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Benson-Pope: Better environmental performance

Hon David Benson-Pope

Making the journey to better environmental performance

Speech to Simpson and Grierson Group.

In the last six years the Labour-led government has delivered stability and good government.

Not one or the other - but both.

That has enabled us to take the country through droughts, floods, major international crises, threatened epidemics and many other challenges.

We have delivered real growth, improved living standards, a real reduction in poverty, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the developed world, an acceleration of Treaty settlements, the preservation of our foreign policy independence, the securing of the future of New Zealand Superannuation and so much more.

Our programme going forward is now organised around three themes; national identity, families young and old, and economic transformation.

Economic transformation is the ongoing process of change and improvement that will create an economy based upon a highly skilled workforce, the application of leading edge technology, a sound infrastructure and an innovative exporting culture.

It is clear to me that underpinning this economic transformation will be the quality of our environment.

Our environment is undoubtedly our greatest asset - integral to our daily lives and the quality of those lives. It is central to the lifestyles and identity we cling to as New Zealanders; and a big focus of our international advantage.

Labour is committed to a clean and healthy environment, and giving people a say in environmental decision-making.

Protecting our environment is a strategic investment in New Zealand's future, so when we talk about our concern for the environment we are really expressing our own self-interest and our anxiety for generations to come.

In moving forward as a nation we must balance competing interests.

Progress at any cost is simply unacceptable. But so too would be being locked into some "green" dogma that does not accommodate any change.

Arguments we may have from time to time are really about the weight we give environmental concerns against competing demands - where exactly should the balance be struck?

The cornerstone of New Zealand's environmental legislation, the Resource Management Act 1991, is a comprehensive system for regulating the impacts of all activities on the environment.

The RMA is about promoting the sustainable management of our natural and physical resources. It sets out how we manage our environment including air, water, and soil, and other resources; land use planning and subdivision.

New Zealanders have asked for, expect and deserve clean air, clean water, and clean soil.

In the last two years, the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board surveyed New Zealanders' attitudes to economic growth. While not negative towards it, support for growth came with strong conditions: New Zealanders don't want growth to damage our unique environment.

But the simple truth is that we can have both - growth, and a healthy and vibrant environment.

The 2006 Environmental Performance Index produced by a team of experts from Yale and Columbia Universities rated New Zealand first out of the 133 countries they surveyed, while a recent World Bank survey placed New Zealand first for ease of doing business. Now there's a truly unique double.

New Zealand's economy has grown by around 4 per cent per annum over the past five years, showing that clearly the RMA is no inhibitor to growth and development.

As Local Government New Zealand noted: "While many people may complain about the current Act, in fact it compares well internationally. Compliance costs are 10 per cent - 15 per cent less than in Australia and we are required to lodge fewer than half the number of applications for consent than in Australia."

There is no denying that the RMA has become an easy target, but maybe that is because we rarely hear about the resource consent applications that went smoothly.

Let's not forget that every year, between 45,000 and 50,000 resource consents are issued and 95% of them are processed without the formality of public notification. These are mostly dealt with in a month or less.

The backlog and time taken to hear the small number of cases that are appealed to the Environment Court has been reduced significantly, thanks to additional resourcing from government. Around 80 per cent of appeals to the Court are being dealt with by way of mediation - avoiding the need for hearing. Only 1 per cent of applications are declined.

Recent analysis from the Ministry for the Environment indicates that public works are being consented by councils within three months of application. Along with the national roll-out of RMA practitioner training, amendments to the RMA have streamlined the RMA consent and plan development processes.

According to the 2005 Business New Zealand - KPMG Compliance Costs Survey, average total environment-related compliance costs per FTE decreased 28 per cent from the previous year, and were down 51 per cent on 2003 costs.

A report prepared for the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Transport in 2003 concluded that New Zealand performs well compared with other countries in terms of the time taken for roading projects to commence.

