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Benson Pope - 'Pushing the Boundaries'

28 April 2005

Hon David Benson Pope - Speech to the New Zealand Planning Institute Annual Conference - 'Pushing the Boundaries'

Sky City Conference centre, Auckland9:45am - 10:15am


Madam President, the NZPI organising committee, and delegates, thank you for the opportunity to address your conference.

The theme for this conference is 'Pushing the Boundaries', a phrase appropriate for this Government, which long ago signalled a shift in direction for environmental management in New Zealand.

Past governments have had a hands-off approach to our environment with minimal central government intervention.

Today our approach is heavily based on partnership, underpinned by strong government leadership.

This strategy has required the Government to continually push the boundaries, both within and outside the Resource Management Act.

Today I would like to discuss how the Government is doing that in a number of areas.

Proposed RMA Amendments and Improvements
Firstly, I know the proposed Resource Management and Electricity Legislation Amendment Bill will be of great interest to many of you.

The proposed package of improvements is about fine tuning processes, and finding practical solutions to make the RMA work better.

The proposed Bill provides solutions to issues identified after talking with local government, industry, environmental organisations and the wider community over an 18 month period.
To update you on what is happening at present, the Bill is before the Local Government and Environment Select Committee, which is due to report back to Parliament in mid-June. Over 300 submissions have been received.

The Bill is part of a wider package of improvements to the RMA that I would like to discuss. Initiatives are proposed in five key areas.

The first set of initiatives aims to improve the expression of matters of national interest under the RMA.

There will be greater use of national policy statements and national environmental standards to give better national direction and improve consistency across local government.

There will also be greater involvement of central government in local decision making, such as a modified call-in process.

This includes the ability to appoint process facilitators and representatives on hearings committees.

The reform bill creates a set of more appropriate and accessible options for the Government to have a role.

Designations, private plan changes, heritage orders and major projects involving cross-boundary issues may now all be 'called in', fixing a gap in the existing legislation.

The second set of initiatives aims to help improve decision-making at the council level.

The Ministry for the Environment is taking a stronger leadership role to assist local government to develop knowledge and strengthen practice.

It will be mandatory for chairpersons of council hearing panels to be trained and certified.

The majority of the hearings panel will need to be certified within 2 years of enactment.

Resource consent hearings panels will have improved tools for conducting hearings, including mandatory pre-hearings where appropriate to sort out differences before a case is heard.

I, and this Government, am committed to good local decision-making.

Under the reform bill, the role of the Environment Court would be limited to rehearing decisions made at these improved council hearings, rather than acting de novo.

I am open to the idea of the Environment Court having a greater role, but decisions already made by local councils must be given weight at the Environment Court and not simply cast aside.

The Court will be required to conduct a rehearing to focus on matters in contention rather then starting again. The Court will have inquisitorial powers, with the ability to order independent expert reports and to define issues for resolution at an early stage.

The third set of initiatives aims to improve local policy and plan making. The role of regional policy statements will be strengthened and regional and district plans will have to 'give effect to' these.

District and regional plans will only need to state policies and rules. Other matters such as objectives and anticipated environmental results will be at the discretion of the council, allowing the overall size of planning documents to be reduced.

There will be greater certainty regarding when iwi authorities should be consulted, which iwi authorities should be consulted and how and what the process and scope of the consultation should be. The Bill refocuses consultation with iwi at the plan preparation stage.

Of assistance to practitioners like yourselves, will be the development of registries for identifying iwi, their tribal boundaries and key contact details.

The fourth set of initiatives makes natural resource allocation an explicit responsibility of regional councils. The Minister for the Environment will be able to direct a regional council to prepare regional plans dealing with specific issues where gaps are identified.

The fifth set of initiatives aims to build capacity. The Ministry for the Environment will take a greater role in helping local government develop knowledge and practice. This includes enhancing the Ministry for the Environment's best practice programme, and targeted one-on-one assistance with specific councils.

Response to Some of the Concerns Raised
I have been concerned that the responses of some groups to the proposals have misjudged the intent of the bill.

It is about strong environmental protection and supporting local decision-making, while removing unnecessary costs for the participants of consent processes.

That is why the local council role is being enhanced. That is why there are powers to require councils to perform, where now they may have no plans or do not properly enforce environmental protection.

