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Research questions need for regional councils

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Jeff McNeill.

Regional councils are performing poorly on environmental issues and do not accurately reflect the values of their communities, says an environmental researcher.

Jeff McNeill is a senior lecturer in the School of People, Environment and Planning and has worked as a policy manager for Horizons Regional Council and as a policy analysis consultant. He graduates this week with a Doctor of Philosophy in Politics.

Mr McNeill's thesis questions the logic of policy-making based on regional boundaries.

“Many environmental management issues are not regionally based and the regional boundaries have no particular meaning to the people in those regions,” he says. “Environmentalists and farmers, for instance, are more likely to share opinions and values reflecting their sector than any regional allegiance. This is very clear in their approaches to water quality, in how they see the state of water and what needs to happen.”

Mr McNeill was surprised how little regional council representation reflected their communities.

“Political systems are never completely representative, but regional councils outside the main centres are dominated by farmers, most by between half and three-quarters, and by retired district councillors,” he says. “Farms and municipal sewage treatment plants and landfills are the dominant pollution sources outside the large cities - it has to be a brave councillor who is going to stand up to his or her peers and tell them to pull their socks up.”

In the immediate future, Mr McNeill says his research supports the new Government's intention to establish an environmental protection agency. Consistent environmental policy by central government would be preferable, but he has some reservations.

“So far governments of all political colours have been extremely tardy in providing strong political leadership,” he says. “If we are going to have an environmental protection agency, we also need to see some political commitment as well.”

Longer term, Mr McNeill suggests comprehensive regional or provincial government is desirable, as it is desirable to have the governing body accountable to its community.

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