Environmental assurance group manager Dennis Bush-King retired this month (June 2022) after a 33-year career with the Tasman District Council. He arrived in the Nelson-Tasman region to put into practice the Resource Management Act, which he helped to write as a Ministry for the Environment manager in Wellington. Alan Titchall talks to him on the eve of his retirement.
A Before we start, I am sure many readers will be as curious as myself about your unique surname?
D “My great-grandfather was born a King but had a run-in with the law in the 1860s and married under his mother’s maiden name Bush in 1873.
“The 13 children from the marriage variously called themselves Bush, King, and Bush-King, and my grandfather was one of those who took the latter surname.”
A You started as a second-tier manager at Tasman District Council on November 7 1990 when it was just a District Council. It became a Unitary Authority in July 1992, so you have enjoyed working across both levels of local government. Before we go into that experience, can we go back to the beginning of your career after you graduated with a Bachelor of Town Planning from Auckland University in 1978.
D “I am one of an ever-declining number of refugees from the former Ministry of Works and Development (MWD). When MWD finally got wound up in 1988, I was responsible for statutory and legislative matters under the Town and Country Planning Act. I moved across to Ministry for the Environment to co-manage the Resource Management Law Reform project.
“The Hon Geoffrey Palmer and Hon Phillip Woollaston were great sponsors of the reform project, supported by a core
group of four advisors, and the project team numbered around 40 staff – I can’t recall the exact number as it changed over the life of the project.
“I do have sympathy for the current project team reforming the RMA because it is a multi-faceted and very inter-connected statute that impacts on how we as humans use, develop, and protect our environment – perhaps not surprising as with the environment everything is connected to everything else!”
A Why did you join the local government sector?
D “I’d spent over three years creating what was to become the Resource Management Act and I thought I’d jump across to local government and see if I could make it work at a community level. I didn’t account for, first, a change in Prime Minister, nor a change in Government that year, but I had already accepted the position that Tasman offered me in August, so I went ahead with the move.
“Nelson seemed like a good place to work and bring up young children, even though all our close family connections were in the North Island.”
A Have you always been in the same council role?
D “Essentially yes, but when I signalled my retirement, it provided the opportunity to have a fresh look at leadership team structure and that review was put into effect in July last year. So, most of my time was as environment and planning manager and I have finished up as group manager, environmental assurance.”
A Looking back on that career, please recall a highlight?
D “Professionally I couldn’t ask for a better place to work – Tasman is a geographically and socially diverse set of communities and working in a unitary authority every day has been different with more than enough to maintain my interest, commitment, and motivation.
“There are many highlights I can point to – the building of New Zealand’s largest publicly funded, multi-purpose dam (the Waimea Dam) since the Clyde Dam – the country is going to need more water storage in the future, but funding has been a challenge for our rating base
“I was involved in introducing development levies in 1994, well before development contributions, so that paid for growth and Tasman has grown from 35,300 people to 57,900 over my time. During my watch, we also cleaned up what was then New Zealand’s most contaminated site, the Fruitgowers Chemical Company site in Mapua.
“A lot of time and effort also went into opening space for marine farming in Golden and Tasman Bays. Working with great people committed to doing good things for the community has been a constant highlight.”
A And what about a low point?
D “Perhaps, strangely, my highlights have also had their fair share of challenges. One of the biggest was in 1998 when the council considered withdrawing our combined resource management plan.
“We had provisions relating to landscape protection, flood hazards, indigenous vegetation protection, and what I thought were some innovative traffic generation rules, which upset a lot of people.
“The council eventually modified or withdrew these offending provisions leaving the rest of the plan to carry on.
“They made the right decision in retrospect – we hadn’t gone through a draft process and went straight to a notified plan. There is a lesson here when doing such a major change but, unfortunately, it does not compress the plan making phase, which I think is a challenge for the current reforms.”
A How have environmental regulations changed
over three decades?
D “One of government’s functions is to have rules that promote, safeguard and protect the overall well-being of people, communities, and the environment.
“These regulatory interventions carry with them coercive powers to tax and regulate behaviour and conduct where people do not normally have the ability to opt out from complying. These are serious powers, but there are still some loopy rules out there, not helped when central government thinks one size fits all situations.
“But, we are a country of five million people and regulatory intervention does have a cost, so the move to greater central government direction may not be unexpected, but things never seem to get simpler.
“The Productivity Commission tried a few years ago, but there are still a lot of regulatory silos present in our system of governance at central and local levels that, despite regulatory impact statements and the like, we are not good at thinking about the cumulative effects and the efficiency of regulation.
“We could be much better at simplifying and integrating.
“It would be nice if the red tape could transform into the red carpet – regulation should be enabling, and it is often only needed as a publicly mandated backstop to what is accepted practice or process.
“In my view, I don’t think there should be any charge made when having to comply with a regulation or rule made by either central or local government.
“Presumably, the regulations are there for some public purpose, otherwise why have them, so enforcing those regulations should be a public cost.
“This approach is idealistic, I know, and there are always debates around public good and private benefit but reducing the direct costs would be an advantage to the regulated and may have a self-limiting effect on the number and complexity of some regulations.”
A What will you miss about the LG sector?
D “I’m old-school enough to still believe in the public service ethic and have enjoyed the role that I’ve played in contributing to the development of Tasman district and the communities that it covers.
“I know that not everyone has agreed with my decisions, so I will miss the contest and the complaints. But often you must balance the competing needs and interests of several customers, including those in the future, all at the same time.
“I will miss my role in making Tasman a great place for people to live, work, invest, and play.”
A What are your retirement plans?
D “While I’m retiring from full-time paid employment, I may look for some short-term work – my wife has shifted to working two days a week and says it’s quite good. In addition to spending time with our two grandchildren in Wellington, we also have a grandson in Amsterdam who we will visit at some stage.”
A Anything else you would like to say to your peers?
D Given the present Government’s reform agenda, we might think that change is something new – while the scale of change may be different, I can reflect on my time in local government and change has been a constant, either through centrally driven directions, or locally created responses.
“Local government professionals must be adaptable, able to respond to new situations, be good at finding ways to work around things without breaking the law, to ensure the best outcome, while maintaining a caring and humble disposition.”