Wednesday 29 June 2016

Shifting expectations - implications for the EPA and government agencies

The Government recently released the Ministerial Advisory Committee's Final Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The inquiry says its 48 recommendations are aimed at making the 'EPA of the future the strong protector of public health and the environment that Victorians expect - and need - it to be.'  The far reaching recommendations would modernise EPA's governing legislation and clarify its objective to protect human health and the environment.  The recommendations seek to clarify the EPA's role and strengthen the EPA's scientific base, functions and tools, as well as its governance structure and funding.

The impact of the report stretches beyond the EPA. The EPA's functions are shared with other agencies within the broader environment protection regime.  The recommendations are aimed at improving coordination mechanisms across this regime, clarifying EPA's role in emergency management, and better managing environmental risks in the land use planning system.

There are issues and themes of relevance for all public authorities contained in the report.  This is particularly so in relation to what the community expects from government services, the importance of government agencies sharing data and mechanisms for whole-of-government approaches to strategy, planning, problem solving and the delivery of services.  

EPA's role

The Report recommends several changes to the way the EPA interacts with other departments and agencies, including:

  • Land use planning: The EPA should take on a more strategic role.  This would be achieved via statutory triggers requesting EPA advice and early involvement, for example in planning scheme amendment and rezoning processes.
  • Emergency management: EPA's role should focus on providing expert advice to control agencies and aiding with prevention.
  • Mining: EPA's role in mining regulation should be strengthened, akin to the role of WorkSafe.

Whole-of-government approach

The report recommends the introduction of a high level Environment Protection (Integration and Coordination) Act to improve coordination across government.  It suggests that effective institutional arrangements will require clearly defined objectives, appropriately allocated roles and responsibilities, and effective mechanisms to promote coordination.

Environmental protection is not the responsibility of just one agency.  The report identifies several situations in which the whole-of-government approach is necessary, including:

  • development of policy around climate change, which will significantly impact the EPA, as well as other agencies involved in emergency management;
  • development of policy around environmental justice and the relevant health and wellbeing concerns, through the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; and
  • a closer working relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Chief Health Officer in relation to protecting human health.

This strategic and coordinated approach to problem solving and the delivery of government services was identified as something the community expected of the EPA, and of government generally.

Data sharing

Data sharing is an important issue closely tied to the need for a coordinated whole-of-government approach to environment protection more broadly.  An evidence base for decision making requires consistent and robust data, as well as having all parties 'at the table'.  There are data sharing initiatives already underway. However, the report recommends that the EPA and other agencies work toward improved systems for State-wide environmental monitoring, a spatial data system and reporting of health, environmental and liveability outcomes.

The Report recommends that the EPA develop a digital data, technology and analytics strategy to guide decision making.  Such improvements could aid data sharing across government as well as with stakeholders.  

Community expectations

It is clear that the changing landscape of stakeholder and community expectations of government have had a significant impact on the report.  The report envisages that the changing context of Victoria's environment, population and economy will lead to changes in stakeholder and community expectations of their environment, their local areas and the delivery of government services in the future.

The Government's response to the report is expected later in 2016.  For the Government's initial response please see here.  There may be significant changes underway for the EPA and the broader environment protection regime.  In the meantime, the report is a useful resource for all government agencies.

For further information on the outcomes of the Independent Inquiry into the EPA and its implications, please contact:

Natasha Maugueret
Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0402

Mark Egan
Acting Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0489

Annette Jones
Principal Solicitor
03 8684 0431

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