Wellington’s Waterfront Watch is precisely the sort of organisation that many critics of the Resource Management Act believe should have its wings clipped.

The organisation proudly claims to have used the courts to have stopped four out of five waterfront development proposals it opposed.

But yesterday Waterfront Watch  was at Parliament fighting for its right to continue as an environmental busybody on the waterfront.

Its President, Dr Patrick McCombs, came to Parliament‘s Local Government and Environment Committee to oppose a change in the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill which would allow Councils (or the Minister for the Environment) to change an existing plan or national policy statement and require only that that change be notified to “persons directly affected by the proposed change.”

He said Waterfront Watch was concerned that the change could prevent the “proper scrutiny” of planning changes, particularly those affecting public open space or areas of land with one or few owners.

“Many of the major features of the Wellington waterfront have come about only through the provisions of the Resource Management Act that allow the Council’s plans to be contested in the Environment Court,” he said.

He said that in the frequent cases Waterfront Watch has taken against the Council it had spent over $400,000 on legal representation and expert witness fees.

“We have been able to sustain this effort because of the support and encouragement of our extensive membership and the public’s endorsement of our objectives,” he said.

Asked by National Wellington list MP, Paul Foster-Bell, how the organisation determined what public opinion on a Council proposal was he said they relied on feedback from the membership.

He said the membership were real “quality”.

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“Our membership list has some of the best addresses in town on it,” he said.

He said Waterfront Watch was essential because the Wellignton City Council included a clause in its leases which prohibited the teannts from objecting to any Council proposal.

That meant the only parties capable of lodging an objection were those like Waterfornt Watch who were acting in the public ineterst.

He said that under the change proposed in the RLA, the Council would only need to idnetiify people directly affected by the proposed change and notify them of the change.

“There could well be no such persons, the implciaiton being that the plan changes could not be chalklenged and held up to scrutiny,” he said.

He cited examples of Wellignton Waterfront’s work which he saidillustrated the importance of retaining the right for submissions and appeals to be lodged against plan changes by “any person” “including aprties who wish to represent the public interest”.

The Committee also heard of a halfway house proposal — collaborative planning – in which various parties get together to agree on a consensus on the elements of a district plan.

This is the approach that has been adopted by the Land nad Water Forum, and its chair, Alastair Bisley, appeared before the Committee to discuss its work.

Land Water Forum Chair Alastair Bisley

The Forum has been widely praised for its work in getting some 67 vastly differing groups to agree on issues like water quality. But it has failed to bring together a consensus on how to allocate water.

And Labour MP David Parker challenged Mr Bisley saying that maybe a collaborative process could get to a consensus but maybe it couldn’t.

He said views within the Land and Water Forum on allocating water by putting a price on it had ben diametrically opposed.

“Don’t you need to have some way in which they can contest gheir view of the world in the future outside the collaborativwe process gicven they oculdn’t agree in it?”

Mr Bisley: ”I think what I would say on the price of water is the Forum was not so much opposed as ucnertqain and in osme ways evolving.”

Neverthless Mr Bisley’s appearance raised similar issues to those raised by McCombs and that is at what point to hand the planning process over to the legal process.

Mr Bisley was not keen on a right of appeal out of a collaborative process except where the relevant Council had failed to take account of what had been agreed in the collaborative meetings.

In some ways what is happening in this Committee at this stage is only the  preliminary skirmishing in the foothills.

The big players —- Forest and Bird, Business New Zealand and Local Government New Zealand — have yet to appear.

Nevertheless there was enough evidence yesterday to suggest that liomit people’s eppeal rights will not necessarily be a popular move.