New law to bypass resource consents sets off alarm bells


Experts have concerns about the government’s plans to introduce a standalone Act which will allow major infrastructure projects to bypass lengthy resource consenting processes, whilst it works on a full replacement for the Resource Management Act

Cabinet has agreed that its new fast-track consenting regime will consist of:

  • A new fast-track process contained in a standalone Act, with its own purpose statement focused on economic development;
  • A priority for regionally and nationally significant infrastructure and development projects;
  • A process for projects to be referred by Ministers into the fast-track process if it meets appropriate criteria;
  • A list of projects that will be first to have their consents approved and conditions set by an Expert Panel;
  • A process where referred projects will go to an Expert Panel which will apply any necessary conditions to ensure adverse effects of the project to the environment are managed appropriately, and where the panel will have only a limited ability to decline a project once referred.
  • A “one-stop-shop” where other relevant permits are obtained in addition to resource consents.

RMA Reform Minister Chris Bishop says the regime will still protect the environment and uphold Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

“Consenting of major projects costs too much and takes too long – the Infrastructure Commission estimates that current consenting processes cost infrastructure projects a staggering $1.3 billion every year, and the time taken to get a resource consent for key projects has nearly doubled within a recent five-year period,” he says.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones is looking forward to faster resource approvals for major infrastructure projects and unlocking opportunities in industries such as aquaculture and mining in the regions.

University of Otago’s Marnie Prickett says these projects will undoubtedly make our biggest problems worse.

“Mining on conservation land, more extraction of coal, and further agricultural intensification through dams have been signalled, either in the coalition agreements or in comments by Ministers. All would have serious negative consequences for climate, water, and biodiversity.

“For public health, I am particularly concerned about the potential for more contamination of communities’ drinking water. Further agricultural intensification will put more pressure on waterways, and unhealthy waterways provide unhealthy raw water, which is not always treated for all contaminants and can incur significant treatment costs.

“After the disaster of Havelock North campylobacteriosis outbreak, the public inquiry into the contamination of the water supply made clear that protecting source water (the river, lake, aquifer a community draws their water from) is the first, and most significant, barrier against drinking water contamination and illness.”

“I can see the combination of this Fast-track Consents Bill and the Government’s proposal to replace the country’s freshwater policy means communities’ drinking water sources would be extremely vulnerable to further contamination.

“Through this Bill, the Government is intending to by-pass environmental law and local government planning. It is also seeking to cut communities and expertise out of the process of developing projects in the regions. Resource management law, local government planning, community and expert engagement are all intended to ensure we have rigorously considered development that fits the land, water, and community. These processes are not perfect, however, this Bill looks not to be seeking to improve these processes but to undermine them.”

Massey University’s Dr Caroline Miller shares similar concerns that the new law would take away local voice.

“The new government wants to cut through the red tape of the ‘overly restrictive RMA’, suggesting that the new consenting regime will have wider powers than present local government processes.

“Speeding up the process will almost certainly limit, probably through a tailored process, the opportunities for affected individuals and communities to make submissions. Inevitably, appeal rights from the new consenting authority’s decisions will be significantly reduced or done away with. Individuals and communities will find this difficult to accept given one of the central aspects of the RMA was to open up participation in planning processes,” Miller says.

“There may also be an attempt to return to the past by narrowing who can participate to those ‘affected greater than the public at large’ (the situation under pre-RMA planning legislation), thereby neatly excluding environmental and other groups, who are used to participating under the RMA.

“It may prove difficult to reverse RMA participation expectations given they have been in place for over 30 years. This may be all the more the case, given that the government has already signalled the new process will be used for large infrastructural projects, aquaculture, mining and any economic activity which will ‘supercharge New Zealand’s economic potential’. Inevitably these are projects with wide ranging and significant effects, the type of project individuals and communities expect to have their voices heard on. The fact that the government has already signalled it has a list of projects to which the new legislation will apply, will amplify community concerns.

“There will also be the issue of who will sit on this very powerful decision making body, dealing with an array of large projects. The Environment Court Judges and Commissioners may play a part, but this could lead to delays in processing the Court’s existing appeals. Commissioners accredited under the Making Good Decisions programme will probably provide other members, though again this will reduce the pool of commissioners to deal with existing local government hearing. Those Commissioners may have conflict of interest issues, recently highlighted in the Wellington city hearing on medium density housing provisions.

“So, while the new system will be dedicated to speedy procedures, they may provoke considerable community concern and generate their own administrative complexities.”

University of Auckland’s Martin Brook points out that New Zealand has had a terrible run with flooding and associated hazards.

“Now land development is to be fast-tracked by the new government.

“The Ministers may wish to consult with Insurance Council of New Zealand (ICNZ) and insurance companies like IAG and Tower as part of their new ‘standalone, fast-track Act’. Prior to considering land development, it’s fundamentally important that new homes are insurable, or prospective owners will not be able to secure a home loan to purchase the properties,” Brook says.

“Insurance ‘retreat’ is now real in New Zealand due to the high risk of exposure to natural hazards such as floods, landslides and coastal erosion (as well as earthquakes, liquefaction etc). Indeed, some areas of New Zealand are now effectively uninsurable. Some major insurers are not insuring in areas subject to natural hazards, as they are exposed to too much risk. Tower may now cancel an existing policy if the risk profile has changed.

“Also, in Tower’s new advertising campaign, they are encouraging homeowners that do not live in hazardous areas, to insure with Tower. The advertising voice-over states: ‘When you get a quick quote online [with Tower], it’s customised based on the flood and earthquake risk rating of your property, not someone else’s.’

“So, insurers are being competitive in less hazardous areas, and so other insurance companies will have to respond. This might be good news for many homeowners, as long as their insurance company stays in business. So, understand the geology and geomorphology (i.e. the lay of the land) first, and only then think about fast-tracking land development. Because, the insurance industry is already steps ahead of the government, it seems.”