Monday, March 13, 2006

Editorial: Coast study to justify an injustice

A great deal of tendentious tripe is spoken and written about New Zealand's coastal development. Conservation Minister Chris Carter is likely to add to the pile with a review of the Government's coastal policy statement, a guideline to local authorities. Mr Carter has announced his review hard on the heels of his decision to veto the Whangamata marina development that had survived public hearings by the Environment Court. The minister appears to be looking for national justification of the injustice he has done.

It was "really important" he said, to lay out some environmental bottom lines. "I guess most of all the public needs to have a conversation about the coast ... For New Zealanders especially the coastline is something that is really important. And what we were very clear with Whangamata is that there is a deep vein of discontent. Are we going down the right path about what we do with the coastline?"

There rambles a man who does not sound very clear about much at all. What was very clear at Whangamata was that objectors to a marina that would have buried a saltmarsh and some shellfish beds failed to convince the Environment Court that the loss was sufficient to deny the applicants a facility they have sought to build for 14 years. They followed the public process of resource consents at a cost exceeding $1 million and satisfied an independent tribunal of the case for a marina. It is nothing less than injustice that the law empowers a politician to override a court, acting on the advice he chooses to heed, and information that cannot be contested in the way that evidence before a court is tested.

Having given iwi and other objectors the victory they failed to gain in open court, Mr Carter now pretends the issue was wider than Whangamata. He invited a conversation about the coast. Let us ensure it is not one-sided.

New Zealand is a thinly populated place. These islands support four million people in an area the size of Great Britain which supports 60 million. It is still possible to drive for hours near the coasts of this country and see mostly an uncluttered landscape of farmland, tidal flats, sand dunes, estuaries and bays big or small with largely empty beaches.

That is the reality. Yet to hear or read the views of environmental groups, you would imagine the march of development has turned the country into a creeping Club Med where the coastline is being steadily alienated by foreign ownership, the delicate ecology of the inter-tidal zones being destroyed and the dubious charms of the fibrolite bach giving way to havens of the rich and famous.

There may be an element of truth in that but only an element and whether that is to be regretted should be a matter of contention. The country needs comfortable coastal resorts as well as mangrove swamps. Happily, there is still plenty of room for both, though we are still not nearly as rich in world-class resorts as we are in mangroves.

Coastal housing is changing and arguably for the better. The much-lamented baches of yesteryear were usually a blot on the coastal landscape, if truth be told. Compare the coastal developments of the far North or the Coromandel today with the rough settlements of the past and few would really want to wind the clock back.

Progress must always be carefully monitored, and certain parts of the coast kept in a reasonably pristine condition. But a balance must be maintained. Decisions such as the minister has made at Whangamata show how unbalanced coastal protection has become. The review would be worthwhile if it challenges the conservation lobby. But nobody should bank on it.

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