Sunday, August 14, 2022

Staff squeeze hits regions as ministry swells

Neal Wallace
Environment ministry doubles in four years but shortage of experienced people is pushing up salaries.
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chief executive James Palmer said the staff increases are not only in response to climate change and indigenous biodiversity legislation.

The Ministry for the Environment is expected by the end of this financial year to have more than doubled its staff in just four years.

In 2017-18 it employed 370 full-time equivalents, but this is forecast to reach 860 at the end of the 2021-22 year.

Information released by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) reveals salaries and wages over that period increased from $36 million to more than $80m.

An MfE spokesperson said the extra staff are needed to deliver the Government’s environmental objectives.

“The reforms have increased the ministry’s responsibilities. This includes administering new funds and supporting implementation of policy,” the spokesperson said.

Farmers Weekly has reported on a scathing internal MfE report about the implementation of intensive winter grazing regulations, part of new freshwater regulations.

The MfE report found this was caused by overworked staff, junior staff doing roles in which they lacked experience and interference from Environment Minister David Parker.

The ministry departments that have the greatest growth in full-time equivalent staff from 2017-18 to 2021-22 include climate, which increased from zero to 88.9; natural and build systems, from 46.4 to 110.5; resource efficiency, from zero to 69.9; and policy implementation and delivery, which went from zero to 108.2.

The number of staff employed by regional councils is also increasing, but they say competition from government departments for skilled workers is pushing up salaries and creating a shortage.

ECan acting chief executive David Perenara-O’Connell said in 2020-21 it employed 695 employees, up from 678 in the 2019/20. 

This is budgeted to increase to 774 for 2021-22.

“The reforms have had an impact across our organisation but are not the only reason our workload has increased,” he said in a press statement.

A shortage of appropriate staff is pushing up a salaries, he said, accentuated by the reopening of borders allowing people to travel overseas.

The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council had more than 340 employees in the year ended June 30, up from 292 the year before and 275 in 2019-20.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chief executive James Palmer said the staff increases are not only in response to climate change and indigenous biodiversity legislation, but aim to deliver upgrades to flood control schemes, coastal hazards and water security interventions.

Palmer said rates will increase 15% this year and a 14.5% increase is proposed for 2023-24.

The council is short of experienced engineers, scientists, information technology, freshwater ecologists and hydrologists.

“We have shifted our focus from trying to recruit experienced scientists and engineers to graduates, cadets and early-career professionals and developing capability internally.

“We are working with other regional councils and central government on workforce supply issues.” 

He said Government departments are offering competitive salaries, which is contributing to higher wages in general.

The Waikato Regional Council said competition for skilled staff is being driven by all sectors, not just the Government.

Wage expectation has also increased and is expected to continue to grow over the next year.

Environment Southland chief executive Wilma Falconer said more legislation is coming and it is more complex. This includes the NPS Indigenous Biodiversity (NPS-IB).

“Further analysis is required of the proposed NPS-IB, and Environment Southland will be making submissions to Government on its workability,” said Falconer.

She said it is still to determine the workload it will generate.

“It is likely that a significant number of jobs will be required.

“There is a national shortage of ecologists to meet the current draft significant natural areas and monitoring requirements proposed by the NPS-IB.

“It is too early to know how this will be addressed.”

Environment Southland’s long-term plan sets its general rates increase at an average of 20% in 2021, followed by a maximum of 5% per annum for the next three years.

“Our workload pressures come as a result of both community and government expectations, particularly in relation to freshwater and climate change, while the covid-19 pandemic and investment uncertainty have had an impact on our income.”

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