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"We're all getting on the bus and going in the same direction, but Wellington has sent seven buses to pick you up seven times." Why catchment groups are a better answer

Rural News / opinion
"We're all getting on the bus and going in the same direction, but Wellington has sent seven buses to pick you up seven times." Why catchment groups are a better answer
Tui on flax

Simon Stokes has a scientific background in natural resource management, and probably more specifically, the areas around land management and how to implement work on-farm.

He sees himself as a mixture of an advisor, environmental scientist and someone with a bit of experience. But he really has turned towards working at the coalface more and more, and in particular with catchment groups.

Stokes says catchment groups to him are a group of people, possibly with a leader or somebody who you would say as a key driver, (and it might be out of an agency or it may be from within the community) who are actively looking to progress something that they have all collectively agreed needs to be managed or dealt to, or there's a problem.

“From that definition, I haven't come across a catchment group yet where there hasn't been enthusiasm about what they've done. And I think that's what I really enjoy about catchment groups. They've got into a space where they can feel like they've got some ownership over what they're doing, and what they're trying to do to solve something and that's often what brings them together.”

So what does the science tell us about catchment groups? Stokes says in terms of definitive data, it is too early to tell, he thinks community catchment group work is going to provide a whole range of results, depending on what the objectives are, and depending on who's doing the monitoring. “If you looked around New Zealand, catchment groups exist for a whole range of reasons, I bet you that they could supply a range of data and results that would give you confidence that they're moving in the right direction. Is the direction that science might have wanted? Or is it going quick enough?”

“And so should science be the actual thing that defines what success look like? I'm not so sure. Yeah, there is a part to play for sure. And when we need science to inform us with potential targets, and ways of seeing if we are addressing things, but I don't think it should consume the space to the degree that potentially it is at the moment. And I also think that the soft science of social research with the hard science, and dare I say the non-science of our understanding our own wellbeing is perhaps something that we need to still learn a lot about.”


Stokes has worked on both sides of the coin for a long time; “The frustration I have, as a fifth generation New Zealand farming son is that the farmers are up for it. And they're up for doing things. The current way that we've been attacking the environmental problems in front of us has been through this one dimensional siloed approach to each issue, and I've been around long enough to have moved from one issue to another over, the last 20 years and all the way through when I've been on farm. Because of my own way of understanding things, and how complex it is, you've got to run it through that complexity to actually then make it make sense for the farmer, the farm business, the farm team, and the professionals around them. And so, at the moment, we've been asked to do freshwater plans, Now, we've been asked to do climate plans, climate change plans, probably there'll be a need for biodiversity plans. At the end of the day, all of those things come back to actually one solid understanding of your property from its natural resource space as to what you are looking to do from your own goals and business perspectives, which then actually taps into each one of those, but from a multitude of points, but you don't need to come at it from a silo perspective.

“If you're doing erosion control work on the property, because you've got a piece of landscape that needs some erosion control work, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand and it's going to provide some level of benefit across a multitude of environmental issues. But at the moment, government, and those within the ministries and others just somehow haven't seemed to connect, in a sense, and you might call it a holistic connection. But I would just call it an understanding of what you're trying to achieve through the lens of a farmer, and put it into that perspective, that would make it so much easier.”

Stokes is right in saying that if you start with an understanding of the business from the business base, which is an allocation of natural resources, and you overlay that with a range of questions that you may have, relative to the farming system you have you start to get a really solid picture, then how you can manage the environmental issues and problems that exist within the property. Farmers are currently struggling to keep abreast of policy that are coming at them.

“It's like, we're all getting on the same bus and going in the same direction, but they've sent seven buses to pick you up seven times.”

You can feel the energy and the progress rural communities are making both environmentally and socially, this truly is what I would call a genuine groundswell of positive activity. No government or authority can achieve what is currently happening within catchment groups, they are community initiatives driven by the community and in my view if policymakers want to really help, I say then put some gumboots on, get along to a catchment group and see for yourself.

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Angus Kebbell is the Producer at Tailwind Media. You can contact him here.

