Christchurch City Council has recently been at the forefront of campaigns against the use and management of water by Canterbury Regional Council. The particular issues that have come up are the granting of consents to Cloud Ocean Water for water bottling, and the level of nitrates that is permitted in the artesian water supply aquifers in Canterbury. These campaigns are related to other Council campaigns against the regional council over air quality and public transport.
However, it is important and relevant to note that Christchurch City Council is at the forefront of promoting irrigation development and the resultant outcome of increasing farming intensification in Canterbury by its direct involvement in establishing and operating Central Plains Water Trust, which is an organisation that is facilitating the development of irrigation in Canterbury. This raises quite a concern about the political motives of the City Council in campaigning in relation to these issues and whether the obvious conflict of interest severely compromises the moral authority of CCC at the forefront of these issues.
CCC first became involved with this issue back in the day when it owned a gas company (On Energy) which was acquired through its former operation of Southpower as an energy retailer. When Government electricity restructuring forced retailing and distribution networks to be separated, Southpower was broken up and the lines network became Orion, which remains in CCC ownership through Christchurch City Holdings Ltd (CCHL). The gas company was not directly affected by the restructuring, but it did get sold eventually as CCC sought to divest their involvement in energy retailing, and so the funds released were then available for a new investment vehicle. At that time, the City decided they would get into the investment opportunities that would be available from developing an irrigation scheme. This is somewhat similar to the controversial Hawkes Bay Regional Council’s Ruataniwha irrigation scheme and ran into similar consenting issues over the large scale water reservoir that the scheme required. But whilst HBRC has abandoned its scheme for the present, CPWT’s scheme continues in a modified form without the reservoir, instead having smaller storage ponds distributed in different areas.
The real concern however is that current CCC campaigns against water management by Ecan are directly in conflict with its involvement and commercial interests in CPWT and as such, these campaigns appear to be less about actually improving water management and more about political objectives. They can be seen as part of a wider issue of CCC wishing to muscle in on some of the work that Ecan does and take it over. This is already seen in broad attacks by the Mayor of Christchurch on Ecan’s existing management of public transport and air quality in the city. Many of the candidates in the current elections for the regional council are sitting CCC councillors and board members. Their interest in becoming elected members of the regional council appears to lend itself to the suggestion that their role on becoming elected is to grease the wheels to make it easier for CCC to succeed in its takeover campaign. CCC’s interests in water management are directly related to its objectives in developing the City as the dominant economic power in the upper South Island and therefore in ensuring there are sufficient water resources that will not hinder growth of the City. This also drives the key objectives in other areas, which are to challenge the regional council and become the dominant political force in the Canterbury region. Currently the regional council has a supervising role over certain activities carried out by territorial councils and this is the source of endless political bickering and infighting from these councils towards the regional council. The objectives for territorial councils are for increased political power and influence, without necessarily achieving better outcomes for their people. Major concerns with CCC to date have been that they have not effectively managed water demand, which is important with a limited and precious resource, nor have they managed their freshwater or wastewater reticulation infrastructure in a way that ensures these resources maximise public safety. But the most serious concern about CCC is that while attacking the commercial extraction and exploitation of water by the water-bottling companies, and while attacking the pollution of the city’s water supply by nitrate run-off from intensive farming, the City Council also seeks to enrich itself from the commercial extraction and exploitation of water for intensive farming activities that produce nitrate pollution. The same conflict issue exists with public transport where the City profits from the operation of a bus company that receives contracts from tendering to run some of these services.
There is a great deal of merit in the Regional Council’s services remaining vested in that body and not being usurped into Christchurch City Council’s functions with the extremely weak accountability and myriad personal political interests that reign supreme in territorial council and by which any purported improvements in the management of the public interest in assets such as water or transport networks would soon be lost in the greater scheme of wheeling and dealing to buy political favours and outcomes. There are numerous examples of this that already exist within Christchurch City. Social housing is a key example that has proved to be a major political embarrassment for CCC in the last few months running up to the local elections whereby the housing has been run down for many years and in some cases is not worth spending money on to upgrade to current governnment-set rental standards. The city’s freshwater well heads were found to be unsafely constructed, requiring a rushed upgrade programme with mandatory chlorination in the interim, and at the time of writing, this has been extended until the City can prove that the supply pipes, which are in very poor condition in parts of the network, are able to be upgraded in a timely way. In public transport, the City is seeking to have a road based transport network, which ignores the environmental benefits of rail and the economic efficiency of re-utilising its abundant existing capacity without constructing new corridors and duplicating infrastructure in a proposed light rail network. This is also likely, as with other existing aspects of public transport that the City is responsible, to fail to be funded when ratepayer support is required. Ultimately when there is no oversight of the public interest, as is being achieved with the current split of responsibilities between regional and territorial councils, the public is who loses out. Territorial councils have too much power to suppress the public interest and in this case, transport administration is very poorly administered by CCC which has devolved the decision making power to local community boards, giving residents too much dominance over roads and other transport networks.