Officials’ long struggle to publish new sea level guidance

Ever wondered what happened behind the scenes during the 364 days National delayed releasing vital new guidance on rising sea levels? Here, Eloise Gibson pieces together the political hesitation and officials' fight for action.

About this time last year, staff at the Ministry for the Environment were ready to publish their long-anticipated update to guidance on Coastal Hazards and Climate Change. Councils were waiting for the guidance, in part to help them stave off challenges by residents and ratepayer’s lobby groups. Mindful of the possible effect that sea level warnings could have on their property values, residents’ groups in places such as Kapiti and Christchurch had been blocking councils’ attempts to add notations on their LIMs and hazard lines on planning maps, questioning their basis. Councils reasoned that if they had better, newer guidance, it would support their efforts.

At the Ministry, the document was ready for release and the press release announcing its arrival was drafted. Staff didn’t think they needed the approval of then-Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett to publish the document, but they asked for her help in releasing it.

The guidance was a technical, non-binding manual aimed at helping council planners prepare for rising seas. It included a lot of detail on how to consult communities before slapping warnings on coastal properties and included the advice that “given the anticipated long life of (large new developments) such developments are tested against 1.9m of sea level rise”. The 1.9m test was also going to apply to intensifying development in built-up areas, since high global emissions could see seas reach that level by 2150 and it seemed like a bad idea to add lots of housing until the extent of sea level increases became clearer. If Bennett was “too tied up” to put out a press release; staff said, “we will probably just put out our own media advisory…”.

Officials had neglected other work to get the 300-odd page guidance ready to release to councils on December 16, 2016. It was one of the urgent tasks recommended to help New Zealand prepare for sea level rise, issued a year earlier by the outgoing Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright. Councils needed much better direction from central government, fast, implied Wright’s report, or we’d all bear the costs in the long run.

NIWA wrote the first draft, which Ministry officials sent out for review by residents’ groups, councils, central government and others. Any broader public consultation, officials would later note in a briefing to ministers, was not normal practice and wasn’t required since the guide wasn’t legally binding. Senior staff held meetings with some of the affected people, including residents’ groups, though sometimes the groups declined the offer of meetings or didn’t attend.

After making some changes in response to feedback, officials sent out a second draft, asking people to keep to a tight deadline of two-and-a-half weeks to supply their comments.

It was a push, but, as staff noted, “the team is keen to get it out so stakeholders can start using it”. As it happened, the guide didn’t make it out as planned on December 16, 2016, nor in January 2017, nor February, nor March, nor any of the many other dates that officials proposed and then discarded. It was released this month, December 2017, after a change in government.

When it arrived, the document was missing the references to 1.9m, after residents’ groups in Christchurch and Kapiti argued that including the figure would cast a shadow on existing properties below that line. The Government had granted the groups a third, initially-unplanned round of consultation, and ministers Nick Smith and Paula Bennett had decided that the consultation – let alone publication – could not proceed without approval from the full Cabinet Committee.

That approval was never sought before the election in September. The new, Labour-led Government published the guidance on December 15, 364 days after Ministry officials first thought it was ready to launch.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act describe an almost farcical series of false starts. Many dates were penciled-in for the launch and then abandoned as it became clear – sometimes only a week or so beforehand – that ministers would not support the plan.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act describe an almost farcical series of false starts. Many dates were penciled-in for the launch and then abandoned as it became clear – sometimes only a week or so beforehand – that ministers would not support the plan.

For weeks, officials were confused about which minister was leading the announcement. “It was decided that Minister Smith would be releasing the guidance, not Minister Bennett. This is news to me, do you know anything more?” reads one befuddled email. “We actually don’t know yet if Minister Bennett or Minister Smith will be releasing the guidance and they have not decided on a date,” reads another email from February. Another one in March said: “Ministers’ offices have told us they are really looking to Minister Smith’s office to lead this, but they are expecting it will go out first week of March still as a joint release.”

When Newsroom approached the National Party with questions, we were told that Bennett had led the work. But since emails and briefings reveal it was Smith whose concerns slowed the process, we put our questions to him. For example, in August, officials said in an internal email that the guide would have been out much sooner but “Minister Smith was concerned about one of the sea level values provided in the guidance….as it was a high value that could potentially provoke negative reactions”.