The average time from inception to start of construction for major New Zealand roading projects is 2 years quicker than in the United Kingdom, 7 years quicker than in the United States and 12 to 22 years quicker than in Queensland, Australia.

What the RMA does, is balance the impact of that growth we need, with the need to protect New Zealand's natural environment.

Ensuring that the RMA is working effectively is a key task for the Environment Minister and for the Ministry. The recent legislative changes, while important, are not quick-fix solutions to complex issues.

Real progress will be made through many incremental improvements by organisations and individuals working with the RMA.

The reforms that were undertaken last year were the most significant set of amendments to the RMA since its enactment. The government is committed to ensuring those reforms are well supported and properly implemented. In 2005 nearly $18 million was provided to Departments to support RMA and other related reforms.

Part of this money is spent on programmes to provide leadership on the RMA, for example developing a series of National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards, continuing to improve local authority RMA decision making and developing the capacity to review the performance of local councils, where needed.

Like many people, Labour believes the principles of the RMA are sound but that significant improvement to the speed and quality of decision-making is possible at the local level.

The RMA is based on the principle that communities most closely affected by the decisions about the use of resources, should be involved in the decision making about the use of those resources. That is why the RMA provides for devolution of decision making to local authorities and requires resource management plans to be written in partnership with the community.

In the 1990s councils were getting to grips with their new responsibilities under the RMA. It was not clear how much national direction would be needed (and MfE had little resource to provide it).

Central government put its efforts into influencing council plans through submissions and into providing guidance and advice.

A very wide range of guidelines on issues such as air quality, water, contaminated land, and RMA processes were produced. These were widely used by local government and refined through practical experience.

The guidelines for ambient air quality, for example, have provided the foundation for developing National Environmental Standards.

The process for developing national tools was, however, very detailed and "clunky". It has been changed twice through RMA amendments to simplify it.

Since the late 1990s there have been increasing requests from business and other sectors for national instruments to provide guidance on matters of national significance and to increase consistency in local government rules and requirements.

The government is driving for greater consistency across New Zealand in decision-making about infrastructure, management of our resources and the quality of our environment.

Government therefore intends to provide greater national leadership and express this through National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards.

National Policy Statements set out objectives for matters of national significance. They guide resource use and allocation. Local authorities must amend their own policy statements and plans to give effect to national policy statements.

National Environmental Standards are regulations issued under sections 43 and 44 of the Resource Management Act, which can be applied nationally. They set mandatory limits and may prohibit activities. This means that each regional, city or district council must enforce the same standard.

In some circumstances, councils will be able to impose stricter standards.

National Environmental Standards not only protect people and the environment - they also secure a consistent approach and decision-making process throughout the whole country.

The first standards introduced related to air and we are now focusing on water and land.

Having clean air in places where people live is an important goal in the Government's environmental policy.

For this reason, 14 standards for the prevention of toxic emissions and the protection of air quality have been developed. All but one are now in force.

The 14 standards include:
„X seven standards banning activities that discharge significant quantities of dioxins and other toxics into the air
„X five standards for ambient (outdoor) air quality
„X a design standard for new wood burners installed in urban areas
„X a requirement for landfills over 1 million tonnes of refuse to collect greenhouse gas emissions.

Some amendments were made to these standards at the request of local government. They wanted more flexibility in how they reach the agreed goal of meeting the fine particle or PM10 standard by 1 September 2013.

The amendments clarify that the restriction on granting of resource consents applies only to significant discharges and also makes explicit provision for the use of offsets. The amendments allow councils to choose a straight-line path or a curved line path to achieve the PM10 target we've set for 2013.

I am pleased to say that several councils are getting on with sorting out the challenge of reducing local air pollution.

The Government has provided funding to support regional councils in implementing the standards - more than $2 million to date. This includes providing new air quality monitors for 15 councils, research into home heating, Warm Homes pilot projects in Tokeroa and Timaru, and funding for clean heat projects in Canterbury and Nelson.

