Making environment law fit to handle challenges of growth

VANISHING-NATURE news item version

There is an environmental downside to New Zealand’s strong economy and growing population. Our resource management law, world-leading when enacted in 1991, is now struggling to protect our treasured natural environment from the challenges of growth such as expanding cities, pollution, and threatened species.

The Environmental Defence Society, backed by the Law Foundation, is making a real contribution as policy-makers navigate their way to new solutions. EDS is a group of resource law experts dedicated to better environmental governance. Its evidence-based research provides valuable support for politicians and officials struggling to deal with complex problems that often require difficult, expensive responses.

The Law Foundation has funded a series of interlinked EDS think-pieces tackling aspects of New Zealand’s environmental challenge. These studies have already prompted change, and have laid the basis for a rethink of the wider system.

EDS is now working on an 18-month, $356,000 analysis of the resource management system, due to report with change recommendations in late-2018.

EDS CEO Gary Taylor says it is inevitable that fundamental change to resource law is coming, and the current study will be a valuable contributor to the new regime.

“We think that government will review the system, and we want to have some properly researched and evidenced ideas to input into that process,” he says.

Among the review issues will be the complexity of current arrangements, the role of local authorities and better collaboration with citizens on environmental decisions.

“One of the outcomes we seek is more simplicity and efficiency in the process. There needs to be less drag, less time consumed. But at the same time, the community has expectations around environmental bottom lines that can be lost sight of.

“We expect the project will produce a small range of scenarios, different ways of approaching reform. There would then need to be a more detailed working-up of preferred options.”

Gary says that recommendations for better environmental compliance and enforcement in the latest EDS publication, Last Line of Defence (2017), have been adopted by government agencies.

2016_43_2 Last Line of Defence Cover

“Various agencies that were criticised in that report are picking up on the recommendations and starting implementing them. DOC is a case in point – it is picking them all up. Our findings shattered some pre-conceptions, for example that the regional councils aren’t very good at monitoring compliance and enforcement. We found the councils are generally doing well in this area, but that central government is falling short.”

Last Line of Defence examined the state of play in environmental law compliance, monitoring and enforcement across New Zealand, at all levels of government. It finds that many current arrangements are outdated, under-resourced and unfit for purpose. Councils receive little support and guidance from central agencies, leading to variable local practice across the country.

In 2015 EDS produced Vanishing Nature, a book highlighting the plight of New Zealand’s threatened species. It was the first comprehensive stock-take of the country’s natural heritage and efforts to protect it. It found that existing measures were failing to protect threatened species like the kiwi, the kauri and the kokopu (whitebait).

VANISHING NATURE facing New Zealand's biodiversity crisis

EDS lead author Dr Marie Brown says that an imbalance between public and private interests lies behind the crisis.

“We have drawn into the public spotlight the power of private interests in New Zealand to influence the content and implementation of law – for example, farmer representation on regional councils leading to weaker implementation of environmental law.

“You end up with an imbalance between the common good and those extracting for their own gain, with the environment being the loser. We highlight the instances where that occurs – until we bring private powers into better balance with the public interest, our natural heritage will continue to degrade.”

She says more funding is needed for conservation, including through polluter-pays and user-pays approaches, as well as changes to the tax system through environmental consumption taxes and rebates for good practice. Those ideas and others were explored in more detail in a follow-up report, Pathways to Prosperity, published in 2016.

2015_42_5 Pathways to Propserity cover for news item

Wonders of the Sea - 2012 publication photo

The Foundation also supported EDS’s 2012 book Wonders of the Sea, which examined the law protecting New Zealand’s marine mammals from human activity.

Gary says Law Foundation backing was critical to these important EDS studies going ahead.

“It’s great to have the support of an organisation that takes a very progressive view of the world,” Gary says. “Often funding will proscribe the kind of outcome that might be sought, but the Law Foundation is completely open-minded: once it has identified a topic of interest and relevance, it’s keen to encourage creative, properly researched and innovative thinking.”

  • Further information on the EDS publications referred to above can be found at the Law Foundation website or the EDS website

  • The Law Foundation has provided total funding of $615,406 towards the research work of EDS, including $356,000 for the resource management law review now in preparation.

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