Northland orchards accuse council of 'dragging its heels' on consent, say delays will cost jobs

The orchards belong to the Aupouri Aquifer Water User Group.
The orchards belong to the Aupouri Aquifer Water User Group. Photo credit: Getty

A group of orchards in Northland have accused the Northland Regional Council of "dragging its heels" on granting water consents, saying the delays will lead to a loss of jobs in the region.

A number of orchardists belonging to the Aupouri Aquifer Water User Group - which is made up of 24 landowners and farmers in the Houhora, Awanui and Pukenui areas - are seeking consent to take 6.2 million cubic metres of water from the Aupouri Peninsula. 

The group admits it took a "multi-million-dollar leap of faith" ahead of the new permits being granted but says three years into the consent process it is losing confidence in the process and the council.

"We can't do anything without water," says Ian Broadhurst, general manager of Mapua Orchard.

He says detailed hydrological work over several years has shown the pending consents represent "just a fraction of aquifer recharge" and "fall well within the allocation levels in the regional plan".

"The Northland Regional Council commissioned yet another round of assessments in May, pushing the timeframe for any final decision out by several months at least," he said.

"This is holding up developments that are essentially shovel-ready - they could be generating jobs that are sorely needed in Northland, but instead they are parked or being reconsidered due to unnecessary delays."

The orchards say they have to rely on negotiating existing, smaller water consents to keep their seedlings alive while the process plays out.

The Northland Regional Council has rejected claims it is "dragging its heels", saying two commissioners have been appointed, with a hearing likely to take place in late August or early September. 

Stuart Savill, the council's consents manager, said 113 submissions were received on the applications - "the vast majority in opposition".

He said a limited notification period closed on November 1 last year, but an error in the height of the groundwater monitoring was found later that month. 

"The data from this bore has been used by the applicant in a groundwater model to predict the adverse effects of the takes," Savill told Newshub. 

"To ensure that the data from this monitoring bore and other council monitoring bores was accurate and fit for purpose, and that the conclusions of the applicant's model were still valid, council re-surveyed its monitoring bores and had the applicant's model re-run using the new re-surveyed bore heights."

Data from the resurveying was received by the council in February. It has since been peer-reviewed and the application has been given the greenlight to move forward to the hearing, Savill said.

He also pointed out that the country was in lockdown for some of the time in question, which added to the delays. 

But the group says the drawn-out process isn't good enough and is likely to cost jobs in the region.

Whangarei's Lynwood Avocado Nursery says it has already lost orders for 30,000 trees due to delays in the consenting process, which the company's director Stephen Wade says has had a "significant" financial cost.

Wade said that loss of orders led to the company being forced to make five employees redundant.

"It takes 18 months to propagate avocado seedlings and buyers will pay, and potentially lose, their deposits where they are cancelling or delaying orders," Wade said.

Another company, Far North Roading - which works with local growers on construction, earthworks and orchard development - fears it could also have to scale-back its operations if its work with orchard companies dries up.

"I can see our revenue from avocado orchard work dropping by more than 80 percent over the next two years unless the water situation is resolved," said Manu Burkhardt-Macrae, the company's managing director.

Mike Chapman, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, told Newshub the often expensive and drawn-out process of dealing with councils over matters such as gaining water consent "creates uncertainty for growers - even if in this case the outcome looks like it will be positive for growers".

"The horticulture industry is really keen and generally in a good position to spearhead New Zealand's post-COVID recovery. However, to maximise the industry's contribution, central and local government red tape needs to be slashed."

Chapman said streamlining of the Resource Management Act for priority projects was pleasing to see, but insisted the changes "need to apply across the board". 

The consequence of excessive regulation, Chapman said, was "uncertainty and extra, unnecessary cost" for growers.

"For example, district and regional government plan change processes - including expert witnesses and hearings - cost councils and industry tens of thousands to dollars, and then often end in costly and lengthy appeals."

Chapman said the biggest challenge faced by growers in terms of water is capture and storage and called for more investment in major water storage schemes across the country.

The Northland Regional Council said 53 submitters wished to be heard at the formal hearing on the matter.

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