The Future of ECan

On New Year’s Day there was an article in The Press on the future of Environment Canterbury, currently governed by Government-appointed commissioners.  I was quoted with a couple of lines from an interview that went for about ten minutes.

I strongly support a return to a fully-elected Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) but it seems to me that a mixture of elected (the majority) and appointed ECan members could be a way to go for the 2016 elections before getting back to a fully elected body in 2019.  I haven’t been a member of Amnesty International for 35 years to not believe in democratic rights.

People need to realise that of the current Canterbury mayors, only one (Kelvin Coe of Selwyn) was a mayor at the time the commissioners were put into Ecan in 2010.  There is now a very different group of people in place.

One problem that ECan has always had to deal with is that the major part of their work (water and land)  actually happens in rural areas and affects farmers in particular.  Individually, farmers pay substantial rates to ECan, although the total rates paid into Ecan mainly come from the urban area of Christchurch – it’s just that Christchurch has so many ratepayers, each paying a relatively small amount.  That also means that the voting power lies with Christchurch. In my observation, most of the opposition to the insertion of commissioners came from urban voters, because of the loss of democracy, and most of the support came from rural voters, because they felt that they had been having little say in how their rates were being spent.

I think the model of the Water Zone Committees, which are community committees jointly appointed by ECan and the relevant District councils (we have just one in Waimakariri, covering the whole District) has possibilities for the future.  These bring together farming, environmental and recreational interests and so far they are working well. If that model works, the greater voting power of urban Christchurch shouldn’t be an issue.

Minister Adams came to the last Canterbury Mayoral Forum and didn’t indicate any Government preferences.  It is entirely possible that the Government does not yet have a view, because she came to ask questions, not to tell us anything.  What is different from 2010, is that I will be doing my level best to make this discussion a public one that all Canterbury people have access to.

Despite what was said in the same article, I don’t detect a desire on the part of the mayors to do away with ECan.  Christchurch has long argued that they want to be a unitary authority, but I haven’t heard Lianne express a view herself.  Some of the other councils are arguably big enough to be unitary authorities (Waimakariri, Selwyn, Timaru, Ashburton) but others (Kaikoura, Hurunui, Mackenzie, Waimate, Waitaki) are probably not.  Talking about unitary authorities thus leads to a discussion about amalgamations, which I don’t think many in Canterbury want.  I certainly don’t.  There is the other problem that water is Canterbury’s big issue but the main rivers (Waimakariri, Rakaia, Rangitata, Waitaki) are all, for good community-of-interest reasons, District boundaries. Unitary authorities based on current boundaries would have trouble dealing with the rivers consistently.

One significant ECan function that could be dealt with at a District/City level is public transport.  Timaru is stand-alone anyway, and our main concern with the Christchurch system would be to make sure that Waimakariri and Selwyn have a proper say.

The issues are therefore Canterbury issues, not just Christchurch or even “Greater” Christchurch.

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