The residents of Brighton (20 kilometres south of Dunedin) have been occupying a narrow strip of insignificant road reserve on Scrogg’s Hill Road for some weeks now as they continue to frustrate efforts by telecommunications new comer Two Degrees in their efforts to establish a 12 metre cell phone tower. It’s rather a classical David and Goliath battle of the corporate world imposing their will on a community rallying to protect their traditional values. It also has all of the hallmarks of nimbyism, where residents are protecting their own interests and landscape values against change. The other aspect of this protest is that it hinges on two distinct arguments, the perceived health risks of electromagnetic fields caused by cell phones and the effect that the construction of the tower will have on the landscape. Both arguments have their supporters and detractors, but both arguments could also be described as highly subjective. Whichever way you look at any of the arguments of the proposed tower these types of proposals raise questions about infrastructural development, consultation and the planning processes in the face of the public’s thirst for digital communication services.
In many instances utility operators have statutory authorisation to utilise road reserve areas for utility construction, though such works are subject to the Resource Management Act 1991 and should comply with relevant provisions of the District Plan. The Dunedin District Plan effectively allows the construction of telecommunications towers like the Two Degrees proposal as essential infrastructure. Though the Council may work with developers to mitigate adverse effects, such proposals within the plan and from a statutory perspective are permitted activities.
There’s no argument communities need utilities as essential infrastructure, but how the decision-making process is undertaken between developers, councils and residents clearly needs strengthening. What seems to have raised the greatest ire of the Brighton residents is that the Dunedin City Council had no responsibility to inform the community about the proposal. In the Brighton example the decision was made internally between the developer and the Council using the rules of the District Plan and governing statute. The subsequent consultation between the developer and residents was then presented as a fait accompli. That approach dis-empowers community’s from being able to share in the decision-making process and creates the type of situation that we see in Brighton today. It also brings into doubt the power of local authorities and communities to make good resource management decisions that are beneficial for local community’s. There is a need at local and national level of greater recognition that District Plans are community statements of public resource aspirations and this needs to be brought into stronger focus.
The other issue is whether such District Plans are able to keep pace with the acceleration of technological change, and what the mechanisms are to ensure greater flexibility in the face of that change. The creation of generalisations in rules for the management of utility issues in District Plans may not always be adequate to deal with both the community’s concerns and the adverse effects of such proposals to the wider environment. With public demand for instant digital gratification growing ever greater in our society planning processes need to keep in touch with that growing demand and the challenges that they make on the environment, consultation and the community.