Nothing in the bill is about tilting the playing field in anyone's favour - it is about improved process. The Government will ensure this intent is carried through, and welcomes suggestions from the select committee to clarify this intent.
I want to make it clear to those who would like to see the RMA gutted and development proceed at the expense of local communities and the environment - it's not going to happen.

But the Government is not pretending that the RMA is perfect. I strongly believe that the review of the RMA has come up with a series of sensible changes, which provide more certainty of process for those seeking consents and better decision making in general.

We are not watering down the RMA's ability to protect the environment. Overall, we know practice by local bodies has improved steadily over the last decade, but that some councils still fall short.

For too long local government has struggled on its own. Changes in the reform bill give a lot more support to local councils, as well as providing tools to make poorly performing councils lift their game.

National Guidance
Within the existing provisions of the RMA, the Government is providing leadership in the area of national guidance.

The first ever national environmental standards were introduced in October last year. Fourteen standards were introduced including ambient air quality standards for five contaminants, bans on seven activities that release unacceptable amounts of dioxins and other toxics, design standards for new woodburners and landfill gas collection at large landfills.

The Government is continuing to push the boundaries in the area of national standards by considering developing further standards on contaminated sites, human drinking water and biosolids.

A decision on the new national policy statement on biodiversity is imminent. New policy statements for the various types of network infrastructure are also under consideration. At present reference groups have been set up to look at the potential usefulness of statements and standards on electricity transmission and generation.

Best Practice (RMA Implementation)
The Government's package to improve the Resource Management Act is more than just improving the Act; it is also about building capacity and improving practice.

To this extent, the Government is committed to providing extra assistance to those involved in RMA processes. Programmes for the coming years include upgrading the Quality Planning website, continued workshops and training for practitioners including targeted one-on-one assistance for councils, the production of new resources to assist user groups such as the business sector, in understanding and using the Resource Management Act, and the continuation of the 'Making Good Decisions' Programme.
Quality Planning website
We recognise that one of the keys to making the RMA work well is the sharing of experience between resource management practitioners.

One success story of this is the Quality Planning website, which was developed to promote the sharing of best practice between resource management practitioners.

The Quality Planning website is a great example of how the Government has pushed the boundaries with respect to partnership building and sharing of practical experience to help move towards improved environmental outcomes. Ultimately, this partnership ensures that best practice is captured from all the partner organisations and is shared to prevent 'reinventing the wheel'.

The website has come along in leaps and bounds, now boasting an impressive average of 290 thousand hits a month. This demonstrates that it continues to be a valuable asset for resource management practitioners.

Best practice work is not just about the Quality Planning website, but also provides a basis for workshops and training on resource management processes and topics, and one-on-one assistance and review.

The focus for the coming years will be on plan content and supporting the development of second generation plans. The Ministry for the Environment is working hard with its partner organisations to provide nationwide training on the preparation of plans under the RMA, looking at the lessons learnt from the first generation of RMA plans and methods and means for thinking outside the box.

The 'Making Good Decisions' Programme
The Government also continues to push the boundaries with regard to the implementation of the Resource Management Act, recognising that most concerns expressed with the Act relate to its implementation rather than its purpose.

The Making Good Decisions programme got underway in February this year. The programme aims to help improve the quality and consistency of resource management decision making.

It provides participants with a thorough understanding of RMA statutory requirements, explains the different roles of each of the participants in the hearings process, and equips participants with the skills to thoroughly test evidence and make legally robust and informed decisions. 571 participants have attended 21 workshops and this has exceeded our best expectations.

As I mentioned previously, the proposed Amendment Bill seeks to establish a requirement that the majority of hearings panels have a recognised certification for hearing resource consents, private plan changes, designations, and heritage orders.
In the future, courses on other topics may be offered to decision-makers, and the Ministry is also looking at options for post-graduate training for council staff.

We may also see summer schools of the kind offered by the Royal Town Planning Institute made available to staff working with the RMA.

One-on-One Targeted Assistance / Review
A new area of work for the Ministry is providing one-on-one targeted assistance and reviews to councils to help improve implementation of the Act. Assistance has been provided to three authorities so far, and this has proven to be useful on all occasions. It is intended to continue this programme in coming years.

Promoting Understanding
Additional work programmes are currently underway to enhance resource management implementation through promoting understanding of the Resource Management Act amongst business and the public. Unfortunately, as we all know, it's often only the bad news stories that we hear, drowning out all the good things I know are happening in practice.

