Resource Management and Electricity Legislation Amendment Bill - First Reading Speech

  • David Benson-Pope

Mr Speaker, I move that the Resource Management and Electricity Legislation Amendment Bill be now read a first time.

I will move in due course that this Bill be referred to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee.

This Bill amends the Resource Management Act 1991 to improve the quality of decisions and processes while not compromising environmental outcomes or sacrificing public participation.

The key objectives are to increase certainty, reduce delays and costs, and ensure consistency of processes. The Bill also proposes two amendments to the Electricity Act 1992.

This Bill is the result of a process characterised by a close working relationship between central and local government. The development of the Bill is also the culmination of extensive consultation undertaken throughout the last 18 months.

We've rejected the calls of a few extreme voices that wanted to see the Act ripped apart for the sake of unfettered development. Quite frankly, that's not sensible, it's not necessary, nor is it even what the business community asked us for.

As Michael Barnett, CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce noted after surveying 350 of its members, and I quote: "the issue with the RMA is not so much the contents of the Act preventing developments proceeding, but how it is administered by local authorities."

That's because the Act is firstly about protecting the environment for future generations – something that should remain its over-riding consideration. Development at any cost is no answer at all.

We have identified a series of issues and have come up with timely, sensible and well thought out solutions.

Legislative changes are just one part of a package of measures reflecting a stronger leadership role for central government in implementing and supporting the Resource Management Act.

It addresses problems at all levels of decision-making. The focus is on local democracy at the plan level where the community sets the rules, while making decisions at the consent level more robust and quasi-judicial.

Local authorities and the Environment Court are to be given extra powers to run efficient inquiry style hearings.

I am in no doubt the Bill will achieve its aim. Indeed, I was heartened by the words of Buller District Council planning and regulatory services manager Terry Archer when we announced the reform package who simply exclaimed: "Where the hell were these things in 1991 when they introduced the Resource Management Act, it would have made it so much easier."

Local authorities are increasingly being asked to consider projects that raise issues of national significance in a policy environment that provides little guidance on how competing national benefits and local costs should be weighed.

For the first time we will have a range of mechanisms for managing national and local interests.

This Bill strengthens the expression of national interest by reinforcing the role of national policy statements and national environmental standards.

There will be a ‘menu’ of flexible options for central government involvement: including funding of an independent coordinator; direction for joint council hearings; and changes to the call-in process.

District and regional plans are varied and in some cases inexplicably inconsistent. This Bill provides for national standards to be set ‘absolutely’ throughout the country.

This will reduce duplication and costs associated with producing similar standards, will increase certainty for landowners and developers when dealing with local authorities, and will reduce unnecessary compliance and regulatory costs.

As Jan Crawford, a planner with some 30 years experience, and an academic with Waikato University's International Global Change Institute, which studies the RMA, noted, these changes were "long overdue".

She described the greater use of national policy statements and environmental standards as, and I quote: "filling the hole in the doughnut, the vacuum at the centre of the RMA."

This Bill will improve local authority decision making on resource consents. Consultation requirements are clarified – the role of local authorities is simply to notify affected persons, and to encourage applicants to consult rather than to consult themselves.

These improvements include training to support mandatory accreditation of hearing body members, targeted one-on-one assistance to local authorities in need of support, and national guidance through the delivery and sharing of good practice between resource management practitioners.

Pre-hearings are encouraged, and the role of consent authorities as inquisitorial bodies is clarified. Consent authorities will have enhanced powers to direct the hearing process.

Local Government New Zealand president Basil Morrison described these proposals as "a major step in the right direction". I quote:

"As a country we need sustainable management of our physical and natural resources but we also need to protect our economic growth and prosperity by investing in new developments. This is the challenge constantly faced by local government, one which the Government has acknowledged with these changes."

Of course action has already been taken to reduce delays at the Environment Court. Delays with appeals to the Environment Court have been more than halved since 2001. An extra $1.2m per year has seen an increase in the number of judges, commissioners and administrative support.

Yet length and cost of the appeals process continues to be a concern for some resource consent applicants. Current appeals to the Environment Court often duplicate the processes at the consent authority hearing and allow for new issues and evidence to be raised on appeal.

The Court will move away from a full hearing to a focused rehearing approach that concentrates only on the matters in contention.

The process for making plans has also been criticised as cumbersome – after 12 years, some district plans have not yet been approved and others remain overly complex. This Bill improves local policy and plan making.

Streamlined plan making processes will enable plans to become operative quicker, reduce compliance costs and lengthy protracted debates. District and regional plans will now have to ‘give effect’ to regional policy statements. Regional councils will have a more strategic role.

The Bill improves the quality of engagement with iwi authorities, focused on the plan and policy preparation process.

The Government will provide information to councils on the iwi authorities in each area or rohe.

In terms of resource consents, iwi will have the same opportunities as any other person affected by an activity to participate.

The Bill also amends the Electricity Act 1992. The amendments to sections 24 and 31 of the Electricity Act will clarify that the environmental effects of high voltage works in the road corridor are best managed using processes under the Resource Management Act.

Mr Speaker, we are committed to protecting and preserving the unique aspects of New Zealand's natural environment. That means striking the right balance between our desire for a clean, healthy environment and our expectations for growth and opportunity

This Bill provides for changes to the Resource Management Act (and two changes to the Electricity Act 1992). This package of improvements is about providing practical solutions and improved processes to make the law work better.

By providing leadership and partnership with the community, business and local government we will get better environmental results.

Mr Speaker, I commend this Bill to the House.