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Economic Recovery From Covid 19 Through Development Of Infrastructure

Currently New Zealand is in the early stages of an economic crisis due to the advent of the Coronavirus and its effects through the level 4 Emergency lockdown provisions and others.

The current coalition government is proposing taking direct action to support the economic recovery from the effects of the lockdown by using infrastructure development in what they are calling “shovel ready projects” to stimulate the national economy.

This is in effect a brilliant strategy “Yeah Right”.

Anybody that truly believes this strategy will give the desired results must be totally divorced from the actual reality of New Zealand’s development constrictions with the most influential one being the Resource Management Act.

Unless these “shovel ready projects” are already consented under the RMA then the likelihood of them starting anytime within the next twelve to twenty four months is probably less likely than winning Lotto’s Powerball prize.

I personally don’t understand what the government means when they talk of “shovel ready projects”. Any project that is “shovel ready” would have to be fully consented under the RMA to reach this stage.

No developer is going to reach this stage in a development project and the consequent level of expenditure without already having in place all of the required consents.

The strategy itself is great but the reality under the RMA is that unless these projects are already consented then they will not happen fast enough to have any significant effect on the economic recovery from the lockdown due to the time taken to negotiate the requirements of the RMA.

Of course there is always the possibility that the Government could use its powers to bypass or shorten the timeframes by changing the requirements of the RMA to actually make it possible to start these “shovel ready projects” almost immediately.

That is probably a reasonable action to take as I am sure that the original drafters of the RMA never wanted the requirements to be a road block in this type of economic recovery situation.

Unfortunately the interpretations and resultant changes that have occurred since the RMA was enacted twenty nine years ago have resulted in a piece of legislation that is absolutely brilliant at extending timeframes and holding up development in the name of environmental protection.

In my opinion this situation is the ultimate Litmus Test of how well the RMA works.

If the government is able to use these “shovel ready projects” to kick start the economy after the lockdown without having to alter any of the requirements of the RMA then that is confirmation of how good this legislation is.

But if as I suspect the government has to change the legislation or pass special enabling legislation to allow these projects to start, as was done in the case of the earthquake recovery in the South Island recently, this in my opinion is confirmation that the RMA is not fit for purpose in its current format.

It is a serious impediment to development and consequently to the economic recovery from the lockdown and Covid 19.

The Resource Management Act (RMA) has been in place since 1991. It is not at all clear whether NZ benefits from or can afford the levels of local government (within both District & Regional Councils) that have evolved around the RMA processes over the last 27 years. It is quite possible that NZ would be better off without Regional Councils or at least a scaling back of Resource Consent functions to that of enforcing centrally determined standards.

The ever rising costs of compliance with both planning rules and the RMA are seriously impeding the economic development of New Zealand. They are also having a serious detrimental effect on housing affordability for all New Zealanders.

The current levels of compliance costs which are non-productive are not sustainable.

The present structure of local government is not delivering cost effective decision making that allows for the sustainable management of the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being.

The problem is that for years those elected to Councils have had either a very limited idea of their responsibility to the whole community or taken a very narrow vested interest view.

Council officers are often little better, either seeing theirs as ‘jobs for life’ or confusing their role of providing balanced professional advice with that of the elected representatives, and effectively becoming internal advocates for their own position without providing balanced professional alternatives.

If communities are to reach their potential then councils should be incentivised to improve their performances. The funding and financing framework for local government must incentivise good performance, and enable local authorities to deliver quality amenities and services that reflect the preferences and aspirations of their communities.

There are pressing environmental issues that must be addressed nationally and the best interests of New Zealand going forward require a change now.

There is an urgent need for local government to address both infrastructure provision and renewal in a structured and strategic manner.

The objective of change is to develop a local government structure that is one easily understood, level of local government based on territorial units that clearly define and limit the functions to be performed by local government and simplify the resource management planning hierarchy.

Benefits of Change:

Reform of local government should result in a single tier of local government with clearly defined functions that are transparent and easily understood and with accountability for service delivery.

Local democracy is strengthened, and arguably enhanced, because the territorial authorities would control the functions currently performed by the regional councils.

There would be major simplification of the resource management planning hierarchy with only one planning document for a region which will dramatically reduce planning costs by simplifying and streamlining the consultation and submission process.

Residents, ratepayers, business, central government agencies, Iwi and lobby groups will only need to have input into one consolidated planning framework.

This will enable key matters such as the delivery of the infrastructure requirements of local government to be addressed in a structured and strategic manner in line with common national standards.

The change suggested in this document is, addressing the present structure of local government by reducing councils to a single tier with Environmental Standards being set nationally with compliance undertaken at a local body level.

There should be a nationally-accountable Environmental Protection Agency working directly with territorial authorities, which could offer a more promising configuration for effective, efficient and equitable use of the financial and technical resource available for territorial planning and resource management.

The time is now right to move to environmental policy being directed at the national level with the local government responsible for monitoring and compliance.

All of the present functions of regional councils should be allocated to the appropriate District Councils on the following basis:

RMA Compliance:

(i) Planning

There would be only one planning document for each region. Each region would have five years to put a new consolidated planning framework into place. Once the plan is in place there would be a mandatory requirement to review the plan on a ten-year cycle.

RMA compliance costs have been rapidly escalating and the present planning cycles at both the regional and district councils have created consultation and submission fatigue.

Given the cost implications around the submission process for plans, they have become the domain of mainly lawyers and planning experts with the average ratepayer unable to either fund representation on their own behalf or to allocate the time to do so.

A move to a consolidated planning framework should potentially streamline the planning process.

(ii) Consent /Environmental Monitoring & Enforcement

The monitoring; enforcement and reporting back of environmental compliance to the Environmental Enforcement Agency would be tasked to the individual councils but the cost of environmental/consent monitoring must be borne by the consent holder.

Water resources:

There should be a requirement for the individual councils to put in place a ten-year strategic plan for the water requirements (stormwater, waste water and potable water) of the region.

The whole approach to local government reorganisation to date has been flawed with an emphasis on one model – the unitary council approach. That assumed that councils themselves would recognise the need for change and embrace it.

The reality is that any perceived threat to local democracy has been strongly resisted. It has been easy for the inherent power base of the present system to fend off change.

One of the often-stated drivers underpinning amalgamation was the perception that a larger unit of local government would achieve efficiency gains in terms of the delivery of services.

Efficiency gains have yet to be proved. International research on local government efficiencies casts significant doubt on this matter.

In fact there are serious doubts around the benefits of the largest forced amalgamation (Auckland City and its surrounding districts into the super city). With all indications to date pointing to an increase in bureaucracy, staff numbers, rates bills etc. with no actual benefit to the ratepayers of the new Auckland Super City.


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