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Right direction - but not so sure about the closing recommendation to get regulators/policy makers donning gumboots and attending these catchment groups. Regulators are regulators - it's their input from the outside that probably wouldn't change from the inside.  They will see a need for regulation - and that's exactly what the author sees as the problem for the ag sector at the moment.

Only one plan is needed to my mind and that is a catchment plan that the community fully buys into.

These need to be community-led decisions.  

Perhaps a better idea is instead of government regulators attending such catchment meetings, environment management should employ the a concept of citizens juries - take the catchment group (i.e., collective of rural landowners) output/plan and allow for citizens juries to make comment and recommendations for improvement(s) on that plan.  Perhaps a jury could be formed once yearly, drawn from members of the community, just like a standard jury process.


Like a Common Law Court perhaps. 


This article is the future, not just of catchments but of communities as well. The science driven approach by the educational elites is isolated from the realities down on the land. I'm not sure the two sides are even talking to each other in a language that can be understood by the other party. The silo is a correct analogy. We are all living in our own little silos, it's no wonder there is so much anger on the streets. This Labour Govt in particular has done more damage to New Zealand in 2 years than the previous 30-40 years of mediocre leadership ever did. The good news is that the word from the big silo in Wellington has started to build up these urban catchments, which I see as a the beginning of a new wave for our urban souls to keep producing great products from our primary natural resources (our lands) that will keep us at the cutting edge of global food industries for the next 50 years or longer. Most civilised nations haven't included agriculture in the emission targets because they are so small compared to their developed economies, while the other 150 plus nations can't even measure their own population numbers let alone their emissions. There has to be some good to come out of the disaster that is this 6th Labour Govt of NZ. Perhaps we have the genesis here?


I'm not sure what specific damage you are referring to here;

This Labour Govt in particular has done more damage to New Zealand in 2 years than the previous 30-40 years of mediocre leadership ever did.

They are attempting to reform all kinds of problems that have built up over the years:

- The RMA

- The health system

- The infrastructure deficit

- The social housing crisis

- The issue of freshwater 'ownership'

I could probably go on. But the point is, everyone cried out for something other than incrementalism (poking at the edges), but (I assume) you don't like the shape of what has been proposed?  Or is the damage you refer to something else?

I just get curious when I hear these sweeping statements - and really wish I could understand what the damage referred to actually is.



Just one suggestion, I think  the greatest damage this government has caused is the advancement of the idea that.."the government is the source of all truth".

This is a feature of all governments, (aided by a media which follows breathlessly all the minutia of the state) but is one this government has progressed in an extreme way. Of course the covid saga has been a significant stimulus.

The effect of this process, rooted in in the firm belief that government is always right, has been I suggest, that a rapidly increasing portion of our population is simply "giving up" on coping with the complexities of life and instead, just waiting for direction and provision from " above".

If one reads old newspapers from the website "Papers Past",  one is struck by, a) the concentration on reporting rather than opinion of busybody often young, reporters,  and b) the comparative lack of reports on active government  interventions.

When companies & individuals first reach for the phone to find out "what they need to do" from a man from the ministry, rather than getting ahead on their own initiative, I suggest we are in trouble  as a nation.


Ah, the good old days. Those of us who survived are the ones that get to look back and smile. The rest, well not so much.


Thanks - interesting perspective.  I think what you are saying is that they have been too "in-your-face".  Which is (I suspect) a reflection of not only COVID but the substantive reform agenda.  They might have been better simply going for the line that the market will sort out housing; the market will sort out infrastructure provision; the market will sort out water quality; etc. etc.

There is it seems a very large contingent of NZers who put more faith in markets than in law/regulatory mechanisms as a means to solve these social-ills.

This is a really interesting piece by Bernard Hickey to look back on in this regard;

Is the PM a transformer? Or just a manager? (

He was obviously one pushing the Lab government if it got a second term to be transformative. 

Politics is an interesting subject. 


Hi Kate, I wasn't suggesting "the market" would solve everything, nor that some government and regulation wasn't desirable. Just that currently we are well overbalanced toward the latter.

