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Hobbs Speech: NZ Planning Institute

Marian Hobbs Speech: NZ Planning Institute annual conference 2003, Hamilton, May 23

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. I’m always pleased to see groups of professionals gathered together to discuss complex planning issues in a meaningful way. All too often such discussions are abandoned in favour of less constructive, less informed debate in the media. Let me say from the outset that planning anything is never easy. It’s hard enough to plan a holiday, let alone plan for the sustainable management of a region or city.

Take New Zealand’s extremely varied landscape, mix in the economic and social diversity across New Zealand, add in the RMA, integrate a National Policy Statement and a package of National Environmental Standards, sprinkle on top the Sustainable Development Programme of Action, and you can see the difficulties in achieving quality planning. Unfortunately for us, planning is not as easy as following an Alison Holst recipe.

Most informed commentators readily accept that the principles of the RMA are not flawed. Concerns are instead about uncertainty and overly restrictive process requirements. There are the urban myths and then there are aspects of the Act that need fixing. I get a fair measure of ill-informed views coming my way. There is particular concern that the RMA is a major problem for the business sector and indeed for all of us, because of the “effect that legislation has on impeding the construction of roads, power plants, factories, and residential sections, and so on”.

I also have contention from community interests that initiatives such as limited notification will reduce public participation in resource consent decisions and that ordinary New Zealanders are going to be left out of decisions affecting their homes, communities and environment. Significantly, it is on this issue of limited notification that I have received most mail over the last 6 months.

So what aspects of the RMA need fixing? That is, when you drill down to the real issues. Delays in obtaining resource consent applications are number one concern to most applicants. 50,000 resource consents applications proceed through to decision every year. 82% of all applications are processed within time. 69% of publicly notified consents meet the statutory time limit. We also have reviewed the time taken by some major projects.

On average they take 24 months from the date of lodgement of the applications to the final Court ruling. This generally included 6-8 months to obtain a council decision, a 12-14 month wait to obtain an Environment Court hearing, and a further 3-4 month delay prior to the release of a final Environment Court decision.

Alongside the issue of time delay, uncertainty of the outcome, the costs of the process and the quality of decision making are also valid concerns for applicants.

These concerns need to be balanced by the call to ensure a robust decision-making process which is evaluated against community plans and results, national priorities and which engages all the communities.

What is the Government doing to address these matters?

Last week the Resource Management Amendment Bill (No2) had its third Parliamentary reading. The Bill is now the Resource Management Amendment Act 2003 (as of Monday) and it signals the end of one chapter in the life of the RMA. This amendment had its origins in a 1996 review by Owen McShane undertaken for the former National Government. A range of proposals emerged. Some were dropped by this Government because they would have compromised environmental outcomes, reduced opportunities for public participation and threatened a key principle of the Act – that local government is best placed to make the majority of decisions on environmental and resource management matters. However, many formed the basis for the current amendments.

There has been a very lengthy and ideological debate on the amendments, which has hampered progress on other simple but effective measures. These amendments capture and build on those simple, necessary, and constructive changes to the Act, in a balanced and comprehensive way. I am quite conscious of the calls from business about a streamlined and cost effective process for gaining resource consents. I have to balance this, however, with claims that the RMA does not provide adequate provision for public participation and that far too few consents are notified or declined.

The majority of the Amendment Act’s provisions commence on 1 August. This will allow you plenty of time to come up to speed with it through workshops to be held with the local branches of the NZPI. The provisions relating to national environmental standards and national policy statements have already commenced, to allow Government to progress the NPS on Biodiversity and to develop a raft of national environment standards—a tool of the original Act that has been ignored for too long.

If you thought this was the end of amendments to the RMA, I can report probably two more sets of amendments are being developed this year, relating to the Climate Change and Energy Amendments and removal of the aquaculture moratorium.

This Government recognises that alongside amendments to the legislation, significant gains can also be made by working with those parties involved to improve practice. Amendments to the law are only one way to improve the Act and we must not neglect support for the Environment Court and work with councils, applicants and Maori organisations.

