The public value of regional government : how New Zealand's regional councils manage the environment : a dissertation presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of PhD in Politics at Massey University, Turitea, New Zealand
A new regional level of government was formed in late 1989 as part of a comprehensive reform of New Zealand’s local government. Regional government was not new, but the comprehensiveness of reforms established a comprehensive regional layer of government across all of New Zealand and was part of a wider decentralisation of government functions. The new regional councils were intended to be the primary environmental policy and implementation agencies underpinning the parallel environmental resource management law reforms, promising a new era of regional government.
This thesis examines the public value of this regional government structure two decades later using environmental management as a case study. Public value was assessed using substantive value, authorising agency and operational feasibility drawing on published data and a survey of perceptions held by environmental resource practitioners and stakeholders.
The results indicate a low level of public value. Despite some improvements, and some regional variation, overall environmental conditions have deteriorated nationally since 1989. The councils also show low public support and apparent sector capture and vary in capability to undertake their functions. While sub-national environmental conditions and problems were identified, they do not match existing regional council jurisdictions, nor match each other. Most councils share many characteristics, suggesting uniform rather than separate management regimes are appropriate. Consequently, the efficacy of the regional council-based model for managing the environment is questioned.
The role of the councils is also queried. Although classified as part of local government, these democratically elected regional councils are really multi-special purpose authorities that parallel a national government decentralised regional administration. Despite being endowed with a broad mandate to promote their communities’ well-being, most regional councils continue to exercise a narrow set of functions. These are based on their historical role as environmental management agencies. This discourages allocative efficiency, limiting their sustainable development capability. Importantly, the hierarchical policy-making system developed has been compromised by an ongoing lack of national level government policy.
Recommendations for alternative environmental management institutional arrangements in New Zealand are made, while more broadly the implications of the research for regional studies identified.