The history of regional government – Part 2: are we entering a new era?

The earlier article A short history of regional government in NZ contained musings about whether there might be clues in the history of regional government in New Zealand that help explain the predicament that Environment Canterbury (ECan) now finds itself in. The article failed to answer this question, but promised a future article to explore this question further. An examination of our more recent history reveals that this – at least in part, may be a product of an increasingly challenging environmental landscape outgrowing the RMA model of regional council focused on end-of-pipe, point-source pollution.

In his article, Acts and Deeds, Dr Jeff McNeill suggests some historical reasons for the challenges councils like ECan now face: “The RMA is couched very much in the prevailing localised pollution paradigm of the late 1980s. The public could see and were concerned about belching smokestacks, foaming waste outfalls from sewage plants and factories and the like, and so the legislation refers to water discolouration and surface scum. The focus in 1989 was on the end-of-the-pipe, local issues. Twenty years later the environmental policy context has changed. The data are not comprehensive, but regional councils, abetted by the economic rationalisation that closed many polluting factories, have played a key role in substantially reducing pollution coming from the end of pipes or chimney-stacks. Many of our ‘new’ pollutants, such as nitrates [the primary sources of which are dairy-shed effluent spread over farmland, animal urine and fertiliser application], are unobservable to the lay public – even if the algal blooms that sometimes result are not. The patchy evidence we do have shows that the cumulative impacts on non-point discharges originating from intensified farming are degrading our freshwater lakes, rivers and streams, and, increasingly, groundwater. These discharges are not easy to address.”

So in fact, are regional councils a victim of their own effective performance in the early years when they successfully addressed the “end-of-pipe” issues using the tools provided to them by the RMA? Or, a cynic might suggest that the “low-hanging fruit” have been plucked, and now regional councils are not up to the task of addressing the so called “wicked problems” of non-point discharges and other cumulative effects. Others suggest that there has not been enough national guidance from central government (such as National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards under the RMA) empowering regional governments to be “hard nosed” about curbing environmental degradation in their jurisdictions. A recent example of a regional council arguably softening its stance on an intractable issue is that of Horizons (Manawatu-Whanganui) Regional Council which had proposed requiring all farmers in the region to apply for resource consents to farm. This was in an attempt to curb the degradation of water quality of the badly polluted Manawatu River caused by non-point discharges (e.g., stock effluent which leaches into waterways). [For more about this story, see the April 14 TV3 news item or the 28 April Manawatu Standard article.]

Photos top left and middle right: Have we transitioned from an era of end-of-pipe point-source pollution (middle right) to one of the inordinately more challenging cumulative effects of non-point source environmental degradation (top)? Bottom left: effluent being sprayed on to pasture.

See also: A short history of regional government in NZ; Resource Management Law in NZ – a potted history; Lindsay Gow: two decades of environmental policy – then and now; Lindsay Gow’s thoughts on the RMA: 20 years on.

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