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Ruataniwha Decision Wide-Reaching

Ruataniwha Decision Wide-Reaching

INSIGHTS ABOUT THE NEWS - The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a land swap deal to enable the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme has much greater consequences than solely dealing yet another blow to the ailing dam project.

As reported in the NZ Energy & Environment Business Alert, DoC unsuccessfully argued there was a net benefit because the land swap offered higher conservation values. A majority in the Court said the net benefit argument was a line call, but ruled the Conservation Act allows a land’s status to be revoked only when its conservation values no longer warrant the protection.

The Govt will now consider whether to change the legislation because it believed land could be swapped for greater net benefit.

A review of conservation law will be controversial as many will be sceptical about the Govt’s motivations. However, for some time thought has been going into refreshing the aging National Parks Act, the Wildlife Act and the Conservation Act. Anyone reading the various court judgments will note even eminent jurists are unable to agree on the meaning of the law.

In the meantime, there will be a chilling effect on DoC swapping land. This could also lead to a reassessment of DoC’s classification of land. Years ago, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment advised DoC it should review land currently classified as “stewardship” and decide whether it should be given greater protection or less in some cases where there was little value in protecting it. Some would argue such a review could go much wider, but this would also be politically difficult because of distrust about intent.

The Court’s decision also raises wider questions about environmental offsets or net benefit arguments. It is a policy approach that has been widely followed. It is however controversial with some seeing it as condoning poor environmental outcomes, while others believing it is a pragmatic way to allow economic development for greater environmental gain.

The Court’s decision would seem to argue against the latter sentiment at least when it comes to DoC land.

Meanwhile, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council Chairman Rex Graham says the Council’s investment company is analysing the Court’s decision and the Council needs to await advice from it before it can decide what happens next.

He says the Council committed to funding the scheme three years ago; however, a new long-term planning cycle is getting underway, along with a capital review, which will examine all the Council’s investments.

A newly elected council had ordered a review of the scheme and the Council’s funding commitment, which saw the local authority affirm its support albeit with stricter conditions.


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