EDS has been intimately involved in resource management reform over the past five years, from making the case for change and presenting a vision for a new system, to engaging with the independent Randerson Panel review and government in bringing the Natural and Built Environment Act and Spatial Planning Act to fruition. This legislation is now going through the parliamentary process, in the most significant environmental reforms in a generation.
But legislation is just the first step, and how reforms are then implemented will be crucial. A big part of implementation is thinking about the institutional arrangements that will support our new laws and make them effective. EDS is therefore conducting three related policy projects looking at what institutions we need in a future system. In short, we are looking who should do what, and how institutions should be designed (or created) so as to best fulfil the roles and responsibilities required.
The first policy project is about environmental advocacy. What role should advocates (statutory, like the Department of Conservation and Fish and Game, and non-statutory, like environmental NGOs) play in a new system? How should they be resourced? Should they be independent of government? And what does that mean for broader checks and balances as well as public participation? The RMA has placed heavy reliance in practice on the activities of environmental advocates in and outside the courts to realise fundamental aspects of its purpose, but that core role is not well recognised, and is therefore a fragile feature of the system.
The second project is about the future of local government in Aotearoa New Zealand. The government’s independent local government review group has released a report on this subject, but it is not coming from an environmental perspective per se. We are asking the question: what role should councils play in a future resource management system to achieve its environmental objectives? Should there be fundamental reform in how councils are structured, where their functional and geographic boundaries lie, how they are funded and incentivised, and how they are held to account for environmental outcomes? And should councils be responsible for some things at all? Is it proper that we elect environmental regulators?
The third project is about environmental institutions more broadly. The optimal functions of, and relationships between local government, central government departments, councils and other agencies is the focus of this work. Given the uncertainty and debate about its “proper” place in the system, a significant aspect of that is what role our EPA could play in the future, and how it might evolve alongside local government. In particular, the EPA has now been operating for over a decade alongside various other entities (eg the Ministry for the Environment, regional councils, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Department of Conservation) and it is timely to reflect on that experience and review its roles. Do we need a new, supercharged national level environmental regulator? What should it do? And what does that mean for other institutions within and outside of government?
Overall, this package of projects will seek to guide what we see as the next step of resource management reform: making sure those implementing the strong environmental intent of fundamental legislative reform get the job done. Across all these questions of institutional design, the role of tangata whenua under te Tiriti o Waitangi will need to be grappled with, at both a national and regional/local level.