Three government commissioners are likely to be appointed to head Environment Canterbury.
Core functions will be stripped away under the recommendations of a hatchet team sent in to dismember Environment Canterbury. The Government is expected to ratify the recommendations within eight weeks.
The review group was appointed by the Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide and Environment Minister Nick Smith. The review team was headed by former National minister Wyatt Creech.
The report criticises Environment Canterbury for failure to develop comprehensive regional water management plans and slow resource consent processing. It also says there is a perception that staff too strongly advocate for the environment rather than economic and social considerations.
“Large numbers of staff are ‘green’ in orientation, which leads to an imbalance of environmental protection over other considerations.”
The recommendations of the team will suspend local democracy until 2013 with the recommended appointment of commissioners to replace elected councillors and setting up new structures to carry the council’s core function of water consenting.
Recommendations for a review of other functions such as public transport will follow.
While recommending a major overhaul, the review team absolves the elected councillors from accusations of disfunctionality.
“The Review found that while the process for debating strongly opposing views has been marred by poor behaviour and reflects past grievances in some cases, the governance of Environment Canterbury is functional and enables it to meet its statutory obligations. Mostly, the tensions that exist arise from differing political perspectives and not from any fundamental dysfunction.”
Even so, the review team concludes that Environment Canterbury is not up to the job of managing the water resources of the region and recommends a new Canterbury Regional Water Authority be set up that will initially be comprised of professional managers, and possibly later, a mix of elected representatives. It would be funded by Environment Canterbury ratepayers.
The review generally represents a victory for rural interests and rival territorial authorities over Environment Canterbury.
The language of the review emphasises economic, cultural and social objectives over environmental objectives.
“One stakeholder group interviewed considers that “Environment Canterbury takes a ‘protector of the environment’ rather than an ‘integrated management’ interpretation to their role, i.e. they undertake rigorous environmental analysis in decision making rather than fully evaluate the available options to come up with win-win solutions that satisfy social, environment, economic and cultural components.”
The review was sparked by the findings of a recent Ministry for the Environment biennial report in which Environment Canterbury scored poorly for resource consent processing.
The review team accepted that between July 2002 and June 2008, the number of applications increase from 2106 to 3763 per year – an increase of 79%. This was partly due a “gold rush” effect after Environment Canterbury warned in 2004 of limits to water abstraction in some catchments, prompting farmers to put in a flood of applications.
This was exacerbated by the boom in dairy farming and other rural production and the competing demands of energy generators.
Environment Canterbury was also partly author of its own misfortune by accepting incomplete or poor quality applications in efforts to be more flexible. Other councils tended to reject such applications.
“Whilst laudable in attempting to work with applicants, Environment Canterbury should not have accepted the applications in the first instance or formally sought additional information,” the report says.
A shortage of qualified staff meant the system became overloaded.
The review team accepted that a shakeup of processes has greatly improved performance. The Environment Canterbury chairman, Aleck Neill says the council is now achieving 90% compliance.
Fri, 19 Feb 2010