A senior councillor at Environment Southland will make a public statement today. David Williams reports

Internal emails confirm Southland’s regional council staff hadn’t told its deputy chair about a month-old allegation his farm breached water rules.

The council, known as Environment Southland, received a complaint in May about cattle being fed in the Oreti River bed, near Lochiel. The farm is owned by Strone Farms, associated with Environment Southland deputy chair Lloyd McCallum.

However, McCallum didn’t discover the complaint had been made until June 5 – when Newsroom phoned him for comment. The following week, while the investigation began in earnest, the councillor stepped down from his role on Environment Southland’s regulatory committee.

(McCallum’s defenders say the cows were being fed on gravel dumped on farmland because of a large flood. But environmentalists say the natural range of a river must include flooded areas.)

In June, McCallum told Newsroom he was “a bit shocked, really” to have to ring the council and confirm the complaint.

Emails released by Environment Southland show the complaint was made in the evening of May 4, and referred to a compliance officer the next day. An aerial inspection of the property was carried out on June 3.

Two days later, Newsroom asked the council for comment. Communications coordinator Tania McCann told colleagues in an email the complaint, “not specific to Lloyd”, was “still to be investigated”.

Within days, the farm had been visited by council staff. The following week, compliance manager Simon Mapp said the complaint was “triaged based on our protocol” and was being followed up.

Yesterday, almost four months after the complaint was made, Environment Southland wouldn’t answer questions – but confirmed it would release information about the investigation today.

McCallum was more forthcoming: he confirms the investigation has been completed.

He said yesterday: “I’ll make a statement tomorrow from my farmer’s perspective – it’ll cover a little bit of a councillor [perspective].”

The regulatory committee – which he stepped aside from in June – meets at 1pm today.

Asked if it was good enough that he heard of the complaint through the media, McCallum says: “Basically, management will have to answer that question.”

Environmentalist Angus Robson, of Matamata, who alerted Newsroom to the complaint, was surprised to hear the council hadn’t contacted McCallum by June 5. “That’s not on, really. It’s a pretty blindsiding thing for him.”

While the complaints process was poor, fundamentally cows shouldn’t be in a riverbed, Robson says.

“The riverbeds change all the time – and sometimes you’re a winner and you get land back, and other times you’re a loser, and you lose some. But ultimately, it’s a natural thing and you have to go with the flow.

“You can’t say, ‘Oh, because I used to have grass there and I don’t want to give it up, I’m going to keep putting my cows where that grass used to be even though it’s now riverbed’.”

Federated Farmers Southland president Geoffrey Young couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday. In June, he said McCallum was a highly regarded farmer who adheres to the highest environmental standards. “I’d be surprised if he’s breached any rules.”

New rules a hot potato

A conclusion to the McCallum investigation comes amidst heated arguments over new winter grazing rules, which come into force tomorrow. With a general election looming, the controversial rules have also sparked fierce political debate.

Since central government regulations are passed to regional councils and unitary authorities, their monitored and enforced is crucial to their effectiveness.

Young, of Federated Farmers, urged members of the lobby group to ignore the “unworkable” farming-by-consent rules, including regulations for pugging, the slopes of paddocks to be planted, and stipulating when crops must be re-sowed. Environment Minister David Parker warned “no one is above the law”, while Green MP Eugenie Sage called a boycott irresponsible.

The following week, the Government acknowledged the policy was flawed and announced amendments. Farmers remain unconvinced, however, and the National Party promises to do away with new freshwater standards, if elected.

(The nuanced version, uttered the next day, was freshwater regulations would be reviewed, and some repealed.)

Regional councils are still coming to grips with what the new regulations will mean for them.

Michael McCartney, chief executive of the lower North Island’s Horizons Regional Council, says: “We’re estimating we’re going to need another 10 staff to do that work, over and above our current loading.”

Report card scaled back

Horizons councillors have also been briefed about an independent report card on our environmental watchdogs, which gave mixed grades on compliance, monitoring and enforcement by regional councils and unitary authorities. For the last two years, the report’s results have been buried. Newsroom reported in July its funding might be pulled.

McCartney confirms the report will now be done biennially, with a data comparison exercise done in between. He says it takes a year for meaningful changes to be done, once councils included extra funding in their plans and consulted the community.

“We felt as though, in terms of getting meaningful data, the external report every two years would actually identify whether change has been made and benefit been accrued.”

Newsroom has been told regional chief executives are trying to bury criticism of their councils’ performance, and passing it off as Covid-19-related cost-cutting.

McCartney admits costs are always an issue in local government but assures the decision was about the “quality of the product”.

“There would be grave concerns if the decision was to stop doing this external reporting because of cost. That’s not the case at all. We think better value is in doing it every two years.”

He says there’s no attempt to bury criticism. “If we were stop the reporting then you could probably come to that conclusion, but there’s no intention to do that.”

“I have been asked to park any progress with the CME Metrics report.” – Patrick Lynch

However, official information released to Newsroom suggests council chief executives are sensitive to the report’s findings.

Regional council compliance managers – a group known as the compliance and enforcement special interest group (CESIG), which commissioned the report – lobbied their bosses in February to publicly release the 2018/19 report and agree to fund a third.

(The memo said the report shows the sector is being an effective regulator but “opportunities exist for improvement”.)

Patrick Lynch, Waikato Regional Council’s investigations manager, confirmed to CESIG colleagues on February 21 regional chiefs only agreed to a “soft release”. “I think by that it means that there is no intention to do anything proactively in the public arena, however it is available for use within the regional sector.”

In June, Lynch signalled to council bosses his group of compliance managers strongly supported commissioning a 2019/20 report “and intend to commence that process promptly after 30 June”.

The next day, June 24, Lynch wrote to colleagues: “I have been asked to park any progress with the CME metrics report for the year ending next week until such time as regional CEs are comfortable that it progresses. I do not have a timeframe for that approval. Consider it parked.”

Watching the watchdogs

Environment Minister David Parker has generally held a concern that regional councils need to improve their compliance and enforcement activity. That’s why, he says, Ministry for the Environment, in consultation with councils, released detailed guidance in 2018.

“The Government has also introduced new compliance and monitoring powers for the EPA [Environmental Protection Authority] to help. Monitoring of consent conditions is improving, and prosecutions of consent infringements are increasing.

“There is uncertainty about monitoring of permitted activities due to the challenges of recovering costs for monitoring permitted activities. In respect of regional councils and water issues, stricter rules as part of the essential freshwater reforms are being imposed, which will help.”

Environmental campaigner Robson mutters darkly about people wanting to be seen doing the right thing. Some of the winter grazing rules, which he says are “absolutely awful”, were signed off by politicians knowing there’s no intention of Ministry for the Environment compelling regional councils to implement them.

For their part, councils want to be seen to be doing the right thing by independently auditing their performance, he says. But when push comes to shove, they scale back the report and bury the results. Sometimes, it’s more about how things look than how they actually are, Robson says, cynically.

He suggests an appropriate summary of the prevailing attitude might be: “How can we give the impression of doing something whilst maintaining business-as-usual to the largest possible extent?”

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

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