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Government Keeps Controversial RMA Document Secret

12 August 2004 - Wellington

Government keeps controversial RMA document secret

The Government is refusing to reveal proposed fundamental changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA) that were tabled at a meeting of Cabinet Ministers two weeks ago.

A officials' paper tabled at the meeting of Cabinet Ministers, and released to Forest and Bird under the Official Information Act, reveals that RMA Minister David Benson-Pope presented a second paper outlining changes to the purpose and principles (Part II) of the RMA. However, the Minister's Office is refusing to release this paper.

The officials' paper has been posted on Forest and Bird's website at www.forestandbird.org.nz.

"Considering how bad some of the officials' recommendations are, we shudder to think how awful the proposals are that have been deemed too sensitive to release," Forest and Bird's Conservation Manager Kevin Hackwell said.

"The purpose and principles of the RMA are its core. Amending them would be a fundamental shift away from the principle of sustainable management. The Government has strongly criticized the Opposition for wanting to take this route; we hope they aren't planning to go there themselves," he said.

"The proposals in the paper that was released go well beyond a mere 'tune up' and represent a radical attempt by officials to weaken environment bottom lines and put barriers in front of environmental, community and iwi defenders of the public interest. Every conservation, environment and residents organisation and iwi should take note," he said.

"The proposals conflict with Cabinet's agreed review principles of public participation and good environmental outcomes and the paper makes no mention of them. Are these principles merely window dressing?" Mr Hackwell asked

"One of the most remarkable things about this package is how little effort has gone into lifting local government performance and provide support to struggling councils. 'Improving practice and build capacity' gets a small list of mostly existing programmes tacked onto the end of paper with no real analysis.

"Instead there is a strong emphasis on reducing public participation and making participation more onerous; giving the Government's pet projects special treatment and reducing the Government's obligation to consult when writing national policy statements," he said.

"Welcome to a world where those defending the environment must jump through all the hoops while the Government's pet projects get fast tracked," he said.

"Last year, proposals to 'fast track' major projects were rejected by Prime Minister Helen Clark, but unfortunately the officials' commitment to recycling appears strongest when it comes to Think Big amendments to the RMA. We're disappointed to see proposals re-emerge that should have been long dead and buried," Mr Hackwell said.

Outline of the major changes revealed under the Official Information Act

Changes to the purpose and principles of the Resource Management Act

* A secret paper was tabled at a meeting of Cabinet Ministers 2 weeks ago proposing changes to Part II of the Resource Management Act.

Preferential treatment for the Government's 'pet' projects

* A "whole of government statement" for major projects to be considered alongside a major project application and submissions.

* Appeals on major projects restricted to High Court and on points of law only.

* A Government funded process minder.

Reduce public participation in the formation of regional and district plans

* Only allow 'directly affected' people to make formal comments (further submissions) on other submissions, potentially excluding public interest representatives from making comment on submissions that seek to undermine environmental bottom lines.

* Make council hearings more legalistic and formal with cross examination

* Limit Environment Court appeals to points of law except when rules to protect the environment are challenged

Increase barriers to public participation in resource consents

* Reduce the requirement on councils to consult the people affected by developments. This will mean fewer people will be consulted about proposals that affect them.

* Enable councils to strike out submissions that 'disclose no reasonable case' or are 'vexatious or frivolous', potentially enabling them to exclude submitters they don't like

* Make hearings more formal and legalistic with cross-examination leading to longer hearings and more use of lawyers, which will constrain the ability of people to present submissions.

* Reinstate security for costs at the Environment Court (rejected by Ministers at the meeting)

Other inappropriate proposals

* Privatisation of natural resources by requiring councils to give weight to existing investment when considering whether to renew a resource consent.

* Reducing public participation in the development of national policy statements

* Making economic national policy statements a more urgent priority than existing matters of national importance under the RMA

* Replace a Board of Inquiry for national policy statements with Ministerial advisors or a 'duty to consult'

* Prevent local councils from developing higher environmental standards than the 'bottom lines' developed by the Government. National Environmental Standards would set an upper limit to environmental standards adopted by local councils.


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