Meanwhile, councils around the country were approving coastal subdivisions, including some in areas where the guidance might have called for a little more caution. Asked about the delay last week, Bennett told Newsroom the release was held back partly so that councils could be consulted. But the Ministry’s records show that several councils emailed the Environment Ministry during the delay, asking when they could get access to the new guidance. They wanted it to help them better prepare for court cases, or to draft new planning documents, or make long-term plans.

When the guidance had not appeared by June 30, Local Government New Zealand head Lawrence Yule wrote an exasperated letter to Paula Bennett: “We seek the release of this guidance as a matter of urgency. The existing guidance was published in 2008….LGNZ can see no reason for further delays in releasing it….I further reiterate that delays in the release of the Coastal Hazards and Climate Change guidance will inevitably increase the cost of adaptation to our communities in the long term.”

So what could hold a supposedly-finished document back for just shy of a year? Initially, the problems were political and earthquakes-related. John Key resigned as Prime Minister in December, and Kaikoura shook. On December 8, reluctantly, officials considered delaying the release of the guide from December until January 2017 to allow the political dust to settle. “There’s no certainty as to who the ministers will be beyond Monday morning,” noted one official.

The delay would also help because it would give staff time to prepare a lay-person’s summary to go along with the technical document, officials said at the time. On December 11, a senior director made the call to wait until early 2017. “Ministers are focused on the leadership race and the simplified communication products aren’t yet ready,” he said. That wasn’t precisely the explanation that officials gave councils and others. “We had hoped to publish the guidance this year, but unfortunately since the Kaikoura earthquake the Ministry is operating out of temporary offices and this now won’t be possible,” staff said on December 12, 2016.

Documents from this period show staff were worried about the reputational risk to ministers from not releasing the guidance in 2016, as they had promised to do. The new plan was to publish it on about February 25, 2017, perhaps at an event “related to the Kaikoura earthquake recovery” or at the BlueGreens conference.

By March, though, it was clear that Smith was worried about the economic implications, including costs to property owners if insurance or value was affected. He decided, over strenuous objections from his ministry, that the guidance needed to go through Cabinet. On March 15, the Ministry’s climate change director Roger Lincoln wrote a strongly-worded briefing to Bennett and Smith, noting that taking the guidance to Cabinet would “delay it several months at least”.

“Our position has always been that no ministerial approval is needed to publish the guidance,” the Ministry for Environment climate change director said. “The previous Minister for climate change [Tim Groser] agreed to this and the idea of Cabinet approval has not been raised in response to any previous briefing.”

“Our position has always been that no ministerial approval is needed to publish the guidance,” he said. “The previous Minister for climate change [Tim Groser] agreed to this and the idea of Cabinet approval has not been raised in response to any previous briefing,” he said.

Lincoln noted that Cabinet had baulked at introducing controls on coastal development before. “Work on a proposed National Environmental Standard on sea-level rise failed several attempts to be considered by Cabinet, apparently due to concern about the effect of statutory regulation on house prices and the possible liability to the Government.” He added: “We see significant risks in delaying the release of the guidance...”

It must have become obvious that Smith wasn’t budging, because officials prepared a cabinet paper to be considered by the committee on April 12. But Smith didn’t lodge it. On April 5, staff recorded that: “Because of other priority work, Minister Smith wasn’t able to read our paper in time to lodge it this week. This means Cabinet won’t discuss releasing the guidance until 8 May.” But the guidance never made it to that Cabinet meeting, either, By this point, residents’ lobbying efforts had gained traction with ministers.

In April, at National Minister Nicky Wagner’s request, the Environment Ministry sent her a detailed list of its interactions with Christchurch Coastal Residents United, a property lobby group that had been battling the imposition of coastal hazards warnings on LIMs.

Officials told Wagner CCRU were invited to a meeting in November 2016 with ministry representatives but didn’t attend. CCRU had supplied comments on the first draft guidance but the group didn’t comment on the second draft because they found the 2.5 week timeframe too tight. “CCRU have indicated that public consultation would be desirable but this is not required or normal practice for non-statutory guidance,” said officials.

Smith told Newsroom his main concerns were issues raised by “stakeholders” during the process, including people in Kapiti and Christchurch. One worry was that insurance companies could withhold insurance without properly understanding the guidance, making it hard for new buildings in the future risk zone to gain insurance cover, he said.

Smith says there were fears that the guidance would be seen to prohibit building, rather than simply managing risk. “Concerns were initially raised that development or building could be blocked below the 1.9m mark in coastal areas i.e. that it would be treated as an arbitrary line,” he says. “If councils prohibited all development up to a 1.9m projected rise, this would have adverse impacts on any coastal regions that had or might have developments on land below the mark. This issue was of particular concern to stakeholders in Christchurch and on the Kapiti Coast.”

