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Annual survey contains mixed reviews for councils

11 July 2000 Media Statement

News Backgrounder

Annual survey contains mixed reviews for councils

How are local councils implementing processes under the Resource Management Act (RMA) – the big law that comprehensively rewrote the way we manage land, air and water in New Zealand?

The Annual Survey of Local Authorities provides a useful snapshot of local authority practice with the most important of our environmental laws.

Just released, the fourth annual survey covers the financial year from 1 July 1998 through to the end of June 1999. For the first time all 86 local authorities responded to the questionnaire, making the survey the most thorough so far.

What did the survey find?
The document contained both good and bad news. Here are some of the highlights:

Good news
Councils have sharpened up their act in processing resource consents, with 82 percent processed within statutory time limits. This represents an improvement from 78 percent in 1997/98 and 76 percent in 1996/97.

A total of 40 percent of the appeals on resource consent decisions heard by the Environment Court were upheld in their entirety, and a further 42% were upheld but with some consent conditions changed. This indicates that local authority decisions on resource consents are generally of a high standard.

A high percentage of local authorities are using the good practice processes outlined in the survey and increasing numbers of councils are making a formal budgetary commitment to Maori participation in RMA processes.

Bad news
Only 55 percent of all publicly notified resource consents were processed within statutory time limits - a nine percent decrease from the previous year.
What is the survey for?
Based on self-reported data, the survey helps the Minister and the Ministry for the Environment to monitor the effect and implementation of the RMA, as required by law.

It also gives both the Ministry and councils solid information on areas that may need further work. It helps spotlight trends over time for some RMA processes and provides background information against which to consider comments on the Act.

Information taken from the surveys serve as a baseline for tracking local authority practice improvements against benchmarks established in the RMA and/or guidance produced by the Ministry.

What will councils get out of the survey?
Importantly, results from this survey will allow local authorities to compare their performance with their peers and to share information about good practice.

Under the Act, regional councils and territorial and unitary authorities are the main players in New Zealand’s system of environmental management. The role of regional councils is to coordinate and set policies for managing resources in such key areas as water and soil conservation, and transport. Additional responsibilities include drainage and pest management and control.

Territorial authorities, on the other hand, are more focussed on local service requirements, particularly water supply and control of land development. Unitary authorities have combined responsibilities for resource management and service delivery.

Responses from local authorities are compared in the survey. This is to stimulate discussion between any variance in results between similarly sized councils, identify the good practices of local authorities complying with statutory requirements, and foster benchmarking and performance improvements.

How was the questionnaire run?
Audit New Zealand again helped design the questionnaire and also played a role in analysing and presenting the results. The questionnaire was peer reviewed by a group of local authorities around the country.

The questions covered the following topics: general statistical information, research questions, time, cost, monitoring and enforcement, Maori participation in RMA processes, and good practice in resource consent processing.

At around 125 questions, the 1998/99 questionnaire was slightly longer than the previous year. The main difference was a revised cost section – asking questions about the costs of resource consents, and an extended monitoring and enforcement section.

Some results were reported in ‘family groups’ of local authorities to allow comparisons to be made between councils with similar characteristics. Territorial authorities were divided into groups based on the number of resource consents they processed.

How were the surveys audited?
A new element of this year's survey was the chance for local authorities to have key aspects of their survey response audited by Audit New Zealand. A total of 28 local authorities took up this opportunity.

Of those audited, Audit New Zealand was generally satisfied that critical data was robust and that adequate audit trails existed from data sources and records to the responses given in the survey. Feedback from the audited local authorities was positive. Audit New Zealand made useful suggestions to each of the audited local authorities on how RMA processes and data recording could be improved.

The audit gives greater credibility to the results of this year's survey. The Ministry for the Environment hopes that next year more local authorities will take up this opportunity.


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