The Minister for the Environment has just announced a truly massive reform of environmental governance - the biggest since the 1980s.
The Phase 2 reforms are very broad in their scope, focusing on providing greater government direction as well as closer alignment between the Resource Management Act and other acts. There are 10 work streams covering issues as diverse as the new Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), management of the Exclusive Economic Zone, aquaculture, urban limits and freshwater.
Nick Smith made it clear that Phase 2 will be on a slower and more consultative track than Phase 1.
That is just as well. The first round of reform focused on the Resource Management Act. It was rushed with very little opportunity for public input. The select committee process was an exercise in tokenism. The Environmental Defence Society (EDS), for example, produced a 78 page submission and was given only five minutes to present it with a further five minutes for questions. Whether we get a sensible outcome from the select committee remains to be seen, with the key concern being the attack on public rights of participation under the RMA.
It would be helpful if the minister spelt out just what opportunities there will be for informed groups and individuals to engage in an early and meaningful way in the next phase.
Pleasingly, the minister has made it clear that changes to Part II of the RMA are not on the agenda. I double-checked this point with a spokesman in the minister's office and he was quite clear. This is very significant. Part II sets out the purposes and principles and the matters of national importance when it comes to protecting the environment. So the minister is keeping his word: prior to the election he gave assurances that he would not weaken the core principles of the act.
One area that is likely to prove highly controversial is the future of regional councils. A majority on the minister's Technical Advisory Group suggested that regional councils might be replaced by the proposed EPA. The minister himself has yet to indicate a preference but clearly this issue is on the table.
Exactly how such a proposition might work with the new Auckland Council is unclear. The idea is more likely to have legs - if anywhere - in rural New Zealand.
Replacing elected councils with a central government agency would enable greater government direction but would also reduce regional autonomy and will almost certainly provoke great angst in the regions.
Whether that idea proceeds or not, fleshing out the role of the EPA is going to be a major focus over the next few months. Will it take over functions from the Ministry for the Environment? What oversight role might it have over council decision-making? What level of independence will it have from political interference?
EDS has undertaken a wide-ranging review of EPAs around the world and will be launching a report on June 2. The report, which will outline the preferred role of the proposed EPA, will be available on the EDS website on that date.
* Gary Taylor is chairman of the Environmental Defence Society www.eds.org.nz