Bold RMA changes look good unless there's devil in the detail
The government has presented a bold package of wide-ranging reforms in this first phase of its total reform package. While some of my favoured reforms are not included I can always hope they will be included in stage two.
Some praise or criticism will have to withheld until we see the actual Bill as tabled in the house.
Many have been concerned that these reforms would focus on making processing quicker and more effective for large infrastructure projects only. The Overview suggests this is definitely not the case, and provided Councils and their advisors take the intentions of these reforms to heart, everyone should benefit from these proposals.
For me, a litmus test has been the proposal to make non-notification the default position.
The measures include:
· Removing the current presumption in favour of notification of resource consent applications (most applications are not notified now) and amending the criteria for when public notification is required on projects with more than minor effects on the wider environment.
We hope that the last lines mean that the effects beyond the immediately affected parties must be significant before they can trigger notification. At present all the immediately affected parties can give their written approval but the reporting officer can recommend notification because of mysterious effects on the wider community. It has always been difficult to see how effects beyond the immediate area can be more severe than those which failed to upset the immediate neighbours. Usually, such decisions reflect the prejudices of the planner rather than genuine identifiable effects.
Reintroducing “standing” and “security for costs” is an obvious first step to reducing frivolous and vexatious objections and presumably applies to objections to Mr and Mrs Smith's granny flat as well as to the next hydro dam.
The moves against objections from trade competitors should work, especially if reinforced by a few of the proposed punitive damages awards.
However, it is not clear if the proposed reforms will prevent Councils writing anti-trade competition policies into their own plans. For example, Wellington City Council has a proposed plan change openly intended to protect the CBD “golden mile” from competition from suburban centres. If Councils can continue down this path then the 'supermarket wars' will continue.
The Environmental Protection Agency will succeed in improving the process only if it maintains a solid scientific culture; one which promotes rigorous research and has no political agenda. Consequently, a better name would be The Environmental Standards Authority.
The changes in plan and policy preparation are bold and will hopefully produce the desired results. However, the proposal to limit appeals on policy statements to questions of law means that something like an air quality standard, or a standard on agricultural chemicals, cannot be challenged on the question of the scientific knowledge, or the quality of the surveys, even if the science has demonstrably moved on, and the surveys were demonstrably biased or poorly sampled.
The Minister of Conservations’ special powers of veto shall not be missed and the Ministry’s hyper-activity in objecting to plans and applications should be similarly curtailed. Why should the Minister of Conservation have special powers over the Coastline?
If fines are going to be raised, this increases the attraction of litigation as a source of Council Revenue – and it will be seized on. Surely, these fines should go into Treasury coffers for distribution.
There are few surprises in the proposed streamlining of consents for projects of national signficance, except for the decision to have such hearings before a Board of Enquiry rather than the Environment Court.
If major projects are referred directly to the Environment Court or Board of Enquiry dealing with the numerous submitters who are normally filtered through the Council Hearings will be a problem – if they are all to be heard and to be subject to cross examination then no time will be saved. This will need careful management.
I would also like to see the idea of turning the Environment Court into a Board of Enquiry for all decision making explored during the Select Committee process. There is much to commend it.
The total package probably deserves a B+, but could be an A or a C- depending on the precise wording of the Bill.
We must wait and see.