mackenzie councils, meaning development proposals can be considered under different district plans. There’s another layer of approvals needed for intensive farming on Crown pastoral leases – from the Crown’s land manager, Land Information New Zealand, with input from the Department of Conservation. To complicate things further, water take consents involve the regional council, ECan.

Some developers have been savvy enough to employ a sort of divide and conquer strategy, accumulating approvals from agencies in isolation.

The consequences for the environment have, in some cases, been awful, with large green irrigation circles dotting the landscape, changing the character of what was previously open, brown, and barren. One high-profile development saw an irrigation pipeline for a massive dairy conversion carved across public conservation land.

Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage calls it a biodiversity crisis.

Hence the belated attempt at alignment between agencies.

The alignment group’s latest work is a dry-sounding document called the Mackenzie Basin Planning Gap Analysis, which points to “significant gaps and areas of misalignment” between different council plans and policies, which might allow further development in fragile and prominent areas.

Worried about further changes

Parker’s letter to Mackenzie Mayor Smith mentions the council’s proposed plan change 18, which sets rules for the protection of indigenous vegetation. The plan change (PPC18) was notified in December 2017 but no decision has been issued. Parker’s letter says: “Given the sensitive nature of the Mackenzie Basin environment and the potential for further changes to be made in the absence of PPC18, I am seeking an update on the progress of this plan.”

In July’s “in-confidence” briefing, officials suggested the council’s hesitation with pursuing the plan change appeared to be uncertainty over the Government’s yet-to-be-announced national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity. They told Parker: “While, in general, it is not good practice to encourage councils to act ahead of new national direction, in this case there would be potentially significant advantages in having PPC18 in place to address key issues such as pre-emptive vegetation clearance.”

However, the letter doesn’t seem to have had the intended effect.

Ann Rodgers, the Mackenzie council’s planning manager, tells Newsroom: “We have made an application to the Minister to extend the timeframe on plan change 18 to allow for the new national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity, which is currently out for submission, to be progressed.”

Taylor, of EDS, urges Parker to help with the Waitaki council’s plan review, which will, he says, complement progress made in the Mackenzie. (The group has just completed a major review of the planning issues in the Mackenzie and expects to release its findings in July.)

But Minister Sage appears to be one step ahead. Waitaki council’s heritage, environment and regulatory group manager Lichelle Guyan confirms Sage has made an offer of direct support – of both money and technical expertise – to help the natural environment aspects of its plan review. “Waitaki District Council is currently in a dialogue with the Minister and the other agencies as to what such a package of support could look like.”

What does the Government want?

In an emailed statement to Newsroom, Parker says: “The Government’s aim is to ensure the iconic landscape is safeguarded and environmental outcomes improved. The programme was set up to improve alignment across the agencies, which have an individual and collective role in the MacKenzie basin, to ensure they were working together better – an aim I support.

“My officials have advised me recently that progress made by the alignment group is encouraging and I understand much higher levels of agency collaboration are now in place.”

ECan chief executive Bill Bayfield is chair of the Mackenzie Basin Alignment Agencies’ chief executives’ forum. He says the agencies welcome the Minister’s interest and support.

In an emailed statement, Bayfield says in response to the gap analysis report ECan will publicly notify its review of the Canterbury Regional Policy Statement in 2023, and the Waitaki and Mackenzie Districts will undertake full reviews of their plans.

“The agencies are supporting these review processes and are working together to deliver new planning provisions for the Mackenzie Basin as soon as is possible, given the time required to develop new planning documents, and the necessity to follow the statutory processes.”

Williamson, of Federated Farmers, is a little less upbeat. He says farmers aren’t being informed of the alignment group’s work, adding: “From my point of view it doesn’t seem to be going very fast.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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