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Government hid list of potential projects

5 October 2004 - Wellington

Government hid list of potential 'fast track' projects

Roads, prisons, coal mines and hydro dams could all be fast-tracked under proposed Resource Management Act reforms according to a draft Cabinet paper the Government denied existed.

Forest and Bird today released a list of 39 "Possible candidates for Non Local Decision Making" under the Government's proposed fast track process for major projects. The list was part of a June 24 draft Cabinet Paper on the RMA reform prepared by the Ministry for the Environment.

It includes such projects as:

* Trustpower's controversial proposed hydroelectric scheme for the Wairau River in Marlborough * Coal field development totaling over 100 million tonnes of coal * Proposed Fonterra 250 megawatt coal fired power plant * 650 bed prison in the Eastern Bay of Plenty * Auckland's Eastern Corridor * Wood processing plants

"The list of projects is revealing in that it includes private commercial projects such as a possible 250 MW thermal coal boiler plant for Fonterra in Whareroa, South Taranaki, and a possible Carter Holt Harvey wood processing facility in Whangarei," Mr Hackwell said.

"It also includes large scale but local projects such as the proposed Eastern Bay of Plenty prison, the proposed Trustpower hydro plant on the Wairau in Marlborough and the proposed Eastern Corridor in Auckland," he said.

"We accept that some major public infrastructure projects like the National Grid upgrades which cross many local body boundaries could be legitimate candidates for some kind of centralized call-in procedure. But not the kind of fast track procedure proposed by the Government."

Forest and Bird sought the list of projects from the Government through an Official Information Act request. In his response, RMA Minister David Benson-Pope refused to provide the list stating:

I am advised that no specific lists of major projects "suitable for the non-local decision-making process" has been prepared as part of the RMA review process. My office therefore holds no such list.

This was further clarified by an e-mail from one of the staff at Mr Benson-Pope's office that stated:

As we responded to you on the 15th of September, neither the Minister nor the Ministry for the Environment holds a list of projects suitable for non-local decision making.

"We were astonished to get this reply because we had good reason to believe the list of projects existed. Now that we have got the list, its clear that the Minister has been very poorly advised by officials. In spite of his denials, the list exists. We have got it," Mr Hackwell said.

"I was around at the time of Muldoon's Think Big and its like we are going through it all again. At the time we not only had to campaign against ill-advised changes to planning law and over-blown and expensive projects, but we had to campaign for open government as well," he said.


Relevant documentation available on request

The list of major projects which are possible candidates for the new "Non Local Decision Making" [fast-track] proposals in the RMA reforms is from a draft Cabinet paper, dated 24 June 2004, under the Ministry for the Environment letterhead. The paper reports that the package has "been shaped by the Minister and Associate Minister for the Environment on the basis of advice of officials and chief executives".

"Non Local Decision Making" for major projects is a new process which is aimed at giving major projects a fast track through the RMA which takes the local stage of seeking resource consents out of the process, thus making it harder for affected local citizens or local public interest groups to have an input. It also then restricts their appeal rights to purely points of law. Projects could also qualify for special Government assistance. So some of the key checks and balances within the present RMA are being proposed for watering down and this list gives an indication of the sort of projects which officials had in mind as they were drafting the changes.

Forest and Bird requested a copy of the list under the Official Information Act when we first became aware its existence in early August. The office of the Associate Minister for the Environment did not respond to the request for an entire month and only responded when Forest and Bird reminded them of the request. The Minister's Office then refused the request on the basis that no such list existed.

Forest and Bird then checked its sources and was assured that the document existed so we pursued the matter with the Minister's office providing even more specific information about the title of the list. On 29 September, we received an email from the Minister's office stating that "...neither the Minister, nor the Ministry for the Environment holds a list of projects suitable for non local decision making". Following this denial of the lists existence, Forest and Bird obtained a copy of the draft Cabinet paper, and made further representations to the Minister's office for them to formally release it.

They have refused to do so.


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