First-hand lessons from a Master’s internship at Waipā District Council

Policymakers need to understand the attitudes and motivations of those most affected to create effective change, says Public Policy Masters student Alice Denne.

Alice Denne, Master of Public Management student
Alice Denne is completing a Master of Public Policy with the School of Government. Her internship with Waipā District Council was part of the Graduate Pathway Programme.

Waipā is a farming district with all but 7.5 percent of land cleared. Yet it is also home to 73 nationally threatened species, including kahikatea, tawa, kānuka and species of bat and gecko.

Under the Resource Management Act, the Waipā District Council must work to protect ‘areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna’, while preventing inappropriate land use, subdivision and destruction.

However, most vulnerable land and many threatened ecosystems are found on private property outside of council authority. Without the ability to monitor or enforce regulatory measures, the Council’s role is to encourage landowners to actively work to protect and maintain natural heritage sites to meet the Council’s biodiversity goals.

Natural heritage covenants are promoted as an effective way to ensure the future of threatened species on private land that are otherwise vulnerable to destruction. Covenants prevent both current and future titleholders from removing the heritage feature.

To incentivise landowners to use covenants, the Council offers a subdivision entitlement in exchange, which can be used on another section of their land or sold to another property within the District. This compensates landowners for the loss of potential economic value of the land being covenanted.

Through Victoria’s Public Policy Master’s Graduate Pathway Programme, Alice Denne undertook a three-month internship at the Council where she helped evaluate the effectiveness of this scheme.

Her main focus was to find out how people responded to scheme. Is the incentive attractive to landowners? Are farmers interested in covenanting their land, which often comes with costly management plans and lost property rights, for the economic benefit of a subdivision? Or is there another more important motivator to seeking covenant status?

During the internship she interviewed six landowners who had covenants on their properties, and a local property evaluator.

She knew from existing literature that the motivations of farmers, broadly speaking, could be divided into those who farmed for money and economic gains, and those who farmed for the lifestyle, driven by stewardship values to care for the environment.

Her interviews upheld these findings, with four of the six landowners spoken to protecting their natural heritage because they cared about the environment. They talked about being motivated by the knowledge that they were leaving something behind for future generations and felt a responsibility to protect what was left.

For these farmers, the subdivision entitlement was a reward for the work they were already doing on their property.  

The two farmers primarily motivated by the economic value of the entitlement said their sites required very little, if any, maintenance. Neither was motivated to protect the environment in their care.

Natural heritage covenants are essential for the long-term legal preservation of biodiversity. But without the effort of landowners to weed, control pests and plant the land, the ecological benefit will be minimal. For this reason, it is important for landowners to have a stewardship attitude toward their land and be motivated to look after it. Hence, the current policy is not doing enough to change the attitudes and behaviours of landowners unwilling to protect natural heritage and threatened species.

Some interviewees talked about neighbours who saw covenants as ‘black marks on the landscape’ and who believed maximising the land’s agricultural potential was more important than protecting native bush. It is these attitudes that need changing to prevent further destruction of the District’s natural heritage.

As it is, the current incentive offered by the Waipā District Council reaches the low-hanging fruit, and mostly attracts those who are already motivated by stewardship values to restore the natural environment in their care.

To help change attitudes, Alice says the Council should increase awareness of local biodiversity loss, and inform landowners on how to identify the signs of it happening in their waterways, soils and visible landscape.  

After increasing awareness, the Council’s other efforts to reduce biodiversity loss—such as its biodiversity corridor strategy—can be better communicated. Support can be built further through profiling the environmental work already being done in the community. Greater change will be seen if social norms toward land use and attitudes toward the environment can change.

Alice also recommended that the Council try to better understand the specific barriers faced by Waipā residents who may intend to act in an environmentally responsible way, but are limited in their capacity to do so. She found that barriers are often financial and related to capacity, skill and time, but these can be reduced by profiling external funders, community restoration projects, and increasing education on restoring natural heritage on private properties.

This study demonstrates the importance for policymakers in engaging with those most affected by policies so they can truly understand their motivations, behaviours, the barriers to change and how to overcome them.

Alice is completing a Master of Public Policy with the School of Government. Her internship with Waipā District Council was part of the Graduate Pathway Programme.

This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Policy Quarterly, Vol. 13, issue 4, November 2017.