The environment has emerged as the clear issue of our age, and Environment Canterbury has made its much-demanded return to democracy.
Based on the provisional results, the new, 14-strong Council has a 50/50 gender balance and more young faces. A blend of previous councillors – four regional and one city – and new councillors who bring zone committee and added scientific experience provide a strong base. A Ngāi Tahu voice in Craig Pauling is also welcome and will hopefully help the council continue the strong and enduring relationship with mana whenua and confidence in our joint environmental stewardship.
It would not be unusual for new Councillors to feel unnerved by their election and pressure to deliver. Their learning curve is steep. They may find some presumptions they have made are not as they thought, and that they must bring at least seven others with them to realise any personal ambitions. Collectively, the new Council must continue to deliver progress and maintain the confidence and goodwill of Canterbury’s 10 territorial authorities and rūnanga. A collaborative approach is vital.
They will quickly discover Environment Canterbury is not broken – it is one of the best performing regional councils, with well-qualified, capable staff incredibly committed to delivering the outcomes the community wants. They will also come to appreciate that environmental progress is a battle fought in inches, where immediate gains are few, and the pace of progress limited to what ratepayers can afford. That includes adapting to climate change. Some decisions they make will impact for generations. They may be surprised by the range of the organisation’s remit and the many relationships to maintain across all portfolios, from the Waitaki to the Waiau Toa. They will soon learn that significant travel time is required and they will be frequently reminded that they cannot please everyone.
The Council has made significant progress, mainly due to the efforts of the rural community – the urban community’s turn is coming – and it leaves a good platform to build on. There will be many challenges, but climate change adaptation, freshwater and public transport – the most contentious and complex of topics – will be the big ones.
In Canterbury, the planning framework is well established and freshwater management well-coordinated, with 10 zone committees providing advice to Council, and that collaborative approach should – in my view – continue, because locally-informed solutions are vital. The measures Council already has in place align strongly with the Government’s recent freshwater proposals, meaning Canterbury is already far better placed than elsewhere should those proposals progress.
Nitrate in drinking water is the elephant in the room, and we know it will get worse before it gets better because of what is already ‘in the system’. Our water is well protected with strict measures in place that will only get stricter. Any future nitrate increase should fall short of the limits already in place.
Christchurch will not run out of water. A large part of the water-bottling debate is the perceived ownership of water – effectively by everyone and no-one. Water bottling is an issue the Government can best address, though in the meantime, Aotearoa Water Action’s court case, to be heard in December, may provide clarity on transfer of consents which I am sure the new Council would welcome. Clearly, putting a price on water is not the answer – it is difficult to put a levy on water without it applying more broadly than intended.
Public Transport is also tricky, with the network yet to reach the critical mass required to operate as effectively as it should. A key challenge is getting drivers out of single occupant cars and onto buses. Patronage is stabilising and more people are using buses to central Christchurch, but the increased frequency and convenience to achieve further gains requires additional funding. Proposed law changes may allow for public transport to be governed differently in the future.
Regardless, public transport must be affordable and sustainable for the community it serves, and free buses simply are not. Currently, Christchurch public transport is funded by a mix of fares, targeted rates and a Government subsidy. Fare revenue is about $20m, with $27m from targeted rates – $47m total. The Government subsidy is about the same amount again.
Roughly speaking, $47m represents about $100 from every man, woman and child in Christchurch we’d need to find each year, and with free public transport unlikely to attract a subsidy, it could be at least double that. The pressure from rising emissions will be the biggest influence on the future of public transport.
There is significantly more to Environment Canterbury than buses and water quality. The variety of issues confronting Council belong to us all. Councillors will have different opinions, varied political views and individual projects they wish to pursue, but the secret of a successful council will remain working collegially and progressing the social, cultural, environmental and economic outcomes the community wants.