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Speech - Upton: Local Govt. Conference NZ

ADDRESS BY HON SIMON UPTON TO THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
13 JULY 1999

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) intends this seminar to explore the current and emerging balance between local and central environmental responsibilities.

The questions that LGNZ asked me to respond to in this speech reveal, to my mind, an uneasiness about the balance that it perceives is emerging. I was asked:

why NZ decided to devolve majority responsibility for RMA implementation to local authorities how the effectiveness of our environmental management compares with more centralist EPA approaches elsewhere whether the current proposals for amending the RMA reflect a desire to draw more authority back to the centre what can be done to develop a healthy relationship between central and local government?

The relationship between central and local tiers of government has always been characterised by a healthy tension. But, I detect a disposition to react suspiciously to any hint of central government interference in what are believed to be local issues.

Power sharing is never easy. No local government politician wants to be held accountable for the actions of central government politicians - and vice versa. I am forever imploring disgruntled RMA users to take their concerns up with their local councillor. It is a request that invariably falls on uncomprehending ears.

This recurring experience illustrates well the complexity of the central government/ local government relationship. As far as the public is concerned the buck stops with the Minister. At the end of the day, they are right. The Minister is responsible for the legislation and nothing short of fundamental constitutional reform is going to alter that.

But the making of local rules and their enforcement is, of course, devolved to local government. It is something of an urban myth that the RMA devolved the majority responsibility for environmental management to local government. The truth is that many of the functions had been devolved for decades. The RMA just completed the picture that had been emerging over a lengthy period.

The reasons for this devolution are well documented and I do not need to repeat them here today. The principle that decisions are best taken closest to the community of interest is as valid now as it was in 1991. So is the principle that there may, in some circumstances, be need for central government involvement.

The RMA deliberately kept options open for central government. National policy statements, call-ins, national standards and other such instruments were policy decisions taken with eyes open in 1991. Our use of them now is not some latter day attempt to wrestle back control.

It has never, in my view, been a question of whether central government should be involved but rather how and in what circumstances. Central government has the power to require local government to act in concert when it is in the national interest to do so. The "national interest" is one of those wonderfully vague terms but in environmental management terms I think its meaning is quite clear.

Central government should intervene where it is adding value. Obviously central Government doesn't "always know best", but its equally unrealistic to assume that individual and uncoordinated actions of local governments will always yield the best result. It is, to use the cliche, about partnership.

Central government can add value in all sorts of ways. For example: amassing resources to tackle technical and costly research and policy development work (such as the work on national environmental standards). co-ordinating and standardising the collection and assessment of environmental data (such as the work on environmental performance indicators). providing a policy framework which provides certainty and integration across complex issues (such as national policy statements).

I have been an interested observer of local government views on these issues over a number of years. There is no consistent view from the sector on the need or appropriateness of central government intervention. This is no surprise. Local government is a collection of agencies with very different needs, skill bases and values.

As Minister I am periodically awash with calls for assistance and guidance on all manner of issues (NPSs and NESs included). I am also keenly aware, however, that others share a different vision for local government - one with much greater self reliance and much greater ability to respond to local aspirations. Almost any form of central government interference risks raising opposition from that quarter.

I despair at times that the same central government initiative can be variously described as too precipitous or too late in the day, too directive or too general, unfocussed or not covering the full range of issues. With the greatest respect, local government seldom has a consistent view and I'm not at all sure that it should. But I would say that responding to local government isn't always the easiest of tasks.

I note that Helen Clark lamented yesterday at this conference how the drive behind changes to the RMA were driven "from the top down" and by a "desire to limit local democracy and control". In the same speech she also bemoans the Government's failure to develop national policy statements, leaving local and regional government to "operate in a vacuum". She can't have it both ways.

It is an established fact that the public is innately suspicious of politicians - and the bureaucracies they lead - that's one thing central and local government do share. It is true that notwithstanding the advances made in local government over recent years there remains a perception amongst some that local government is inefficient and unimportant.

I can assure you that it is not a view I share. Local government is, and will surely remain, the agent of environmental change in New Zealand. It has an enormously important role and I don't think anyone seriously believes it's a role that can be undertaken from Wellington. But environmental management is a collective responsibility. New Zealand's environment isn't managed for the individual fiefdoms it supports.