The Ministry for the Environment is now developing a National Environmental Standard for human drinking-water sources. The intention of this proposed standard is to ensure that local government considers the quality of drinking-water sources when they decide on resource consents.

This standard also aims to ensure that water treatment plants are able to deal with possible pollution that might result from high-risk activities, like spills or accidents in the water supply catchment.

This work is complemented by the Sustainable Water Programme of Action, which I announced in April with Agriculture and Forestry Minister Jim Anderton.

We're going to look at whether National Policy Statements will be appropriate for water quality, and for uses and values of water to guide allocation decisions. We also plan to draft National Environmental Standards for setting environmental flows in rivers and measuring water taken by large users.

In some places in New Zealand, soil has become contaminated due to industrial and agricultural activities in the past.

The Ministry for the Environment is currently developing a proposal for a National Environmental Standard for the clean up of contaminated land.

A discussion document that builds on a previous draft will be put up for public consultation.

We are starting preliminary investigations on a standard for the application of bio-solids to land.
We have been working with roading providers and others to scope the potential for a National Environmental Standard to deal with one of the issues facing our roading network - road noise.

A key part of the current programme for National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards is to work with the providers of infrastructure.

We are working closely with industry to make sure we base any standard or policy statement on a good understanding of what industry needs to function efficiently, so we can weigh up the demands and issues carefully.

As I mentioned earlier, the government is focused on the economic transformation of New Zealand and is determined to develop the world-class infrastructure essential to support this.

A range of possible national policy statements or environmental standards (or combinations) is being looked at for infrastructure systems.

These include electricity transmission and generation and telecommunications facilities. There is information about progress with the electricity transmission and generation work on the Ministry of Economic Development's website.

Quality of life and the growth of the economy must go hand in hand. We can't have one by compromising the other.

Nowhere are these issues more obvious than in the environment in which we must live - our towns and urban centres - and how we might maximise our lifestyles, wellbeing and productivity.

While we may still view ourselves as very close to our rural and wilderness environment, the fact is that around 86 per cent of us now live in towns or cities.

The shape and form of our cities are important factors in achieving economic progress and in providing a high quality of life for our people.

Good urban form provides an optimal environment for businesses to flourish, attracts entrepreneurs, and ensures the efficient use of infrastructure.

One example I am particularly keen on is the Urban Design Protocol and the Urban Design Toolkit to guide and improve the way our cities are designed and how they function.

The next step is to develop a National Policy Statement, which provides real policy direction on urban design issues.

The Ministry for the Environment will begin scoping out what a potential National Policy Statement for urban design might address.

As government we know we must take our communities and businesses on the journey with us.

I am firmly of the view that the use of regulatory tools like National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards should be only one part of a broader package.

The process of creating national tools involves first having a dialogue with stakeholders on the issues as was done for the Urban Design Protocol and the Water Programme of Action. This dialogue will continue.

It is not about more red tape. It is about gaining consensus on what works for industry and central and local government, while providing the environmental quality that New Zealanders expect and deserve.

I expect any national regulations to work in a complementary way with voluntary mechanisms, such as new or strengthened partnerships and advisory programmes.

National Policy Statements and standards are part of a wider package of work related to the RMA.

Last year's changes to the RMA are being followed up with new guidance, online support, and training programmes for local decision-makers and practitioners.

The government understands the need for a decent lead-in time for change and for new resources and training to get this right. The introduction and roll out of any national instruments will be staged.

I am committed to working with local government and working at a rate that achieves the aims of this government, but doesn't overwhelm the people implementing the standards.

Policies and standards don't evolve and take effect in a vacuum. There is money available for support and advice and practical tools to implement better ways to protect our environment, while maximising the economic benefits to New Zealanders.

I am in no doubt that we can keep in step with the world and in tune with the environment, while being smarter with our future resource use.

As I said, New Zealanders expect and deserve clean air, clean water, and clean soil.

National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards are tools that will play a major role in meeting these expectations.

Thank you.


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