Recruitment and Retention of Planners
I understand that another major concern to the planning profession is the issue of capacity. Issues of recruitment and retention of planning professionals are increasing. The workshop on Wednesday afternoon shows how the Ministry for the Environment is working in partnership with the Planning Institute, local government and the private sector to proactively look for solutions.

Urban Design Protocol and the Year of the Built Environment
The Government is also well aware that the Resource Management Act is not the be-all and end-all for environmental management. In addition to the proposed changes to the RMA, and work to improve its implementation, we are pushing the boundaries in a number of new areas outside of the Act.

2005 is the Year of the Built Environment. It is the aim of the Year of the Built Environment to raise awareness, explore and celebrate the buildings, places and spaces in which we all live, work and play.

Throughout the year a collaborative series of events will focus on and challenge people to recognise the role the built environment plays in our lives. The Year is about helping New Zealanders recognise the contribution the quality of our built environment makes to our quality of life, and to the success, vitality and prosperity of New Zealand as a whole.

The first key event of the Year of the Built Environment 2005 was the launch of the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol by Prince Charles in March.

The Protocol aims to make New Zealand towns and cities more successful through quality urban design. The Urban Design Protocol is fundamental in pushing everyone's boundaries on the design of our built environment, and in addressing the growth of towns and cities, in particular Auckland.

I believe that planners should be able to reject resource consent applications which fail to take the opportunities available for creating quality urban design. The recent High Court decision on the proposed 36 level building on the St James Theatre site, Auckland, is a case in point.

This case showed that the urban environment is a key consideration under the RMA. Any decision to reject poor design should be clearly supported by relevant objectives, policies, rules and guidelines contained in or referred to in relevant policy documents.

We have to be proactive about quality urban design so that everyone is involved in vision, process and implemented outcomes.

Collaboration, one of the protocol's seven qualities, is all about improving our urban environment through pushing the boundaries with integrated training, adequately funded research and shared examples of good urban design.

Quality urban design should be the aim of everyone involved in planning, including decision-makers and applicants. If you as members of the New Zealand Planning Institute do not push your own professional boundaries into the field of urban design, you will find it being done by other professions, or just the architects!

Auckland School Travel Programme
Another cutting edge area outside of the RMA where the Government is challenging the way we do things, is the Auckland School Travel Programme.

This is part of the Auckland Sustainable Cities Programme, which was launched in March by the Prime Minister. The programme will give children the choice of more active, social, safe, and sustainable ways of getting to school, while helping to reduce road congestion.

The School Travel Programme aims to reduce the amount of car traffic arriving at Auckland schools by ten per cent over ten years.

This is a significant initiative because at present forty per cent of all the morning peak trips people make in Auckland are to school or tertiary education, and 67 per cent of all trips to primary schools are by car.

So far, eight schools in Auckland have adopted School Travel Plans, and over fifty schools are involved in the programme. Funding from central and local government will enable the programme to be extended to over ninety schools across the Auckland region during this year and next.

In many respects, I feel we are at a pivotal moment in planning and resource management.

You, the resource management practitioners, are about to embark on the journey of writing second generation Resource Management Act plans. Furthermore, it is the Year of the Built Environment, and the Government is now investing heavily in urban design and urban policy.

And the Resource Management Amendment Bill is progressing through Select Committee, which contains a number of proposed changes that I believe will improve the quality of our processes and decision making. These three factors have all contributed to making planning and resource management a focus of media and political attention.

Everyone likes beating up the RMA, but fundamentally it is a good piece of legislation.

The Government is taking action to make it work better for all New Zealanders. Given your knowledge and experience of the RMA, I am sure you will be taking a keen interest in the progress of the Bill and in getting up to speed with the finer detail.

The Government is, and will continue to, push the boundaries, by showing increasing leadership in many new areas of planning and environmental management.

We are not afraid to intervene when necessary. However this will not be at the expense of our devolved system of decision-making.

The emphasis remains on you, the practitioners at the local and regional level, to achieve the environment that New Zealanders expect and deserve.

No action the Government can take will have as much influence on future environmental outcomes in New Zealand as the upcoming review of district plans.

On that note I challenge you all to continue pushing the boundaries in your respective fields, and to show leadership in finding new solutions to our environmental challenges.


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