There is widespread criticism from business, practitioners, Non Government Groups and others that delays in appeals being resolved in the Environment Court have increased over the past ten years to a point where they are unacceptable. The inability of the Court to process appeals in a timely fashion has severe flow-on effects to the Act.

The overall objective of our strategy to address delays at the Court involves working in partnership with the Department for Courts to reduce outstanding cases awaiting Environment Court determination to a level where cases can be heard within 3-6 months of being lodged. Specific targets will be developed later in the year when reliable statistics and data become available from the Court.

In order to achieve the overarching objective it is necessary to streamline and focus the business of the Environment Court though three action areas:

improving the efficiency of the Environment Court

improve the performance of the Environment Court participants

communicate Court changes and the reduction in delays to stakeholders

The Environment Court is reducing its backlog and will continue to do so. You can significantly improve the practice of the Court by improving your practice. I understand that there are lawyers who are 'put out' by the court demanding their readiness to proceed on the agreed date.

The Ministry is also working with a range of groups including the NZ Contractors Federation, Business New Zealand and Local Government New Zealand to ensure better quality and consistency in resource consent processing. This initiative is in response to the Ministerial Panel’s recommendations on business compliance costs and includes:

Establishing a scheme for training and accrediting those councillors and commissioners who make decisions on consent applications.

Piloting a programme that builds on the Biennial RMA Survey and the Performance Excellence Study Awards in benchmarking the performance of the consent processing divisions of councils, and in drawing attention to centres of regulatory excellence.

Another of the initiatives developed to promote consistency in RMA plans and processes is the development of the Quality Planning website. The Quality Planning website aims to promote the sharing of information and best practice in preparing plans and resource consent processing under the Act.

The Quality Planning Website has been online for nearly two years. I am very pleased with the website’s progress since its launch in 2001. I see the Quality Planning website contributing positively to planning in New Zealand in 4 key ways. There is no ‘dummies guide for planning’ and when it comes to quality planning, nothing beats experience. I believe that Quality Planning can only be achieved by working together to share planning experiences, issues, and good practice tips - unless we share the lessons learned in planning, insightful knowledge is kept to yourselves and lost.

So to recap… the recently passed amendments to the RMA, the work with the Environment Court, the business compliance cost projects and the Quality Planning Websites are all initiatives that I have been undertaking to address concerns about the RMA. But these only go part of the way, given the nature of the problems. There are two areas in particular where I wish to advance national environmental standards and a new mechanism for Government to ensure that due recognition is given to issues of national significance.

Changes to the provisions for national environmental standards signify an important change in the Government’s approach to resource management. For too long local government has struggled on its own to develop simple, effective and consistent environmental controls. The new RMA amendment makes it easier for central government to become involved in this process. By devolving most aspects of environmental management to local government, local authorities are able to use their discretion in determining most aspects of environmental quality that their local community demand. Using national environmental standards as tools, we will now be better able to work with local government to achieve improved environmental outcomes. Importantly, the provisions will not override the role of local government, but will allow for central government to offer more help where that is appropriate.

So what will the national environmental standards achieve? They can be used to place limits on discharges to air, water and land. They will establish environmental bottom lines around air, raw drinking water, application of biosolids (sewage sludge) to land, aspects of landfill design, siting and management, and noise for urban places and roads.

The current Amendment Act strengthens the parts of the RMA that provide for the establishment of national environmental standards by specifying in more detail what they can cover, how, and their relationship with existing plan rules and consent conditions.

The development of national environmental standards is particularly beneficial, as they:

Provide for national consistency across councils.

Ensure the protection of public health and the environment by providing a standard that must be met but can be bettered.

Provide certainty in decision making.

Reduce the potential for relitigation during consent hearings.

Demonstrate how we are meeting international obligations (such as the Stockholm Convention)

In the last weeks we have been working closely with regional councils on an agreed priority list as to which National Environmental Standards to proceed with. It is likely that the first National Environmental Standard to be developed will be an air quality standards package. We will be consulting with local government and other interested parties on the proposed package in July/August. This package will build on the existing technical analysis undertaken by the Air Quality Management Programme. Details for other NES topics will follow in the year following the air quality work. They may include septic tanks, the quality of raw drinking water and the design and siting of landfills.

