Department of Conservation: Planning for and managing publicly owned land.

The Department of Conservation (the Department) manages more than 8.5 million hectares of the publicly owned land – nearly a third of the country’s total land area.

We audited the Department’s strategic planning for land, and the adequacy of its management and information systems for implementing that planning. We reviewed the Department’s strategies, plans, and reports, and interviewed its staff at Head Office. We also carried out field work and interviews in 3 different conservancies, to see if the Department was planning for and managing publicly owned land consistently.

Our findings

Overall, the Department met, or partially met, most of our expectations. The Department had policies and objectives for land within its statutory planning documents, and comprehensive management and information systems. However, the Department’s strategic planning, management systems, and information systems were not always well connected.

In our view, the Department needs a national strategic plan for land, and stronger central oversight within its land management and land information systems, particularly for land transactions, so there is more clarity and consistency in managing publicly owned land for conservation purposes.

Strategic planning for land

Strategic planning involves setting long-term objectives and goals. We expected the Department to have comprehensive national strategic planning for the publicly owned land it manages. We expected this planning to be in writing, coherent, clear, and accessible. To assess whether the Department met our expectations, we examined the Department’s statements of general policy, conservation management strategies, management plans for national parks, and strategic plans.

The Department had policies and objectives for land within its statutory planning documents. In our view, a clear and comprehensive national strategic plan for land would provide for co-ordinated and consistent implementation of these policies and objectives throughout the Department. A national strategic plan for land would also enable effective co-ordination of the Department’s management and information systems to achieve long-term objectives for land.

The effectiveness of the Department’s strategic planning would be improved if it finished all the planning documents required by law (as they contain long-term objectives for land), and if it also ensured that the management objectives within and between conservation management strategies were clear and consistent.

Land management systems

Management systems involve processes and procedures to ensure that long-term objectives and goals are achieved.

We expected the Department’s priorities and resource allocation for carrying out plans to manage publicly owned land to be clear at both a national level and conservancy level. We expected roles and responsibilities for land management to be clearly defined, and we expected the Department to have guidance in place to ensure that different parts of the organisation followed the same set of procedures when undertaking any land management work. We also expected any acquisition, disposal, transfer, or reclassification of land to be consistent with such guidance.

We examined the Department’s Statement of Intent 2005-2008, its annual business planning process, standard operating procedures for land management, delegations framework, and accountability systems. We examined the Northland, East Coast Hawke’s Bay, and West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancies’ approaches to setting priorities and undertaking land transactions. We also undertook 2 case studies on land transactions undertaken by the Department.

The Department had comprehensive land management systems, which included many of the processes and procedures that we expected. However, in our view, these systems need to provide guidance for conservancies in setting priorities for land that are linked clearly to statutory policies and objectives. The Department also needs stronger and more centralised compliance monitoring, including reviewing all land transactions undertaken by the Department through the Land Acquisition Fund and by conservancies.

Land information systems

We expected the Department to gather appropriate information about the land it manages. We expected the Department to have comprehensive information systems that would store such information consistently and accessibly for staff who need it for their work.

We also expected the Department to use the land information for making decisions and checking progress against relevant planning objectives and priorities.

We examined the Department’s national Land Register and procedures for its maintenance and use, property documentation for 28 individual properties in the Northland, East Coast Hawke’s Bay, and West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancies, and the Department’s reporting systems and processes.

The Department had detailed land information systems, which included much of the information we expected. However, we identified some ways to make the systems more effective.

Storing land transaction information consistently would help the Department to check that land transactions comply with standard operating procedures, and ensure that the Department has a clearer overview of the land it manages.

Storing information about conservation values of land consistently would ensure that the information is accessible to staff who need it to do their work. Gathering information about the origin of individual properties would help the Department to do certain types of work.

The Department uses land information to inform business plans and programmes, and to report on the legal protection of different land types. It is setting up systems to use land information for measuring, evaluating, and reviewing its performance in protecting natural and historic heritage areas. The Department could also use the information it holds to systematically check whether land classifications appropriately protect the land they apply to.

Our recommendations

We recommend that the Department of Conservation:

  1. give priority to finishing conservation management strategies and national park management plans that it has not prepared or reviewed within statutory timeframes;
  2. prepare a national strategic plan for all the land it manages;
  3. prepare guidance for conservancies in setting priorities within business plans that are clearly linked to statutory policies and objectives for land;
  4. formally monitor compliance with relevant standard operating procedures of all land transactions undertaken by conservancies;
  5. review recent land transactions undertaken through the Land Acquisition Fund, and by all conservancies, to identify any common deficiencies and to ensure that the standard operating procedures are followed;
  6. consider the usefulness of gathering information on the origin of all the individual properties it manages;
  7. review its systems to record land transactions, to gain oversight of the number and type of land transactions occurring within individual conservancies and throughout the country;
  8. include on its Land Register (or though links from its Land Register) references to relevant conservation management strategies, reports, inventories, and surveys relating to properties it manages; and
  9. use land conservation value information as part of a programme to ensure that land classifications appropriately protect the land they apply to.
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