Climate Change

Councils struggle to get traction on climate change

A lack of central government policy on climate change adaptation has left councils treading water as they attempt to engage with threatened communities, Marc Daalder reports

A new report by Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has found that local councils are facing unique challenges as they attempt to engage with their communities about how to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The report, which uses Dunedin City Council, Christchurch City Council and Kaipara District Council as case studies, identified "the lack of any overarching legislative, regulatory and policy framework for climate change adaptation" as the biggest challenge facing local government.

It comes just a week after the Government released the first ever National Climate Change Risk Assessment, which found "New Zealand’s climate is warming, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe".

The week before that, the results of the review of the Resource Management Act concluded that a new Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act would be needed to help councils adapt to the impacts of climate change. This law would clarify liability issues, allow councils to retract consents if properties become threatened by climate change impacts like sea-level rise and create a fund to subsidise the cost of moving back from the coastlines.

A new kind of engagement

The LGNZ report says councils will have to do a new type of engagement with communities over a longer time-scale.

"Engagement for climate change adaptation means developing active and ongoing relationships between local government and affected communities, as opposed to episodic public participation on an issue-by-issue basis," the report states.

The report found there were five key challenges common across the councils, posing obstacles to the sort of engagement defined above.

The first is the lack of central Government policy on climate change adaptation policy and funding. Although the first National Adaptation Plan is expected in 2021, the current vacuum means "councils are finding it difficult to know what is in and out of scope in the discussions they have with communities about options for adaptation. Councils are concerned about creating expectations that ultimately won’t be able to be met, due to funding or policy constraints.

"They are concerned about not being in a position to tell communities what can and can’t be done. Councils fear that a range of ad hoc approaches will be taken across the country, which creates the risk of precedent setting."

There are also challenges with accessing the funding to engage with the community, accessing the appropriate expertise and reaching the right people who are most at risk from climate impacts.

To resolve these issues, the report presented a wide range of recommendations, including the creation of a Climate Change Adaptation Community Engagement Fund, the release of a clear policy framework for climate change adaptation by central government and the development of guidelines for how to communicate technical and scientific information in layman's terms.

Saving Ruawai Flats

The situation in Kaipara District Council is emblematic of some of these struggles. The council is responsible for Ruawai, a town of 354 people about 80 kilometres southwest of Whangarei.

Built on more than 8,000 hectares of drained swamp - the Ruawai Flats - and home mostly to dairy farms and kumara plantations, the town is increasingly threatened by sea-level rise. Residents noticed in 2018 that it was becoming more and more difficult to get new builds consented and that consents tended to come with stipulations that buildings be elevated.

When they brought this up with the Kaipara Council, a public meeting was called. At the meeting, council staff showed maps which displayed the flood risk facing most of the town. Concerned residents then called for the building of higher stop banks to rebuff the rising seas - which would cost an estimated $78 million - and raised the possibility of pump stations being built on the flats, in the event of major flooding.

The council recognised the need for further engagement but has yet to actually launch the process. The hiring in late 2019 of a climate change coordinator is the first dedicated staff member to handle the engagement.

In the absence of a formal process and any central government policy, the council is concerned that residents will have expectations of what can be done that are greater than the options realistically available to local government. This can be seen in the lack of clarity over who should fund the adaptation projects - residents of Ruawai Flats, all council residents, the Northland Regional Council, or central government?

Central government infrastructure, like state highway 12, is threatened by the prospective flooding of the flats. Regional councils are generally responsible for flood protection, although a 1989 agreement means this is the Kaipara District Council's responsibility instead.

There are also issues around how long the process should take - residents expect a quick turnaround while the council is engaged in long-term planning - and how the council can share valuable information with residents without the subject matter being too technical.

Urban coastal communities

Coastal communities in urban settings are facing similar challenges. Southshore and South New Brighton in Christchurch have been the recipients of long-term engagement from the city council over earthquake issues.

Now, the conversation is turning to climate change adaptation as the threat of sea-level rise makes itself apparent. The blank slate of centralised policy, however, means that these communities have essentially been tasked with devising policy on their own.

"While starting with a blank canvas and embarking on blue-sky thinking might be aspirational, the current policy vacuum creates the real risk of communities being left to develop solutions that are ultimately unachievable," the report found.

There are also challenges for the council with the costs of engaging with wider swathes of the Christchurch community to the same degree that the Southshore and South New Brighton residents have become used to.

In South Dunedin, where 2015 floods affected more than 2,000 homes and businesses, Dunedin City Council is also hoping to engage with the community on climate change adaptation issues. Funding and resourcing to hire staff has been one of the major challenges the council is facing, according to the report.

Nonetheless, the council has launched the South Dunedin Futures programme, which hopes to regenerate the neighbourhood and kickstart climate change adaptation projects in the region. The programme is planning for South Dunedin to remain where it is in the long-term, effectively ruling out managed retreat for a majority of the neighbourhood.

However, the council is concerned that this may not line up with central government's expectations, which are not currently known.

"This is making it challenging for the Council to ascertain whether its approach, and the thinking of the South Dunedin community, is consistent with central government’s intentions for the area," the report said. While individual government departments have worked with the South Dunedin Futures programme, there is no centralised response.

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