Therefore, to respond to the question put by LGNZ, if you are seeing in the latest amendments to the RMA a grander plan to draw back authority to the centre, you are reading too much into it. There is a role for central government but it's not a role that I see changing dramatically in the foreseeable future.

Resource Management Amendment Act

I want now to turn briefly to the Resource Management Act Amendment Bill that will be introduced to the House very shortly. The issues to be addressed by the Amendment have been in the public arena for a long time now. There will be no surprises.

I have commented at length on the proposals in the past and I am sure much more will be said in the coming weeks. But I would like to say a few words about the three issues which continue to concern some of you.

First, the definition of environment. I simply invite anyone to supply me with an example of an effect they believe to be relevant that does not come within the definition of environment as proposed. The definition remains broad and rightfully so. But it is, in my view, considerably clearer than the existing definition and forecloses remaining avenues that can be used to introduce trade competition and related arguments.

Second, I have listened to the views of local government on the issue of commissioners. I have stepped back from my early preference for compulsory commissioners in every case but have not been convinced that the right to appoint a commissioner should rest solely with the local authority. It is not a question of councils being less than objective or professional. Rather, it is about designing a system where the impartiality of decision-making is beyond reproach. Whether councils are impartial or not right now, is not the point. People will, and do, make allegations. The commissioner option will take the sting out of such allegations.

It is also worth noting that the Annual Survey of Local Authorities (which I will turn to shortly) records that 54,000 resource consents are currently determined not by elected representatives at all but by non-elected council officers. I therefore question the strength of the argument put by LGNZ in a recent letter that "value judgements about environmental risk must, in most cases, be taken by persons elected to act on behalf of communities." Certainly that is not the current practice.

Third, I understand well the concerns about contestable consent processing. I accept that many of the concerns raised about earlier models of contestability were well founded. My desire has long been to create a system which mirrors, as far as possible, existing practice where contracted processors are used (with the exception that applicants should be provided with choice). The primary concern is to ensure that private processors act as the contracted agents of councils.

I will, of course, have more to say on the RMA amendment when it comes before the House.

Annual survey of Local Authorities

Today I want to release the results of the Ministry for the Environment's Annual Survey of Local Authorities. Can I say at the outset how encouraged I was to learn that all local authorities, bar one, participated in this year's 1997/1998 Survey. Such a response reflects growing co-operation and partnership between central and local government.

The good return rate also indicates that local government generally has in place good systems for monitoring the exercise of its regulatory functions. We are seeing a growing willingness amongst local councils to participate in a process that some have seen as invasive and unnecessary. I am aware that a number of councils are only too happy to provide the information and subject themselves to auditing.

I find the attitude refreshingly positive. To my mind it shows a new confidence within local government. In the past there has been criticism by some of the Government's desire to extract the information from local government and scepticism about the value of the information once collected. I think it's probably fair to say that that scepticism was fuelled by the weakness of some of the earlier questionnaires.

Audit New Zealand assisted the Ministry in designing and presenting this year's questionnaire. Two new features of the survey were the inclusion of self auditing questions, and the grouping of local authorities into "family groups". The provision of "family groups" makes it easier for local authorities to compare their performance amongst their peers.

I am confident that the more recent results are proving useful in identifying areas for future research and guidance, establishing trends, and providing a sound basis to consider comments on the RMA. More importantly though, the survey is promoting good practice amongst local authorities through provision of benchmarks established within the context of the RMA.

The most notable point from the 19997/1998 survey is that it doesn't reveal any great surprises! While the product is substantially more robust than previous years, the results, by and large, follow a consistent pattern.

I am pleased that the key focus of this year's survey has been on the quality of RMA implementation. After all, amendments notwithstanding, good implementation is the key to enhancing the credibility of the whole RMA regime. A new section has been added to the survey that reports on the use of good practice in resource consent processing.

Overall, I was encouraged that a high percentage of local authorities are using good practice processes. On the down side, I am surprised that 53% of local authorities do not have a structured process to check environmental effects nor do staff use checklists when deciding to notify applications. Further, only 47% of local authorities provide checklists on how to identify affected parties.

Some of the highlights of this year's survey included:

No change in the number of resource consents notified - the figure still stands at 5%. 1% of resource consents were declined, and only 1% were appealed.