Also at issue was asset value: earlier estimates had valued housing and businesses within 1.5m of today’s sea levels ($19bn) and assets below 3m (about twice that) but nothing around the 2m mark. “The second issue was getting more reliable information on the value of assets affected by a 1.9m, projected sea level rise. The value is important in deciding whether the right response was to limit development or to use infrastructure options like seawalls to future-proof developments instead,” says Smith. The guidance generally takes the view that relying on building large, hard structures is an imperfect solution to sea level rise, a stance supported by experts, though those kinds of planning decisions are left up to councils.

On June 15, with no release date, officials discussed blanking out one of the original planned dates for publishing the guidance when they sent out a document in response to an official information request. “As discussed, the redactions we were wanting to follow up on were: mention of the coastal hazards report being prepared for February 2016,” reads an email from a staff member.

By July, they were discussing another round of consultation. The list of consultees for the final six-week feedback period included several ratepayers’ and residents’ lobby groups, including CCRU in Christchurch and a similar group in Kapiti. “We decided to conduct this latest round of review in response to concerns from some stakeholders who are calling for a longer and more thorough review process…given the highly emotive nature of coastal hazards we want to make sure the guidance is as clear as possible,” says an email from the time.

In the end the consultation proposal never made it to Cabinet under Smith and Bennett, and a change in government handed the task to the new, Labour-led Government. Climate Change Minister James Shaw published the guidance this month.

But officials had now been told they needed Cabinet approval to even begin the consultation. “We will now be preparing a Cabinet paper to seek approval to begin targeted consultation on the draft guidance. This was recently decided…we are aiming for August 16,” they said. By August 11, that plan had collapsed, too: “Just confirming the latest Cabinet paper on targeted consultation was not lodged yesterday. This means consultation and release of the guidance is now on hold until after the election.”

In the end the consultation proposal never made it to Cabinet under Smith and Bennett, and a change in government handed the task to the new, Labour-led Government. Climate Change Minister James Shaw published the guidance this month.

The quick publication wasn’t surprising. Shaw, a Green MP, was part of the party that, in opposition, leaked a version of the draft guidance (dated May) in a bid to pressure National to release it. At the announcement, Shaw didn’t explicitly address the removal of the 1.9m test. But the final document bears evidence of changes. The explicit advice to test greenfields developments, land use changes and intensified land use against 1.9m higher seas is gone, though it will still apply, in effect, to some developments. The wording – now more opaque and flexible – refers to the 'H+' emissions pathway – a path that would see seas reach 1.88m higher levels by 2150.

Whether and when that level is actually used will depend on whether councils expect whatever asset they’re considering to last beyond 2150. And the 'H+' pathway only applies to coastal subdivision, major infrastructure, and green-fields developments. Changes in land use and intensified land use are to be tested against “all four scenarios”, including three lower ones and the H+ one. In reality, it’s likely that the higher, 1.88m, scenario will dominate planning decisions, at least if using the higher figure shows major and costly damage to developments at that sea level, according to what experts familiar with the document told Newsroom. But it still isn’t clear what counts as 'green-fields' or 'subdivision', versus 'intensification'.

It’s too soon to say what effect the guide will have on coastal building, or what other guidelines will come out. For now, it’s fair to assume that ministry officials are simply glad to be rid of it. For almost a year, they thought publication was imminent. When it wasn’t, their explanations to councils and the media grew increasingly vague.

It’s too soon to say what effect the guide will have on coastal building, or what other guidelines will come out. For now, it’s fair to assume that ministry officials are simply glad to be rid of it. For almost a year, they thought publication was imminent. When it wasn’t, their explanations to councils and the media grew increasingly vague.

On August 23, they discussed how it would look to the public if the Ministry revealed that their original target for release was in fact September 2016. The occasion was an official information request by Newsroom, asking to see a ministerial briefing on sea levels.

The conclusion was: embarrassing, but harmless, since people already knew there’d been interminable delays. Anyway, embarrassment was no reason to keep secrets. “It does say the updated hazards guidance is to be completed around September 2016, which is embarrassing, but I don’t think there’s ground for redacting it,” reads an email from a senior employee.

Newsroom used documents released under the Official Information Act to construct a timeline. During almost a year of delays, councils often requested the finished guidance, but the release date kept moving.

