Covid-19: Too early to make RMA calls – councils

2:31 pm on 10 May 2020

Local authorities are eager to find out the impacts of central government changes to the Resource Management Act [RMA], but some scientists are wary of the plans.

Environment Minister David Parker speaks at Parliament about the government's plan to clean up rivers, lakes and wetlands.

Environment minister David Parker announced a proposed law change to fast-track projects under the RMA. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Environment minister David Parker announced a proposed law change earlier this week, which will fast-track eligible development and infrastructure projects under the RMA.

The RMA includes systems and processes for making decisions about things that could affect other people's enjoyment of their environment or the wider environment, including physical resources such as soil, air, water, and building.

Resource consent is formal approval from a local or regional authority to do something not included in that council's plan as either permitted or prohibited.

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Parker said roading, walking and cycling, rail, housing, sediment removal from silted rivers and estuaries, new wetland construction, flood management works, and projects to prevent landfill erosion would benefit.

"We are acting quickly to get the economy moving again and our people working," Parker said.

A shopping list of initiatives was raised by Wairarapa councils last month. These included work at Masterton's Hood Aerodrome, rail station upgrades, long-distance rolling stock, and water resilience, which could be ready to roll within a year.

Projects at other stages of the resources process, such as the drawn-out application for a wastewater plant in Featherston, and the resource consent for Henley Lake, may also see a change in how they are handled.

However, authorities said it was still too early to confirm processes, and what projects could qualify.

Greater Wellington Regional Council's Al Cross said the Parker's media release was all the information we currently had on potential changes to the RMA.

"Like other agencies, we await further details," said Cross, GWRC's general manager of environment.

"We don't know how the amended legislation will affect existing or future applications for resource consents, but we do understand its focus will be on 'shovel ready' infrastructure and environmental projects that will deliver jobs and economic benefits, so in effect the emphasis would be on larger projects that could be ready to implement far sooner under fast tracking provisions."

Cross said GWRC could not yet comment on the implications of the proposed changes on smaller consent applications or speculate on whether they would be covered under existing or amended rules.

"We'll have to wait and see how matters evolve," Masterton District Council's Andrea Jane said.

She said the government had highlighted a quicker consenting process being one of the outcomes of the proposal.

"There are no criteria available at this stage on what will be eligible to follow the fast-tracked consenting process so it is not possible to accurately assess effects on MDC activities."

Some environmental scientists raised caution about the legislation.

Danger of losing sight of risks

Caroline Miller is an associate professor of resource and environmental planning at Massey University.

Miller said in the rush to create new jobs from large-scale projects, there is a danger of "losing sight of the ever expanding consequences of climate change and environmental degradation".

She said she was also concerned that the proposed process is "underlain by the expectations that the expert panel is there to grant a consent".

"The public's input is clearly seen as vexatious or displaying NIMBYist tendencies in trying to delay worthy projects.

"The effective removal of these voices leaves the expert panel with the challenging role of not only assessing the impact of the proposal on the natural and physical environment but also determining community impact.

"Most submissions come from affected residents, residents who have to live with the changes brought about by the proposal.

"The environment, often a silent part of the consent system, will have to rely on the panel's experts to represent its concerns. The positive value of submissions in shaping better outcomes will be lost."

New legislation is expected to be passed in June.

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