The Minister for the Environment’s decision to establish the new Environmental Protection Agency as a stand-alone agency provides greater opportunity for it to be independent and for it to advocate for the environment.

The Ministry for the Environment never had the necessary teeth and the environmental results have clearly reflected this.

MFE has no statutory responsibility for any outcomes on the ground, beyond limited exceptions driven by international environmental agreements. It is a pure policy ministry and minister Nick Smith is right to go back to the fundamental architecture and revisit decisions made 24 years ago when the ministry was born out of bureaucratic compromise.

The hope is that the new EPA will set legal standards that allow polluters to be properly held to account. At present there are generally no legal limits on the amount of a pollutant that can be present on land or in water. So if the relevant resource management consents are inadequate or do not cover a problem, getting a prosecution can involve very high legal hurdles and that needs to be fixed.

Much depends on the detail of the EPA legislation to come and it is important that core protections in the HSNO Act in particular are not lost in the shake-up but the initiative provides hope that the poor state of environmental administration will be improved.