December 6, 2016: Hauraki District Council emails the Ministry: “I am working on some climate change assumptions for our district…are you able to tell me if the ministry is going to be changing its advice on sea level rise, and when?”.

December 7, 2016: Ministry officials prepare a draft press release and Q & A for ministers for the release on December 16 noting that the document is ready and councils need it.

December 8, 2016: Officials moot delaying the release until January, which will allow a lay-person’s summary to be written for the 300-odd page technical document. They’re reluctant. “People have been waiting a long time for it.” But John Key has just resigned as Prime Minister and: “There’s no certainty as to who the ministers’ will be beyond Monday morning.”

December 9, 2016: Publication is delayed until about February 25, 2017. Experts at Tonkin and Taylor and Victoria University want to start using the guidance for a High Court case involving Tasman District Council. Consultants working with Hawkes Bay Regional Council also “really need the guidance”, officials learn. Bay of Plenty Regional Council emails asking for an update, the fourth council to do so since December.

December 11, 2016: Ministry staff delay the launch until the New Year. “Ministers are focused on the leadership race and simplified communication products aren’t yet ready.”

December 12, 2016: Officials email councils and others. “We had hoped to publish the guidance this year, but unfortunately since the Kaikoura earthquake the Ministry is operating out of temporary offices and this now won’t be possible.”

December 14, 2016: Staff race to get the documents ready for possible release at National’s BlueGreens conference in late February, 2017.

January 4, 2017: “Happy new year!” writes a Ministry analyst. “The guidance is in its final draft and going through the publication process as we speak. We expect to release it around the end of February.”

January 13; 2017: Officials express confusion about which minister is releasing the guidance. “It was decided that Minister Smith would be releasing the guidance not Minister Bennett. This is news to me, do you know anything more?”

January 18 and 19: Officials tell enquirers “we’re about to publish” it.

January 20: A consultant for Nelson city council asks for a copy. He is told “a publication date still haven’t been decided but we’re working hard on it”.

January 24: Release is still penciled in for February 25, although “there’s still some back and forth to happen about which minister heads the release.”

January 25: Internal ministry emails note the guideline “includes a high scenario of SLR (1.9m) to use for stress-testing major long-lived development proposals”. That test is later softened.

January 26: Officials’ emails note “we are still looking at end of February or beginning of March…ministers Bennett and Smith are both interested in the release”.

January 30: “Essentially this has been with Minister Bennett’s office for the past couple of weeks. The political staff there are to agree with Minister Smith’s office on which minister should be fronting the release and also a possible release date. I have followed up several times…”

February 7: “We actually don’t know yet if Minister Bennett or Minister Smith will be releasing the guidance and they have not decided on a date.” Meanwhile Environment Canterbury asks: “I’m working on coastal hazards at Environment Canterbury and it would be really useful to know what your timeframes are.”

February 14: “The latest information we have is first week of March but that may change.”

February 16: Officials brief ministers Smith and Bennett that they will publish the guidance on the Ministry’s website during the first week of March. “Release of the guidance is highly anticipated.”

February 20: “Minister’s offices have told us they are really looking to Minister Smith’s office to lead this but they are expecting it will go out first week of March still as a joint release.”

February 28: “Talked to Roger this morning. As the guidance won’t be released by March 7 we will take this item off the agenda.”

March 1: “We are now planning to release the guidance on March 9….”

March 2: “We have been asked by the Minister’s office to consider delaying it by a week …making the publication date March 16.”

March 3: “We can now confirm we are planning to release the guidance in mid-March.”

March 6: Engineering and hazard consultants Tonkin and Taylor write: “There is a potentially interesting test case coming up in the Environment Court and another project with a local authority where it would be great to be able to use the guidance...”

March 6: Nick Smith requests detailed advice on the guidance, including the economic implications, to be prepared in a joint Cabinet paper to present with Paula Bennett.

March 7: The Ministry sends a generic group email: “keep an eye out later this month for the updated guidance…”

March 8: “We got word earlier this week that release of the coastal hazards guidance is going to be delayed, we’re not sure until when…” An official writes to Bennett’s office: “Bridget wanted to make sure that Minister Bennett’s office was aware that the release has been delayed.”

March 10: Staff ask their counterparts at MBIE for advice on the economic impact, telling them: “The guidance is now in its final form and we are negotiating a release date with ministers.”

