12 Jul 2017

Govt accused of trying to bypass laws to speed up mining plans

11:39 am on 12 July 2017

The government has been working on plans which could allow them to override laws to push through controversial developments, such as coal mines and salmon farms.

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Documents from MBIE show they looked at developments such as mining on the West Coast (file photo). Photo: 123RF

Documents released to Forest & Bird show former Economic Development Minister and current Finance Minister Steven Joyce asked last year for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to look at what it called 'Special Economic Zones'.

The documents show Mr Joyce was interested in a model which would "enable faster and more certain delivery of significant regionally-led investments and developments".

The special economic zones would have what was called "regulatory benefits" focusing on planning and consenting, overseas investment approvals, access to Crown land, the Public Works Act and potentially immigration settings.

The work undertaken by MBIE looked at developments such as mining on the West Coast, specifically the Buller Plateau, and aquaculture in Southland - both controversial plans.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said it was another example of how far the government was willing to go in overriding good process to push through their favoured development projects.

Kevin Hague is the Chief Executive of Forest and Bird.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

"The government is seeking to give themselves the powers to push through controversial and damaging projects that would otherwise fail because they breach environmental limits."

A May 2016 MBIE briefing paper shows that in the development of the plans, a range of special powers and benefits for the zones would be considered, including options around regulatory processes and plan changes, consents, land acquisition including Crown land, among others.

It said regulatory issues would have to be grappled with "particularly the extent to which the special economic zone regime itself would need to override or modify other primary or subordinate legislation".

The documents, released under the Official Information Act, also note that then Minister of Finance and now Prime Minister Bill English had "taken a particular interest in the special economic zones work".

The documents reveal Mr Joyce was keen to introduce legislation in the second half of 2016, however, the Cabinet has since changed and Simon Bridges has now taken over as Economic Development Minister.

Another MBIE document from March this year provided Mr Bridges with an overview of the next steps for the zones.

Two models were looked at, one of which focused on "streamlining the regulatory environment ... so that regional investment could take place in as timely manner and certain way as possible".

This model looked at the country's main environment legislation, the Resource Management Act and the Overseas Investment Act, and the briefing paper said it was this model of "regulatory relief" that was of particular interest to Mr Joyce and Mr English in their previous roles.

MBIE recommended that no further work be undertaken of the special economic zone model, but said Local Government New Zealand still had a strong interest.

The paper said other options aimed at speeding up the consenting process for new mines were also being worked on, including what was referred to as a 'single window' approach to regulatory approvals for mines, which was being led by the West Coast Regional Council in conjunction with MBIE.

Mr Hague said it was not clear what has happened to the proposal.

"So we know that MBIE recommended against it, we know that Cabinet members were keen on it, we don't know what decision has been made.

"And I believe that New Zealanders deserve to know that either this proposal is now dead or for New Zealanders to have a say in it."

RNZ approached Mr Bridges' office yesterday to clarify what was happening with the development of the special economic zones. His office said it would respond with answers today.

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