Editorial: Ensuring environmental compliance must not be an afterthought

Clean water, clean air and pristine national parks do not come free.

Clean water, clean air and pristine national parks do not come free.

OPINION: Given the high level of public interest in New Zealand's environmental reputation, it is disappointing to learn that the agencies charged with monitoring environmental compliance are asleep at the wheel.

New research by the Environmental Defence Society said such agencies were "chronically underfunded" and the work of ensuring compliance was often the "poor cousin" at agencies such as the Department of Conservation (DOC) and local councils.

Part of the problem appears to be highly devolved way compliance monitoring happens. Although DOC was praised for having an excellent national compliance team, the vast majority of the work is delegated to 48 regional offices, with varying results. Last year, for example, 75 per cent of prosecutions came from just five offices.

The patchwork approach is not that surprising – agencies such as DOC and Environment Canterbury (ECan) tend to see themselves as partners rather cops when it comes to their various stakeholders, and have favoured behaviour modification rather than prosecution as they try to get rogue operators onside.

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Ministry for the Environment (MOE) data showed that in 2014-15 ECan gave just one in 10 rule-breakers an abatement or infringement notice.

Of course, you can only enforce regulations if you know they are not being followed. The same MOE data showed that ECan did little monitoring of its consents compared to other councils, monitoring 16 per cent of them, compared to 82 per cent in Auckland, and figures above 50 per cent for most councils and 100 per cent for some.

Auckland, which has fewer consent holders, punished nine times as many people as ECan did. Taranaki, one tenth the size of ECan, punished almost three times as many.

All the goals, ambitious policies and public pronouncements about the importance of preserving New Zealand's environment mean nothing if those charged with looking after it don't know how it is being affected and, even when they do, do little to deter those abusing their consents and concessions.

Yes, it does all come back to resources and there are never enough, especially in New Zealand's vast landscape sparsely populated by ratepayers and taxpayers.

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But where we allocate resources is also a sign of what we value, and clearly we are not valuing our environment.

DOC, for example, monitored just 9 per cent of the more than 4000 concessions it has granted for activities ranging from tourism to grazing last year.

Imagine if the same was true for those monitoring building consents. People complain about the (users pay) cost and red tape of building consents but the goal is to keep homeowners safe and if 91 per cent of them were never inspected, dodgy building practices would be rampant.

We need to keep our home – our environment – safe and if the cost of ensuring that falls more on people seeking consents or concessions, then that seems only fair. Clean water, clean air and pristine national parks do not come free. The price is vigilance.

Making sure of these Kiwi birthrights, which are increasingly rare in the rest of the world and thus a competitive advantage for sectors for tourism to agriculture, is important work that should be prioritised.

If your house leaks, you can usually fix it. If it falls down, it can be rebuilt. But if we don't even know if our environment is being trashed and are reluctant to hold those profiting from it to account, then we are throwing away the only home we have.

 - Stuff


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