March 15: The Ministry’s Roger Lincoln writes a strongly worded briefing to Bennett and Smith, saying the publishing of non-statutory guidance doesn’t need approval by the Cabinet – or even individual ministers. He notes Smith’s plan to go to Cabinet will “delay it several months at least.” Officials: “agreed only very reluctantly to delay from December 2016 to early 2017,” he says. “We see significant risks in delaying the release of the guidance...”

March 20: Waikato Regional Council asks whether if guidance has been delayed to go to Cabinet. Officials say, “at this stage it isn’t necessarily going to Cabinet, we are working to get it released as soon as we can.”

March 21: Watercare and Auckland Transport want an update. On March 24 , they are told: “The update is now complete…we are now looking at the impacts of introducing the updated guidance.” No timeline is given.
March 22: Officials note that: “There are questions about when it will be released due to Nick Smith having some hesitations.”
March 28: “It has been confirmed the updated guidance will be going to Cabinet.”
March 29: The guidance is due to be considered at Cabinet Committee on April 12.

April 5: “Because of other priority work, Minister Smith wasn’t able to read our paper in time to lodge it this week. This means Cabinet won’t discuss releasing the guidance until 8 May.”

April 6: At Minister Nicky Wagner’s request the Environment Ministry sends her a detailed list of its interactions with the lobby group Christchurch Coastal Residents United, a group that’s been battling the imposition of coastal hazards warnings on LIMs. “CCRU have indicated that public consultation would be desirable but this is not required or normal practice for non-statutory guidance,” say officials.

May 4: Ministry staff preparing for a meeting with Smith note that the 2008 sea level guide badly needs revising at it is “out of date and an engineering manual”. “Minister Smith wants to be assured implications for property owners have been considered and is uncertain how councils will implement the guidance…he’s asking whether an NES could work better”.

But: “If we don’t release it there is actually more risk as we will have more Kapiti-type situations as they (councils) will rely on the 2008 advice which doesn’t have the guidance on a risk approach and information about how to work with communities.”

May 10: Officials note that they made changes to the guidance after meeting ministers Bennett and Smith. One particular paragraph – redacted in material sent to Newsroom’s – was revised in a manner “similar to Auckland Unitary plan policy to “avoid subdivision, use and development in greenfield areas which would result in an increased risk of adverse effects from coastal hazards, taking into account longer-term rise in sea level”. Further hints about what the problem might be are contained in a draft Cabinet paper: “Use of a high sea level rise scenario to test robustness of planning is good practice and applied in the UK and USA.”

Officials tell ministers: “A further risk of delaying the guidance is that parts of it will become outdated, as the update was completed in December 2016. In particular, the scientific understanding of future sea-level rise and of land movement in New Zealand are developing rapidly.”

May 15: Publication is planned for May 29.

June 8: Green MP Eugenie Sage challenges Paula Bennett about the delays in Parliament. Bennett denies the current guidance is out of date and says the Ministry “is still working on the process of finalizing its updated hazards guidance”.


June 15: Officials discussing an official information request discuss redacting the original planned date for publishing the guidance. “As discussed, the redactions we were wanting to follow up on were: mention of the coastal hazards report being prepared for February 2016.”

June 30: Local Government New Zealand head Lawrence Yule writes to Paula Bennett: “We seek the release of this guidance as a matter of urgency. Staff tell media and LGNZ they are “still finalising the guidance”.

July 11: Staff discuss beginning a third, additional round of consultation with selected “stakeholders”. “We will send the guidance to stakeholders at the end of this week.”

July 26: “It has not gone out as planned. The review is now not likely to begin until late August or early September.”

July 19: Emails note that the release has been delayed again as the “Ministry has decided to conduct another round of review starting in mid-July. We decided to conduct this latest round of review in response to concerns from some stakeholders who are calling for a longer and more thorough review process…given the highly emotive nature of coastal hazards we want to make sure the guidance is as clear as possible”.

July 26: “We will now be preparing a Cabinet paper to seek approval to begin targeted consultation on the draft guidance. This was recently decided…we are aiming for August 16.”

July 27: Email from Environment Canterbury: “Do you have any updates?”.

August 4: Officials say: “Minister Smith was concerned about one of the sea level values provided in the guidance.. as it was a high value that could potentially provoke negative reactions.”

August 11: “Just confirming the latest Cabinet paper on targeted consultation was not lodged yesterday. This means consultation and release of the guidance is now on hold until after the election.”

The election was held on September 23. New Climate Change Minister James Shaw released the guidance on December 15, 2017.

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