NZ environmental enforcement agencies 'chronically under-resourced' - research

Research by the Environmental Defence Society found widespread problems with the enforcement of New Zealand's ...
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Research by the Environmental Defence Society found widespread problems with the enforcement of New Zealand's environment laws

Agencies tasked with enforcing environmental laws are "chronically under-resourced" and struggle to do the job effectively, according to new research.

Research by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) released on Tuesday found widespread problems with the enforcement of New Zealand's environment laws, particularly within agencies such as the Department of Conservation (DOC) and district and regional councils.

Compliance, monitoring and enforcement (CME) work was the "poor cousin" of the policy and planning cycle, it said, and routinely under-resourced.

The resulting impact was poor record-keeping, a lack of staff, limited oversight and political pressures affecting decision-making.

The research was co-funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation and the Ministry for the Environment.

The report raised serious concerns about DOC's credibility as a regulator in particular and said the agency was "chronically under-resourced" in its enforcement role.

The agency had more than 4000 concessions on conservation land, ranging from tourism ventures to grazing leases.

It monitored just 9 per cent of concessions in 2016, up from 8 per cent the year before. 

Poor data collection meant its monitoring results were not adequately recorded and neither were complaints from the public.

"Fundamental tasks such as concessions monitoring are not reliably carried out and capacity for more complex investigations is extraordinarily limited given the scope of the legislation Parliament has charged DOC with implementing," the report said.

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CME appeared to be "an unpopular function" within the department and "viewed as a necessary evil" .

Compliance monitoring was delegated to the 48 regional DOC offices, which had wildly different approaches; last year, 75 per cent of prosecutions came from just five offices and there were few consistent guidelines .

"DOC has an excellent national compliance team and provides comprehensive training where staff can access it; however the department itself appears to have insufficiently invested in its overall role as monitor and enforcer of environmental law," the report stated.

"Its credibility as a regulator is doubtful, and given its significant responsibilities, this is alarming."

At local government level, councils were "evidently struggling with some aspects of their enforcement role," the report found, partly because they had been largely "left to do the job alone" by the Ministry for the Environment.

In some cases, political interference had played a role in whether enforcement action was taken. 

An anonymous survey filled out by 140 council officers found that most were aware of instances where their council had "turned a blind eye" to non-compliance.

Of the 78 councils, 21 had to get approval from the chief executive, while eight required input from elected officials, before prosecuting.

"They [councils] wrestle with a significant mandate, often without accompanying resources to do the job well. Committed individuals within each organisation work hard to generate good outcomes, but often do it alone and unassisted," the report stated.

The report proposed numerous ways to improve environment law enforcement, including a review of CME provisions in relevant legislation and consistent guidance from national authorities.

Also recommended were enhanced national reporting requirements, more oversight and auditing, and increased capacity for agencies to do the work required.

The report's author, EDS senior policy analyst Dr Marie Brown, said agencies often had a shortage of data, meaning poor practices could go unnoticed. 

"As long as you've got a lack of clarity, lack or reporting, lack of oversight, you've got the potential for quite poor practice to go undetected," she said.

"If you read the annual reports of these agencies, there's often zero data related to this role. There's this inherent opaqueness to the function which means the public can't possibly know what's going on."

The problem was not with the staff doing the work, but agencies with limited resources failing to support their work properly, she said.

"DOC has a really important role as a regulator … It has enormous responsibilities for a small department with very limited resources across the board, but [is] really limited in compliance.

"We recognise that it's a very difficult job and the agencies just need to be supported and tooled-up to do it."

DOC compliance manager Darryl Lew said the agency welcomed the report and had begun enacting its recommendations.

"We accept the recommendations and have already implemented 40 per cent of them through DOC's own programme of improvements. The rest will be implemented in the next 12 months," he said.

They included publishing a national compliance strategy, re-introducing honorary rangers and rolling out refresher training to officers with compliance powers, he said.

Ministry for the Environment chief executive Vicky Robertson said compliance was an area the agency was actively looking at improving.

"Our own 2016 report on compliance, monitoring and enforcement under the Resource Management Act pointed to issues such as inconsistency in how these processes are managed nationwide, and prompted us to shine the light on this area," she said.

"The EDS report has provided [us] and the other agencies with a useful independent perspective, highlighting what is being done well already and where we can raise the bar."

 - Stuff

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