Time for user pays in the New Zealand conservation estate?

I am currently doing a postgraduate paper on Natural Resource Policy extra murally at Massey University.  The below is a comment I made on whether it is time for user pays charges for entry to and use of our conservation estate, but also in towns that are tourism dependent.

How we let our small tourist towns get treated by tourists bothers me quite a bit. If you have been to Tekapo you will have seen the Church of the Good Shepherd by the lake. Tourist buses pull up there every day and tourists walk around and inside the building. Sometimes they arrive when services are being conducted and fail to show necessary etiquette. The locals are a bit antsy about it as on one hand they need tourist dollars, but on the other Tekapo is only a little town built around the lake shore and up slope a bit on the south side of State Highway 8. The numbers of tourists that come through the town during summer can cause infrastructure issues beyond the capacity of its tiny ratepayer base.

There are several locations around the South Island which could do with better management of their tourism related infrastructure and issues caused by tourism being a major industry in those locations. I would hope now with a quiet patch caused by the borders being shut that these places are thinking about how to address such matters.

Milford Sound is a good case in point. If any of you have been there, you will know it is a long drive if you stop at the view points along the way and that there is a daily – maybe, probably not at the moment – almost rush hour like period in the morning when all of the buses arrive from Te Anau with their loads of tourists and then a similar thing in the afternoon, when realizing they have to get back to Te Anau, there is a similarly large exodus. I knew a German lady who used to work on the tour boats down there a decade ago (gone back to Germany), who could attest to this, and traffic being an issue as well. Being in a World Heritage area, there are limitations on what kind of businesses can be there and how they operate. Milford Sound township is also right on the water front and next to a river with known flood issues (not surprising given it gets 6,000+ mm/yr!), which means land is at a premium.

How do you help fund the necessary facilities and maintenance as well as programmes in a place like Milford?

I think the only way to realistically do it is require all tourists to pay a one off fee in Te Anau and collect a docket that upon entry to Milford Sound, gets scanned.

But here is the problem. Should Kiwi’s pay full price or get a discount? As taxpayers they help cover costs through taxes, so maybe in their case, we should require them to present a driver licence or passport as evidence. I think it would be unfair to make them pay for something we already support with taxation.

Another student commented on what the Maori King, Te Heuheu Tukino, who gifted the land that makes up Tongariro National Park to the Crown, would think. I wonder if anyone has really thought to conduct an interview with kaumatua on behalf of any iwi, how they view tourism in terms of how it impacts on their ancestral lands, the effects on matters of kaitiakitanga and how the taonga are being treated. It would be a fascinating exercise to say the least. And as one who loves volcanoes and did a fourth year assessment on how Ngati Tuwharetoa view Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro as well as Pihanga, I wonder now whether they would be so keen on further expansion of Whakapapa skifield across their southernmost ancestor.

Tourism means a lot to New Zealanders. We love to show people around our country and for the most people love to come and be shown around. But the environmental cost of it all is getting to a point where some students on the course think in the most sensitive places like the Milford Track or the Tongariro Crossing, closing them for a whole season to allow them to recover is not only a “good idea”, but one that needs to be implemented.

And unfortunately, I am inclined to agree.

Airport opponents are jumping the gun

However the opponents of the proposed airport are jumping the gun. Yes the manner in which they received the news might not have been ideal, but that does not change the fact that this is far from a done deal.

A resource consent application of this size will almost certainly be deemed discretionary by Otago Regional Council, meaning that the council would able to exercise its discretion on any number or combination of aspects pertaining to the airport. It also has a number of steps that would need to be followed (though perhaps not quite in the order set down here) that need to be actioned.

  • Property acquisition, either under the Public Works Act or by sale to the applicant is inevitable.
  • Iwi would need to be consulted
  • A requiring authority may need to issue a designation
  • The application is most certainly going to have to be publically notified. As such it means that the public will then be invited make submissions on the proposal – as well as submissions from a range of community, environmental, economic interest groups

All of the above and a range of other steps would need to happen before resource consent hearings could take place. The resource consent hearings themselves could take years to get through. As with any resource consent application, a basic rule of thumb applies in that the bigger the application the more complex the information that will be needed will be. Building a single story 3 bedroom house is one thing; building an airport of any size, let alone one that could take an A320 short haul aircraft is quite another.