My next priority relates to a new mechanism to address two key concerns about environmental assessment for major projects:

The appropriateness of local decision-making for issues of national significance; and

Time delays (and the opportunity and holding costs associated with those delays).

Under the existing process, there is a tendency for decision-makers to focus on local adverse effects of a major project, not the national benefits. Concerns are heightened when there is an absence of national policy on key issues and decisions are made by councillors representing local communities. These perceptions, coupled with the reality of significant delays before the Environment Court, have led to pressure to develop a more efficient environmental assessment process for major projects.

One process to address these two issues – direct referral to the Environment Court – was explored in some depth as part of the last RMA amendment process. The proposals were not supported because of potential reductions in public participation and local decision-making, the costs for some parties, and concerns about the ability of the Environment Court to efficiently address such a new function given the backlog of cases awaiting determination.

Since that time the Ministerial Panel on Business Compliance Cost has requested that the Government revisit its decision on direct referral.

I am now exploring alternative processes, including a new role for Government in proposals it considers significant. Unlike earlier proposals, the processes we are considering would ensure the project was decided upon in months rather than years by providing a focussed Government position and increased assistance for local decision-makers. Importantly, any new processes will recognise a key role for local government in decision-making, and for effective community involvement in decision-making processes. We have defined the problem; defining the solution is much more sophisticated than the sloganeering beloved of journalists and politicians.

Now, turning to another area where I intend to take action: the promotion of sustainable cities. As Minister with responsibility for Urban Affairs and Minister for the Environment I am involved in ensuring we create a better all-round environment.

The Sustainable Development programme contains the most comprehensive statement about cities ever adopted by a New Zealand Government. It’s a strong recognition that New Zealand’s cities have come of age. You as planning professionals have your part to play along with the government in creating one of the areas of focus for sustainable development: sustainable cities.

Sustainable Cities recognises that cities are the essential places to achieve sustainable development because cities are where most people live. Over three-quarters of New Zealanders live in urban areas. The two key outcomes identified for our cities are:

cities are centres of innovation and economic growth; and

liveable cities support social well-being, quality of life, and cultural identities

So how we will go about putting Sustainable Cities into Action?

As Minister with Responsibility for Urban Affairs, I will promote the interests of New Zealand urban areas within government, metropolitan centres.

I will do this by taking the lead to prioritise where action is needed. Action is needed to remove barriers to growth, action to improve liveability, and action to improve the international competitiveness of our cities.

The Local Government Act has demanded that local governments produce 10-year community plans. These will identify what communities want for their areas. They will provide a long-term focus for decisions and enable public participation in the decision-making processes. In the course of decision-making local authorities must consider the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of their district or region. To do this successfully we need to work together, central and local government.

Good work has been progressing this year among the officials of the Auckland cities and central government departments. Issues around transport, housing and community safety and health have been identified as needing collaborative and focused planning. And that's what is and will continue to happen, without a fanfare, but well resourced. We want results.

We need agencies and interest groups to coordinate a programme of action across central government, local government, business and other institutions. We want to achieve what we say we will achieve, and to track, audit and report on our efforts.

Sustainable Cities programme will also contain some specific projects over the next 18 months. One of these will be to negotiate an Urban Design Protocol.

The Protocol will be modelled on the New South Wales Urban Design Charter. This comprehensively covers design considerations of the built environment, but in my view, is deficient in the area of cultural perspectives.

Work on the Urban Design Protocol will be collaborative, and there will be opportunities for local government and professional groups to be closely involved.

While the Protocol will be a high level commitment to excellence in design, it will lead to policies and concrete actions at the local level.

The Sustainable Development Programme of Action for sustainable cities has a comprehensive list of issues to guide decisions on work priorities. The list ranges from looking closely at legislation and regulatory controls, to removing legislative impediments to sustainable medium- and high-density housing, to finding innovative approaches for sorting out peak traffic congestion

There is much to plan, much to achieve – and it is far more complex than mere amendments to the RMA alone as the total quick 'fix it' answer.

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