Regional Development Minister Shane Jones was in the Hawkes Bay yesterday and says that he has reached agreement with the regional council to use some of the funding set aside for the cancelled Ruataniwha damn to go to his billion trees project.
But ironically the end of the Ruataniwha may not mean the end of Government support for irrigation projects.
Instead, a debate is now looming over irrigation which will pit the three partners of the Government against each other.
And it will divide the Greens and NZ First in their ongoing debate over economic development and jobs versus the environment.
Labour’s supply and confidence agreement with the Greens call for the winding down of Government support for irrigation.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at her first press conference said the policy meant: “We will honour existing agreements and commitments but not continuing on with future subsidies.”
This was reinforced a week ago when Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage and Environment Minister David Parker accepted a petition on the forecourt of Parliament from Greenpeace calling for an end to irrigation subsidies.
But POLITIK understands that NZ First believes there is a case for subsidising smaller local water storage schemes because they will create jobs in the regions which is the aim of the one billion dollars Regional Development (Provincial Growth) Fund that the party secured as part of its coalition agreement.
However, even NZ First understands there will be little appetite for large-scale projects which would lead to dairy conversions.
An example of what might be proposed is a study conducted by the Northland Regional Council last year which estimated that around 6300 ha of Northland land – much of it on the Pouto Peninsula – could be irrigated for about $115 million, predicting this could lead to employment for another 950 people and contribute about $85M to the region’s GDP annually.”
The north is unlikely to be able to find that money locally.
The previous Government had hopes that a Treaty settlement with Ngapuhi would see a large stack of investment money available in the region.
But no settlement has yet been reached.
“If the focus is placed solely on the ability of farm gate returns to pay for the schemes they are unlikely to proceed,” the report said.
That leaves only one place the money could come from – the Government.
The political gains in creating jobs in the region could be high.
Northland had the country’s highest unemployment rate – 7.2% — at the end of the June quarter against a national average of 4.8%. The majority of the North’s unemployed are Maori.
Meanwhile, Regional Development Minister Shane Jones has been dealing with a controversy over his proposal to plant 100 million trees per year in a Billion Trees Planting Programme.
The trouble began with an NBR story yesterday which quoted Jones as saying that 50 million of the 100 million trees planted each year would be planted by industry and the other half by Government.
Opposition Regional Development, spokesperson, Simon Bridges, immediately accused Jones of halving the number of trees that would be planted.
“Now he wants to count around 50 million trees that are already planted every year, about half of the billion he’s committed to over a decade. These are happening regardless of his slush fund or the kind of Government in power,” said Bridges.
But the situation seems more complex than that. Jones spent yesterday scoping out likely participation in the tree planting programme on the North Island’s East Coast.
And here the cancellation of the Ruataniwha dam may give the tree planting programme a boost.
“Ngati Kahungungu believe that they are good for 100,000 hectares; that ‘s the entirety of the tribal rohe, and the CEO told me today that they have capital that they would like to partner up with the crown,” he said.
“After all they are not going ahead with the dam.”
Jones said a key to the success of the billion tree strategy would be to work early with landowners.
This would require joint ventures which would see the crown partner with the private sector, iwi organisations or local government.
“I’ve got nothing but praise for what the CEO of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (James Palmer) had to say to me,” said Jones.
“They have capital; they have an inordinate amount of land in their catchment that ought to go into trees, and they are acutely aware of climate change challenges regarding changing rainfall patterns.”
Jones is also emphasising that projects he funds will need to prioritise social inclusion.
“I’m not going to have a situation where the Provincial Growth Fund is attractive to industry, but industry is not growing people.”
That will define the debate over what the fund is used for — and may also provoke a debate with the Greens who will want the environmental implications of projects to be taken into account.
That will be the delicate balance the Labour part of the Government — presumably Ministers Grant Robertson and David Parker — will have to arbitrate.