It is also possible in the COVID19 economic environment that the proposal collapses under its own weight. This could happen because the demand for extra airport capacity may take too long to materialise and C.I.A.L. decide it is simply not worth the effort any longer. And indeed, C.I.A.L. cannot see a business case for building a new airport happening until Queenstown airport reaches capacity.

To be honest though I was frankly quite surprised to hear that C.I.A.L. were even considering this, when there is hardly any international demand for flights. Their assumption is clearly that New Zealand will bounce back quickly within a few years and Queenstown reaches capacity relatively quickly. With COVID19 showing no sign of slowing down anytime time soon around the world and our borders being closed indefinitely, I envisage it being years before we event reach the stage where C.I.A.L. are even ready to apply for resource consent.

So, I think if I were the people of Tarras, I would stop worrying about it for the immediate future. At this stage, aside from being a fancy idea on paper and a couple of properties sold to C.I.A.L., my guess is that the lodging of resource consents is at least 5 years away.

Gerry Brownlee’s legacy to Christchurch

National Party leader Todd Muller on Friday, told the media that Christchurch is the city “that Gerry built”. Gerry Brownlee, former Minister of Earthquake Recovery’s legacy to the city is his handling of what was New Zealand’s largest construction programme in history.

Unfortunately for Christchurch, Mr Brownlee’s legacy as Minister for Earthquake Recovery, is not one to be hugely proud of. He might have – and he did – have a somewhat thankless task managing what was for a time the biggest construction site in the world. The legalities of the insurance claims, the shoddy workmanship done by cowboy contractors whose sole goal was to make a fast dollar and flee, balancing Christchurch’s expectations with those of the Crown made for an immensely complex job. Complainants were always going to exist.

But the fact that the Government has allowed insurers to continue delaying payouts to elderly tenants who do not have long to live has left a sour taste in peoples mouths. The feeling that eastern Christchurch is continuing to be neglected because it is not a National Party strong hold has many feeling bitter. Combined with the costs of all of these new projects and some questionable city council politics, disgruntlement is a growing problem.

Several properties remain off limits, their owners still entangled with their insurers over the details necessary to reach a settlement. Thus those properties sit in Christchurch, derelict and disused, slowly gaining a fair carpeting of graffiti, with homeless, drug users and prostitutes plying their business. The failure of the Government to give insurers a deadline to reach a settlement with claimants has enabled cases to drag on and on, costing them more and more money, time and effort. Some give up, take the offer on the table and run.

Then there are the residents who are still waiting for payouts. Like commercial property owners, they are still trying to reach a fair and just settlement with their insurers, who can be reasonably accused of dragging their feet. They do so in the hope that these people, many of whom are in their 70’s and 80’s, will either give up out of frustration or not being able to afford to continue fighting, or die.

Parts of central Christchurch are going nowhere. Empty land around Manchester Street where restaurants, bars, and various other small commercial premises used to be has become Wilsons car parking, or given over to temporary features such as basketball courts. Barren, lifeless and poorly lit they are uninviting places to pass by night.

Christchurch City Council was handed back control of the city in July 2019. The deal finalized what the Crown would pay for and what the City Council would foot the bill for. Facilities such as Metro Sports Facility, the bus exchange and Otakaro were handed back to the C.C.C., whilst the Crown retains control of Te Pae, the Christchurch Convention Centre, for which they are footing the bill.

The City has several challenges to overcome. Infrastructure projects are still underway, which consist of mainly long term repairs to water, roads, sewerage and electricity networks. With COVID19 having impacted on the timetable for repairing these, dates that had been set in earlier financial years for their completion have been pushed back.

So, yes Mr Muller, Gerry might have rebuilt Christchurch, but the people of Christchurch do not think he has done a good job of it. When we look at how other cities have recovered from major disasters, yes the New Zealand Government response does appear well organized. It had the democratic input that appears to have been lacking in the Japanese recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima reactor meltdown. It was certainly better than the disorganized shambles that was the American response to Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wrought in New Orleans.

But the battering ram approach to the passage of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority Act rightfully caused consternation among civil rights watchers. The contemptuous responses to agitated Christchurch locals around access to properties would have contributed to Labour’s resurgence in Christchurch Central. The demolition of high category heritage buildings was nothing more than government sanctioned vandalism. In those respects, and what I mentioned earlier, Mr Brownlee very much failed.

