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Govt plans biggest environment law shake-up in a generation

Government heralds biggest environment law shake-up in a generation

By Pattrick Smellie

Feb. 28 (BusinessDesk) - Environment Minister Amy Adams has unveiled proposals for the most sweeping amendments to environmental and resource management law in a generation, including a much greater role for central government to direct local government decision-making.

At the heart of the proposed changes to the 22-year-old Resource Management Act is a desire to see community input into appropriate resource use occurring at the local government planning stage, rather than the current tendency for battles over local economic development to play out during resource consent applications.

Also proposed is a new central government agency which could be used to fast-track major developments such as approval for major new suburban subdivisions in cities like Auckland, where limited housing supply is making homes unaffordable for many people.

"Frustration with RMA processes is rife," Adams told a breakfast briefing in Wellington, attended by key players in city and environmental planning from around the country.

"There are too many times when planning happens almost by default and decisions are fought over on a consent-by-consent basis, and too many occasions where inconsistency between multiple plans eats up resources as councils battle between themselves."

Too many resource consents were blocked by a single, well-funded objector opposing a community's plans, while many local councils were making the cost of simple activities, like home renovations, unnecessarily expensive.

"In most cases, the issue is not about the decision ultimately reached, it is about wastage of time and money to get to that decision," said Adams. The proposed reforms will leave the RMA's Section 5, with its central tenet of "sustainable management" untouched, but there will be updates to the other crucial sections.

"A single and updated set of principles to guide planning and decision-making to replace the out of date Sections 6 and 7 is proposed," said Adams.

Labour's environment spokeswoman, Maryan Street, labelled the proposals an "Ministerial power grab" that went too far, "especially when it gives more power to Ministers to intervene directly in local plan-making processes and at the same time, proposes to reduce the role of the Environment Court significantly."

Among the most significant proposals are:

* a huge reduction in the number of local government planning documents, often overlapping and inconsistent, to a single plan for every "district", and doing away with the need for separate district and regional plans. Currently, New Zealand operates 170 separate resource planning documents, compared with just 37 in Scotland;

* greater central government guidance on the content of plans, especially on national priorities. The government could direct plan changes to reflect, for example, national as well as local priorities;

* a 10 day turnaround for minor resource consent applications;

* in the case of notified resource consent applications, submissions and appeals to be restricted to the issues requiring notification;

* restriction of certain types of Environment Court appeals to require rehearing rather than starting afresh on the issues. The new system of developing district plans "is focused on reducing reliance on the courts making decisions instead of communities";

* creation of a new Crown agency, possibly an offshoot of the Environmental Protection Authority.

"Where there is a matter of national significance that needs local action but has not been able to be adequately addressed, for example residential land supply in Auckland, the existing tools have proved inadequate for quick and effective central government action," said Adams.

Auckland Council's chief planning officer Roger Blakeley challenged Adams on the potential for such powers to over-ride local democracy, to which Adams replied: "There are a lot of places where the government has been too hands-off."

The proposals will also see local councils work to more standardised documents across the country and to public performance indicators to show relative performance in processing consents.

Maori participation is included in the reforms, with Adams saying the quality of engagement worked well in some areas and was "ad hoc" in others.

Submissions on the discussion document are due by April 2, with the government determined to have major revisions to the RMA passed into law before Christmas.

(BusinessDesk)

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