Decisions on resource consents - This information I found particularly relevant in light of proposed amendments to the RMA -

90% of resource consent decisions are made by local authority officers, 9% by councillors, and 1% by commissioners. The results are not at all surprising given that 95% of resource consents are non-notified.

Results on processing time-frames were relatively unchanged this year. 78% of all consents were processed within statutory time frames - a slight improvement from the previous year's 76%.

Information was collected this year on the costs of producing plans. The survey required an estimate of the costs between July 1991 and June 1998. The variations proved quite significant. For District Plans, the least-cost plan, which is now operative, was $50,000. The average cost is $1,495,000, and the highest cost was put at $14 million. The preparation of Regional Policy Statements have also produced marked variations - the lowest costing a modest $20,000, the average $524,000, and the highest $2,600,000.

One other result worth noting is the wide variability in the recovery of resource consent processing costs. These ranged from 14% to 100%.

I hope that providing individual results this year will again stimulate discussion about variation between local authorities and encourage councils to reassess whether their performance in light of what they have learnt from the performance of others. I am pleased that some of you intend to use the results in applications to the Business Development Quality Awards.

Ratepayers and resource users will also be interested in the performance of their councils - and so they should be.

Biodiversity Management

Finally, I want to take the opportunity today to say something about biodiversity management.

As a nation we face enormous difficulties managing biodiversity. Severe information gaps and uncertainties about roles and responsibilities have compounded these difficulties. We need a concerted effort by all sectors of society if "turning the tide" is to be transformed from a catchy title into reality.

I was recently concerned to hear reports that regional council policy managers argued that biodiversity management was not their responsibility. If that was a legal view - one based on the legislatively prescribed functions of regions - I can begin to understand the point. If, on the other hand, it was intended as a point of principle I would have very grave concerns.

If there is a legislative deficiency in this area I trust the up-coming amendments will rectify the problem.

In reality, systems of land tenure and local authority boundaries in New Zealand are not always convenient for managing ecological boundaries. Therefore, different management activities will be appropriate to different levels of biodiversity management. This requires an integrated approach to biodiversity management. To my mind, biodiversity management sits fairly and squarely within the biophysical domain of regional councils.

The regions in New Zealand are large enough to encompass many biodiversity areas which overlap territorial authority boundaries - in general regional council boundaries are linked to catchments. Regional council responsibilities under the RMA are broad enough to include important land and water interconnections. However, the values for which an area is identified, for example, as "significant" may occur at a smaller scale - at a local authority or individual level. This must be recognised through consultation and information sharing with appropriate people, groups or communities.

It is important to emphasise the role that regional councils play in managing some of our greatest threats to biodiversity. Threats to particular biodiversity values do not follow tenure or statutory boundaries. For example, a source of water pollution may arise well upstream of a valued wetland; or the fragmentation of forest into remnants may occur because of a road development that extend for many kilometres. Further, the eradication of pests (eg. possums and stoats) cannot be confined within specific boundaries (with the exception of offshore islands or special fencing).

The identification of "significance" at the regional scale allows for a wider perspective on sustainable management to be taken. Significance can be considered over a larger area, encompassing a number of areas of high value but recognising the connections between them.

As most of this audience should already know, I am one of the strongest defenders of regional councils. I know the quality of the personnel at the regional level and I am confident that on reflection they would agree that divorcing responsibilities for water, soil, air, and coastal management from responsibilities for biodiversity hardly constitutes integrated management.

That is not to say that territorial authorities don't also have a role. I believe that they do. Biodiversity management is one of those issues that transcend all tiers of government.

These are complex issues. Biodiversity management lies at the RMA's interface with other environmental statutes and about performance under those statutes. The biodiversity decline is increasingly referred to as New Zealand's most pervasive environmental problem. I feel passionately that the Government must marshal all the nation's resources if we are to meet the challenge. A National Policy Statement under the RMA is not the final answer but it may be part of it. I will be disappointed if the possibility of an NPS isn't greeted with an open mind at the very least.

Which brings me back to the relationship of central and regional government, which lies at the core of everything I've said today. In true local government fashion, the proposal for an NPS has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and scepticism from others. That's all very well, but there are some areas where we all have to make every effort to work together.

The NPS should, in my view, be accepted as it is intended - as an offer of assistance and recognition of a genuinely national problem.

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