Concerns I have about Waikato River diversion to supply Auckland

A plan to divert more water from the Waikato River is the subject of renewed political attention as Auckland continues to battle a drought. But it may not be as straight forward as National and New Zealand First want.
Some people will be concerned about the attempt to take water from the Waikato River and send it to Auckland. I am too. But not for reasons you might think. The Waikato River discharges an average of 340,000 litres every second – 1 cubic metre is 1,000 litres. This attempt at diverting water from the river and sending it to Auckland will take a bit more than 0.5% of the river’s daily discharge. The media deliberately used the number 200 million litres because it sounds big. Hydrologists measure river flow in cubic metres per second.
My concern does not stem from the water being taken, but from the fact that Auckland really needs to learn to be more economic with its usage of its water resource. I am also concerned that fast tracking this through the Resource Management Act process sends the wrong signals about water use. It is also likely to further challenge Tainui’s Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown about the conditions of use of water from the Waikato River – in January Tainui accused the Crown of breaking the Treaty settlement.
 A lot of people south of the Bombay Hills will find it frustrating that Auckland is applying to accelerate the Resource Management Act process, when this is not so much about creating new jobs as saving ones that might be lost from inept water usage. It is also irksome because other provinces such as Canterbury, Otago and Hawkes Bay are used to much drier climates and have learnt to manage their water use. And with climate change, those provinces are expected to dry out further.
We are one of the least efficient users of water in the western world. We take it too much for granted. The decline of our natural water ways in significant part stems from excessive diversion of water for irrigation, from our urban penchant for nice green lawns and so forth.
I am no fan of privatizing a resource that fundamentally I do not believe can be privatized. However one of the negative things we are at risk of inflicting upon ourselves is having to develop a market for water. No one owns water and I believe nor should anyone try to. The water cycle and the common characteristics of the cycle, as well as the universal need of every human being for clean drinking water, mean like the air we breathe.
But before I support Auckland’s bid to make the R.M.A. process go quicker, Auckland needs to have a hard look at its water usage. There are things it could do more immediately such as look for system leakage; people can check their shower nozzles to see if they are working properly; check whether their water mains are at an appropriate water pressure.

My plan for a post District Health Board future

In 2000, the then Minister of Health, Annette King introduced District Health Boards to New Zealand. The intention was to return a degree of democracy to the health system through regionally elected boards. Whilst the idea was good in terms of democracy, as I will shortly explain, it has been hugely financially wasteful. Now, a report has found that not only have they been wasteful, the actual carrying out of their duties has been very poor. It has in recommendations as a result of that poor performance, put forward some substantial changes.

Criticism of the D.H.B. system has been around as long as the D.H.B.’s themselves. I fully expected that when National was in office in 2008-2017 it might have had a go at changing how the health system meets its financial and democratic goals by implementing something along the lines of either what is in the report that has just been released, or my own idea below.

To be clear, I never had any time for District Health Boards in the first place and think that the best thing that can happen to them is their abolition. 20 District Health Boards currently exist around the country. A report into the disability health system found that it was dangerous fragmented, but also has a very poorly run system of District Health Boards. The report also made a recommendation that the number of D.H.B.’s be cut to 8. A South Island General Practitioner has said that a solitary South Island D.H.B. would be plenty.

Instead of having 20 D.H.B.’s sucking up resources and man power that we cannot afford to squander, I propose:

  • A centralized Health Board that operates from Wellington and has 2 elected representatives from each province
  • A regional committee that the two representatives sit on be based in Whangarei, Auckland (x2 for reasons of population representation), Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier-Hastings, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill
  • Committee composition include G.P., nurse, a financial officer, 2x representatives, secretary, a community leader(s?)
  • Elections happen at the same time as the local government meeting

I expect that there would need to be an operating budget for each adjusted annually for inflation, and that there would to be established offices. One might say that we might as well just keep the D.H.B.’s then.

Not at all. The Health Board would dispense the funding, pass on Ministry instructions and the Regional Committees would ensure that the regional allocated goes to where it is needed. I envisage at least 2/3 of the current money being spent on D.H.B. operating costs to be saved, which would be in the order of several hundred million dollars per annum.

Given that this comes against a back drop of COVID19, renewed scrutiny on our race relations record and an acknowledgement that the health system has discriminated against Maori and Pasifika people, the changes are welcome. But do they go far enough in addressing the many and complex funding and resourcing problems that we have, as well as building up Intensive Care Unit capacity for major emergencies such as natural disasters and pandemics? That is another story altogether.