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Freedom camping – South Taranaki style

South Taranaki District Council has won the Tompkins Wake Award for Better Policy and Regulation for its innovative approach to freedom camping. It celebrated at the 2019 McGredy Winder SOLGM Local Government Excellence Awards in Auckland.

When legislative changes meant freedom camping was permitted throughout their region, members of the South Taranaki community expressed their concerns. South Taranaki District Council responded by developing a bylaw that balances the needs of visitors, community and the environment alike.

The initiative shows regulatory innovation through evidence-based policy. Council developed the Significant Site Assessment (SSA) scoring system to assess possible freedom camping sites by applying three aspects of the Freedom Camping Act. These are to protect: the area; the health and safety of those visiting; and access to the area.

Further innovation included developing a brochure and monitoring the bylaw through kaitiaki / ambassadors rather than enforcement officers.

Key learnings from the initiative include:

• Implementation of a Freedom Camping Bylaw should be done slowly (over a year minimum);

• Be prepared to review the bylaw one year after the adoption – this is not a failure but allows a council to tweak the bylaw to address any hot spots;

• The SSA can provide fairness and consistency (and confidence for elected members), whilst also addressing the three criteria under the Act;

• It is important to workshop issues with elected members and give them consistent advice on what can, and cannot, be addressed through the prohibitions contained within the Act;

• Start working with key stakeholders (such as the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association) and iwi early;

• The brochure and Campermate App work hand-in-hand;

• Kaitiaki / ambassadors are the friendly face of council. Enforcement officers are not needed.

Strategic context

In 2011 the government adopted new legislation to permit freedom camping throughout the country in response to the projected influx of tourists for the Rugby World Cup. Freedom camping had previously been prohibited unless councils indicated otherwise.

South Taranaki District Council received complaints about freedom camping within the district but could now not prohibit camping unless it adopted a bylaw under the Freedom Camping Act 2011.

The council agreed that there was a need to address freedom camping in South Taranaki and resolved to develop a Freedom Camping Bylaw. Once the bylaw was adopted, the rules needed to be monitored.

It was thought the project would result in:

• Increased tourism for the district;

• A measurable structure for the freedom camping rules throughout the district (clearly defined areas that were either prohibited or permitted, as well as monitoring / enforcement of the bylaw);

• Concentration of non-self-contained freedom campers to appropriate areas (where facilities were available); and

• Protection of sensitive sites for future generations
to enjoy.

Council also indicated the bylaw should align with its strategic vision to be the “most liveable district in New Zealand”. It wanted to strike a balance between enabling responsible freedom camping within the district and ensuring that the natural surroundings were protected for future generations to enjoy.

The major risks for the project included:

• Legal challenge to the bylaw (this was mitigated by the development of the SSA); and

• Negative publicity (minimised through good communication).

Project management

The Freedom Camping project was undertaken in two phases: the bylaw was developed then its rules had to be enforced. The first phase of the project was overseen by one project manager, which provided consistency for the development and review phase.

The initial timeframe was to adopt a bylaw within
two years.

The research and development of the SSA was absorbed into existing budgets. Workshops were held with elected members at key points in the development of the SSA and bylaw. This provided a clear and consistent policy direction from the early stages right through to adoption.

One supervisor / contract manager was appointed to oversee the management of the kaitiaki / ambassador project on an annual basis. This provided a centralised process, reporting to the one manager on a weekly basis to provide feedback on specifics occurring at each site. An induction day is held for all kaitiaki / ambassadors at the start of the season, and a debrief session is held at the close of the season.

Quality assurance systems were used to provide continuous improvement. These included CRMs (customer requests/complaints), community meetings, Campermate App comments (made by freedom campers), ambassadors’ comments (onsite inspections) and feedback from the public through informal and formal submission processes.

Councillors and community board members also provided feedback. Identified ‘hot spots’ were assessed against the SSA scoring system during the first-year review.

