Gary Taylor on the environment

Gary Taylor is a commentator on environmental affairs

Gary Taylor: Look after the best thing we've got going for us

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The water around Auckland is one of its most precious assets, and careful planning is needed to protect the city's 'wet bits'. Photo / Supplied
The water around Auckland is one of its most precious assets, and careful planning is needed to protect the city's 'wet bits'. Photo / Supplied

Environment guardian Gary Taylor has an important message for the Auckland Council.

Don't forget the environment! That's my message to the new Auckland council. We've had lots of rhetoric and stories about economic development opportunities, but precious little about what Aucklanders value most - the region's environment.

Mayor Len Brown made the point another way. He said improving Auckland's liveability was an imperative for him.

Certainly that involves moving decisively on key transport projects - completing the western ring route, building the CBD rail tunnel (which will double the network's capacity) and connecting rail to the airport.

Most people need to go somewhere most days and we like to do it easily. Getting Government buy-in to that vision should be achievable if the costs are spread over time.

But liveability is about more than convenient travel. It's about protecting and enhancing the attributes that made Auckland rank fourth highest city in the world in Mercers quality of life measure. We may be good but there's no room for complacency.

Auckland is a long, thin strip of land surrounded by ocean, with three big harbours. We live in a maritime environment, strongly influenced by the sea. Our land area is big: 490,000ha with more than 4000km of coast and several large offshore islands.

But the wet bits are much bigger - 1.6 million hectares of sea out to the 12 nautical mile limit.

It is a mistake to think managing the sea is easy. There will be highly contentious marine farming proposals coming forward next year with potential to conflict with more than 150,000 recreational boats in the region.

The world's rarest marine mammal, Maui's dolphin, lives in Auckland's coastal waters and the new council has responsibility under the Resource Management Act to protect it.

There are also serious pollution problems to address. Sewage overflows and stormwater runoff contaminate our beaches frequently. Sediment from earthworks, forestry and farming is choking some of our waterways and estuaries. Increasing amounts of heavy metals and persistent chemicals are washing off roads and accumulating in our harbours. Beaches are often closed to swimming. Managing Auckland's wet bits will pose significant challenges.

Then there's Auckland's nearly 4000km of coastline, arguably our finest asset. Much of it is intensively developed for residential purposes and needs sensitive management. But many outstanding areas have not been developed, and some never should be.

The council has a duty to protect our coastal heritage and remaining outstanding landscapes. These are critically important to our quality of life.

There is also rural Auckland to consider. We have more rural land than urban. Much productive rural land has been gobbled up by lifestyle development and this needs to be much more carefully managed.

The new council is the biggest farmer in the region with 27 regional parks. From the Waitakere Ranges in the west to the Hunua Ranges in the south, there are extensive native forests to manage.

The Auckland Regional Council's extraordinary parks legacy must not be squandered.

The ARC held district and city councils to account through its intervention in planning processes. But after November 1, who will do that?

Certainly the Environmental Defence Society, Forest & Bird and local community groups will do what they can but the task will be huge. The new monolithic council will operate largely free from external checks and balances as it develops the new planning framework for Auckland. This is a real worry.

There's an overarching spatial plan to be produced by the end of next year. Seven district and four regional plans are to be merged, possibly into one plan.

There's the challenge of catering for Auckland's growth while protecting our natural environment and improving our quality of life.

A positive solution would be the establishment of an environmental ombudsman to provide independent oversight of the council's environmental management. An ombudsman would do for Auckland what the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment does for the Government.

The ombudsman could be located in the mayor's office and empowered to investigate any environmental management issue and report publicly to the mayor.

He or she would also make an annual evaluation of the environmental performance of the council and the council controlled organisations.

The new era of local government we are entering holds much promise for improved outcomes.

Better integration, more strategic thinking, higher quality executives and a positive can-do attitude look to characterise the Auckland Council.

Let's look for economic development opportunities and safer, more cohesive communities.

But don't forget the environment. After our wonderfully diverse people, it's the best thing we've got going for us.

* Gary Taylor is chairman of the Environmental Defence Society, www.eds.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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