I think it is a matter of balance. I always respected the advice of a great old ww2 veteran, Buck Pound who wrote a column on financial matters in local newspapers. He said "prosperity" for individuals was pretty straight forward...get an education, get a job, (& neither had to be flash, just the best you could do). Then, get married,.....& stay married.

In earlier days this was conventional, but I know one or two who wagged school, plenty whose marriages failed (often through poor choices in the first place). Today, these individuals struggle as they approach retirement.

Yes there are plenty of people who drew the short straw in terms of loving parents, and certainly there are always rogues to steal you savings, both individuals and corporates. So regulation is necessary.

It is clear that recent parliaments have failed miserably  to meet their first obligation to enact well thought out legislation. The RMA, drafted in haste, is a good example of good intentions that have cost, I suggest $b's & have failed miserably to meet their stated purpose. Like the Local Government Act they promise flexibility and are long on flowery virtue signaling, but in the end just create huge bureaucracies who try in manage functions better left the responsibility of individuals. (Try building a simple carport without hiring an expert and without a mountain of consent paperwork!)

Another statement I like is Ronald Reagan's statement that..."the most frightening words in the English language are,...'Hi, I am from government & I'm here to help you' ".


Thanks, mills, I wouldn't disagree with any of that (and I like the quotes you mention too!) but these observations are still generalisations about government and governance, as opposed to specifically stating how;

"This Labour Govt in particular has done more damage to New Zealand in 2 years than the previous 30-40 years of mediocre leadership ever did."

What damage you specifically refer to in this second term of this Labour government is what makes me curious.

And the reason I'm curious is that your opinion is not uncommon (in my experience of listening to public opinion) - yet I've lived through governments in NZ from all of Muldoon's three-term National government to present... and I'm just not sure why this Labour government is viewed to have caused more damage. 

I'm just curious about what specific damage you (and others) are talking about - or whether there is just a general malaise or uncomfortable/anxious feeling about non-specific things in general.



Big challenge Kate, & hard to answer in a few words. Perhaps the article we are responding to provides one answer in terms of catchment management with bureaucrats and new regulation, and requirement for production of a range of new environmental "plans", a "top down" web of regulation coming from a range of departmental "silos". The author is not rejecting regulation but suggests, I think, to develop catchment plans from the bottom up, ie from those affected on the ground.

The pace of government initiated regulation has undeniably picked up under the current government. One problem is that government ""planners" never rest. The old adage of " perfection is the enemy of good", has no place in their thinking.

But to be more specific, apart from their wonderfully unrealistic plans to eliminate child poverty, homelessness, swimable streams, etc., three very clumsy actions stand out. Firstly, revolutionary new arrangements to provide hospital services. Secondly, equally radical proposals to provide reticulated water; both involving measures which promise to overturn everyday constitutional practices which date back well over one hundred years.

Both measures based on dubious analysis of current deficiencies and which are proposed to be introduced with no trialing. The very expensive pr has been infantile and deeply worrying in itself.

My third example is the response to covid. Although one could be generous enough to say that it was an external and relatively sudden event requiring a degree of trial and error, so mistakes are forgiveable. However, it seems obvious to me at least that the touted once in 600 odd year, world wide epidemic, might have rung some bells from the experiences of the ww2 (labour) government where the extraordinary scale of the threat was wisely met through the formation of a political party-wide emergency cabinet.

But no, our current bunch obviously thought only they could save the nation! I could rave on about the costs we are now starting to pay for their over-enthuiastic cash splash, but in all sorts of  propaganda, regulation, or even subsidies, their message was clear..."don't worry your little minds, your government betters are on the case!"

Many past governments have "poked around the edges" (to use your words), but this government has raised the idea of helpless individuals/all wise government, an art form. I think it no exaggeration to say the concept of a rugged, independent Kiwi "bloke (& bloke-ess) is under greater threat from this "lot", than ever before.


I think there are alot of old network boys on local councils that want to protect Thier lack of action, and certainly don't like a Maori woman above them. In fact you can talk to most older men , and you,LL soon get a Cindy and cuzzie comment.