Local Government Magazine

Future response to extreme weather EVENTS

By Linda O’Reilly, special counsel, Tompkins Wake.
Lawyers are supposed to specialise in sober reflection, but the impact of Auckland Anniversary Weekend flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle provokes a range of emotional responses from horror to anger to fear. 

Everyone will have their own story. But be assured, no one considers local government to be boring or irrelevant when a house is buried under a land slip or there is no longer a road in or out of town.

There is no doubt that local authority staff went above and beyond in their response to these recent events as did emergency services, contractors, and volunteers, but what is needed now is political leadership at both local and national levels. Whatever else is consuming local government time and resources, the impact of these increasingly frequent events needs to be addressed.

Let us not imagine this is a national or international issue that cannot be influenced at a local level. In a disaster situation, whatever the cause, communities need access to the prime necessities of food and shelter. 

To achieve this there must be reliable transport routes, energy supplies, and communications. Local government is largely responsible for the infrastructure that makes this possible. While subject to a range of legislative requirements, some of which are under review at present, it variously provides planning, service delivery, regulation, and recovery mechanisms across many areas directly relevant to preparation for and recovery from extreme weather events.

Not least, local authorities determine where we build, currently through planning mechanisms in the Resource Management Act 1991, and soon under new legislation.

However, the degree of control in relation to residential development has come into conflict with the urgent need for affordable housing, with the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021 encouraging more intensive housing in specified areas.

These intensification mechanisms have come under heavy scrutiny after the Auckland flooding, with mixed messaging about the development of certain areas for housing. Some say well-designed new development on marginal land has performed well in relation to surface flooding, while others point to the inundation of some such developments and claim that the more established parts of Auckland fared better. The reality is that both newly developed and older residential areas flooded, and not all flood avoidance measures were adequate in either case.

Then there is the infrastructure that supports urban development.

Local authorities are responsible for the provision of water supplies, wastewater, stormwater and land drainage infrastructure, either directly or through regulation of new development. They ensure that infrastructure is adequate to meet the demands of each new development and that it is incorporated into broader network systems that ensure district-wide supply, treatment, and disposal.

Notwithstanding the Three-waters Reform programme, local authorities will retain a role in the ownership and governance of the new water services entities. At the time of writing new PM Chris Hipkins has suggested there will be changes to the current legislative proposals, and it is to be hoped and expected recent events will influence thinking on the future form of this scheme, should it survive the October elections.

Building regulation is a territorial authority function in the form of building consents and associated processes. Councils are bound to issue building consents for building works that will comply with the building code. It is their responsibility to ensure that the functional requirement in E1.2 of ensuring buildings and sitework is constructed so as to protect people and property from the adverse effects of surface water is met, and to address any breaches of the Building Act 2004.

Both regional councils and territorial authorities have responsibility for the provisions and security of transport including roads. Public transport in Auckland was already compromised by the city rail link construction, rail maintenance works, and the shortage of bus drivers, but the Anniversary Weekend flooding brought it to a virtual halt for many commuters.

Through-out the North Island Cyclone Gabrielle took out roads with slips and flooding. Parts of the Coromandel Peninsula, already hit by the collapse and indefinite closure of SH25A, were totally isolated by further road closures, and devasting flooding in the Hawke’s Bay region.

What is apparent is that due to the topography and geotechnical features of the land, many roads including state highways are simply not fit for purpose. Whether it is the route or the form of construction, our roads, bridges, rail tracks and tunnels are under threat from extreme weather events.

In its draft report for public consultation released in October last year, the Review Panel has little to say about responding to the need to be better prepared for extreme weather events. It focuses instead on the governance structure of the sector, but it does emphasise the need for community resilience.

Although not primarily responsible, local government also plays a role in other key infrastructure impacted by extreme weather events such as the security of communications and energy supply. In many instances this infrastructure is directly supported by or incorporated into the road network. One thinks for example of under road transmission lines, power lines, access to transmitter sites and substations for repairs. Local government is also a primary source for the logistics of communicating to its communities, not only in response to emergencies, but also in relation to the creation of infrastructure that promotes resilience.

Then there is emergency management, where local authorities play a key role under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002. Every local authority has trained staff with secondary emergency management roles and a civil defence command structure.

In fact, as Aucklanders are now only too well aware, it is usually the mayor who has authority to declare a state of local emergency under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002. 

While civil defence workers around the country did their utmost in extreme conditions, Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty has said the Government will “need to consider how the lessons learned from Auckland’s emergency response will be incorporated” into the proposed Emergency Management Bill.

So if these two recent extreme weather events can be taken as an example, it can be seen that local government has a fundamental role to play in our response. But, what is proposed for local government in terms of security from the impact of extreme weather events?

Local government is currently the subject of a broad scale review into its future launched by the former Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta.

In its draft report for public consultation released in October last year, the Review Panel has little to say about responding to the need to be better prepared for extreme weather events. It focuses instead on the governance structure of the sector, but it does emphasise the need for community resilience.

It can only be assumed that strengthening the sector generally will improve its ability to plan for and address the impact of such events, but the outcome of the Review is far from having been determined. 

The National Adaptation Plan, released in August last year, does explicitly address the role of local government. It points out that councils have statutory responsibilities to avoid or mitigate natural hazards and to have regard to the effects of climate change when making certain decisions.

The Plan provides a programme to support councils to enable better risk-informed decisions, drive climate-resilient development, lay the foundations for a range of adaptation options including managed retreat, and embed climate resilience across government policy. Climate resilience must encompass extreme weather events such as those we are discussing. There are a wide range of associated actions, but it is worth noting that since November last year councils have been required to have regard to the National Adaptation Plan in their plan making process.

No one (certainly not me) is suggesting that there is not a plethora of work going on in both central and local government to address these issues, or that councils are not fully alive to their role  in this regard and the daunting future prospects.

But, perhaps for the first time local government is, as a sector, both shaken and stirred by the enormity of the tasks it faces.

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