Relationship management

The initial phase of the project consisted of research and development of the SSA, the circulation of the SSA to iwi and key stakeholders and public consultation. After adoption in 2017, there were community group meetings, further public consultation on the reviewed content of the bylaw, and evaluation and improvement.

A wide range of communication tools was used to engage the public. This included personalised letters or emails to key stakeholders, media releases and articles in the local newspaper, direct contact through phone conversations, public meetings and meetings with key groups.

The project engaged with a wide range of audiences including the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA), four iwi of South Taranaki, the Department of Conservation, New Zealand Transport Agency and landowners.

Local people were hired as kaitiaki / ambassadors to be the friendly face of freedom camping management.

Continuous improvement

The scoring system within the SSA can be used to re-evaluate each freedom camping site when the bylaw is reviewed. This provides consistency in the way each site is evaluated, whilst taking into account new information over time.

Since the initial three-month trial, the kaitiaki / ambassador phase of the project proved to be a sustainable system. It is now in its second season which operates over five months during the summer. The council advertises for fixed-term employees: preferably locals with a friendly manner and good communication skills.

The spectrum of enforcement and monitoring under a legislatively-driven framework (infringements) can include positive messages and education. It doesn’t have to be a heavy-handed approach to enforce the rules.

Once a bylaw is adopted it may require a review within the first year. Gathering data, looking at evidence and working with the community by understanding their concerns, means that council can make changes to reflect that feedback and find a local solution to a local issue.

Project success

The project met its objectives of having a fully-operational bylaw which can be monitored and enforced. There is now a clear set of rules on where non-self-contained freedom camping can occur throughout the district at specific sites.

This project is highly transferrable to other councils, is endorsed by the NZMCA, and provides a robust foundation of information to shape policy development.

Prior to the implementation of the bylaw and the summer kaitiaki / ambassador programme, community members had been frustrated about the situation. Council had been unable to move freedom campers along or prohibit them from particular areas.

Popular beach front sites, located off Surf Highway 45, were becoming popular with tourists. Local board riders, surfers and residents were complaining of the fouling of the environment (as no toilet facilities were available), dumping of rubbish, setting of fires and an increased number of visitors to particular sites (limiting access and causing damage to the environment).

After the implementation of the bylaw and the first review, the situation during the 2018/2019 summer has proved to be much more acceptable. Areas which were highlighted as ‘hot spots,’ that had resulted in breaches of the bylaw, have been modified as to the level of freedom camping permitted at the sites. Freedom camping is concentrated to specific sites with conditions. This information is reinforced through signage, the Campermate app and by kaitiaki / ambassadors.

Successful applications to the Tourism Infrastructure Fund have enabled the council to buy moveable pods (toilets, showers and self-compacting rubbish bins). The pods are being strategically located at four spots throughout the district during 2019, where current facilities are needed or the existing facilities are not meeting the needs and expectations of the freedom camping visitors.

Improvements to the kaitiaki / ambassador programme have included setting the hours in which monitoring takes place at each site.

Feedback from freedom campers was used to improve the look and feel of signage which will be replaced over time.

Several other councils have contacted South Taranaki District Council after the adoption of the bylaw, as the SSA was innovative and endorsed by the NZMCA for providing a solid foundation for policy development.

Nelson City Council has since adopted and adapted the SSA and it has been featured within the Freedom Camping Good Practice Guide as the “gold standard of the evidence basis needed for eventual bylaws”.

The brochure developed and adopted by South Taranaki District Council was also highlighted in the guide for presenting information in a clear format. The brochure showed the types of freedom camping sites in the district by colour icons on an A3-size folded map.

The scoring system within the SSA is transferrable to other councils. However, caution needs to be taken so that matters outside of the Act (such as economic reasons) are not incorporated into the scoring method, which would result in an unfair bias for particular sites.

Other councils have also asked South Taranaki District Council for information on its Freedom Camping kaitiaki / ambassador programme. The Whangarei District Council has been trialling the appointment of ambassadors alongside enforcement officers.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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