Guest Post: Policy road littered with good intentions – planning waste infrastructure

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Policy road littered with good intentions – planning waste infrastructure

Waste Management NZ applied for a Private Plan Change to rezone rural land for the Auckland Regional Landfill at Wayby Valley in the Rodney district, as a precinct for future landfill and gas to energy development.

The local community has raised concerns with individual board members and the media about the environment and human health, long term risks, and effects on property values. This has lead to a divisive debate in the local community, and vilification and threats to local board members both on social media, and directly.

The Rodney Local Board has the statutory right to provide “views” on the issues on behalf of their community to Auckland Council, which has dual roles as the governing body, and regulator for this planning process.

While decision making on this Plan Change falls initially to Auckland Council, it will then move to the Environment Court after the inevitable appeals from all sides, and no doubt to the Court of Appeal for a further debate on arcane matters of resource management law.

However the Board is placed in a difficult situation, as there are expectations in the community that the Board should not only take a strong position objecting to the development, but should also have a decision making role, or some influence over the planning and other consenting decisions, which are clearly outside the scope and legal mandate of the board.

In fact, it is manifestly unfair that any of these expectations have fallen on the Board.

That the Board is expected to take a position in this divisive and ultimately futile debate, is largely due to the failure of central and local government policy makers, regulators, and planners to act on the advice given over many years –  that modern waste infrastructure is just as vital for a functioning society as modern sewage treatment, water supply, roads and highways, cellphone towers, fibre optic cables, gas pipelines, airports, and so on.

Central and local government has failed to take responsibility for protecting suitable land for new waste infrastructure, which means that difficult decisions are again left to local communities and activists to litigate with regulators and the industry. This fails any test of good governance, given what we know about the risk landfills pose to the environment and human health, over very long time frames.

Waste infrastructure includes transfer stations and recycling centres, ideally located close to where waste is generated in cities and towns, to allow efficient resource recovery and diversion from landfill. It also includes regional landfills, located near major highways, in suitable natural geology for long term containment, and in areas of low environmental sensitivity.

The waste industry repeatedly advocated to central and local government to provide planning protection for all types of waste infrastructure – designation and zoning used by private utility companies, and public asset owners, to protect land for future growth and development.

The industry made submissions on the National Infrastructure Plan in 2010, 2011 and 2015, and in regular regional and district plan reviews around the country. These proposals were acknowledged as valid by various committees, but never included in final plans.

Industry and concerned professionals submitted to Auckland Council on the Auckland Plan, and the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan, on the long term benefit of protecting land for this strategic purpose. That advice was not acted on.

Policy makers drafting the AUP even rejected internal council advice to make basic provisions for stroring household refuse and recycling bins in new developments, which means that bins are always jammed up against homes and left in odd places in newer, and often poorer high density areas. Trucks can barely negotiate narrow streets to empty bins.

Despite the efforts by central and local government to promote zero waste to landfill by 2040 as an objective, which in itself is laudable, there is no escaping the fact that more effective planning is required to manage residual solid waste volumes, to support the healthy functioning of major cities and the regions.

Poorly planned landfills may affect the environment for 100’s if not 1000’s of years. We already have hundreds of these around NZ in sensitive coastal areas, and embedded in major urban areas like Auckland. Successive policy makers and planners have failed to protect land around these high risk urban sites from encroachment by residential and commercial development.

However there is no doubt that the Auckland Regional Landfill application will succeed in some form, and that landfill will then serve part of Auckland’s needs for 50-100 years or more. That is because local authorities have enduring obligations to deliver core public health services under various Acts, which include to collect municipal refuse and dispose it to a sanitary landfill facility.  

The infrastructure needed to support this core public health service gets little attention from activist types in the waste policy and planning fields, who prefer to focus their effort and resources on more aspirational long term zero waste goals.

Ironically, around NZ, local authorities own and operate many landfills, which are almost always a revenue generating activity. They need to extend these facilities or construct new ones in years to come, otherwise rely exclusively on the private sector to take on those costs, risks, and the revenues, in an uncertain policy and planning environment.

There is currently zero appetite among policy makers to transition NZ from landfill disposal to thermal destruction or pyrolysis, largely due to the perceived risk to air quality, and by inference, to the agriculture export industry. Those risks have been effectively managed by the European Union and other jurisdictions we typically look to, through effective regulation and planning, and clean technology, in place now for decades.

We have yet to see a coherent policy proposal from local and central government in this area, although it provides the clearest and cleanest pathway to reduce waste to landfill.

This technology is not a “get out of jail free” card for dealing with growing solid waste volumes. We must also provide suitable land, and just as important – a flexible regulatory environment – to allow for innovation in the recovery and reuse of valuable resources from the waste stream – potentially for uses we haven’t even identified yet.

Now is the time that policy makers and regulators at a national and local level should come clean, and state the action they will take to identify and protect suitable land for waste infrastructure, including for new technology, to protect public health and the environment for future generations, not to damage it as some activists would believe.

About Simon Court

Passionate about good governance, good decision making, and excellence in project delivery.

A qualified Civil and Environmental Engineer with 23 years experience in roles for the principal, consultant and contractor, with ten years leading multi-discipline engineering, planning, tendering, and construction teams primarily in Auckland, and in Wellington and Fij.

Leading engagement with clients, designers, planners, legal advisors, regulators, community organisations, local politicians, stakeholders, and mana whenua.

Roles as a senior engineer and business unit manager in road, highway and landfill construction, road maintenance, contaminated land remediation, and waste operations.

Experienced in local government operations, functions, roles and responsibilities, statutory and regulatory frameworks, and how Council Controlled Organisations plan, budget and deliver projects and services.


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