7 Mar 2024

Government unveils plan to fast-track infrastructure projects

1:14 pm on 7 March 2024

The government's expanded fast-track consenting regime will set up an expert panel to give recommendations - but ministers will make the final decision.

Some projects will be included in the legislation - to be decided based on criteria set by ministers, during the select committee process - or developers can apply to the ministers of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Transport to have their project considered.

No projects have yet been decided on. Some included in the legislation would be ready for approval straightaway, with others required to be further assessed.

"I don't want to get ahead of the consideration by the expert panel on that," Bishop said. "I think it's really important we run a thorough and transparent process."

The expert panel would have six months at most to make their recommendations, with ministers able to require a shorter timeframe. Projects approved would be subject to conditions they must meet.

RMA Reform minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones announced the plan at Wellington's Basin Reserve on Thursday, alongside Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Transport Minister Simeon Brown.

Bishop said the "one-stop shop" system - based on the one set up under the last government to speed development during the Covid-19 response - would "cut through the thicket of red and green tape holding New Zealand back, make it clear to the world that we are open for business, and build a pipeline of projects around the country to grow the economy and improve our productivity".

"Our regime is far more extensive and it will be far more effective," he said.

Low-carbon stormwater pipe being installed 3.5 metres deep in central Auckland on 9 October 2023.

Photo: RNZ / Lucy Xia

Luxon said New Zealand had been held back by those tangles for far too long, and this was affecting the country's ability "to get its mojo back".

"I've got every confidence that actually we do need ministerial decision making to cut through and actually make it hard yes or a hard no, we're doing it or we're not doing it, but we can't live in the limboland that we've had of mush and indecision."

He said the timing for getting a resource consent in New Zealand had doubled in the past five years and the country had become "an obstruction economy". The fast-track system would leave an "incredible legacy" for getting the country moving again, he said.

"We know that people are stuck in traffic while the consenting process for a new road inches along even more slowly than they're able to drive.

"I'm not, and I know our government is not, prepared to let New Zealand remain stuck in the slow lane."

A separate Fast Track Advisory Group of independent experts would be set up while the legislation is progressed to decide which projects will be included in the bill, with ministers to set criteria projects must meet. The ministers said the criteria and advisory group would be set "in the coming weeks".

It will allow fast-tracking of more than just resource consents, with other categories including notices of requirement, alterations to designations, compliance certificates, marine consents and aquaculture decisions, land access arrangements, archaeological applications, Conservation Act and Reserves Act concessions, and Wildlife Act approvals.

Some areas would continue to be protected, such as reserves, land returned under Treaty settlements if there was no written agreement with the owner, other customary Māori land and fisheries, and projects in the open ocean prohibited by international law.

The bill has been approved by Cabinet and set to have its first reading under urgency on Thursday afternoon, before being referred to a select committee. The ministers said it would also include a "more efficient mechanism for Public Works Act 1981 processes".

The fast-track scheme was one of the final tasks on the government's 100-day plan, the deadline for which is Friday.

Cabinet ministers agreed last year the new fast-track regime would prioritise regionally and nationally significant projects such as roads, mining and aquaculture, and allow ministers to refer projects to be fast-tracked if they met certain criteria.

Housing Minister Chris Bishop told Morning Report it would still have environmental protections.

"This is about fast track, this is not about getting rid of environmental protections or environmental conditions, so all of the projects we are looking at will go through an expert panel to apply conditions around the environment and all of the other relevant permits."

It also enables projects that are inconsistent with the RMA national direction to be approved.

The ministers would have broad powers to reject projects for fast-tracking, including over environmental effects.

The expert panel would also examine how environmental effects could be managed, avoided or mitigated and would have the power to set the conditions for approval - but ministers would have the ability to send the project back to the panel if they felt the conditions were too burdensome.

The ministers will not be required to seek comment from the public or hold a hearing, although they - and the expert panel - must consult with relevant ministers, local authorities, and relevant Māori groups.

Only people with an interest in the decision greater than that of the general public would have the power to appeal the ministers' decisions on points of law at the High Court - as is the case currently - but Bishop said would not limit the right of judicial review.

Applicants would also be required to engage with local authorities and Māori groups ahead of time, providing evidence of how this informed the project.

The government said the bill included a clause requiring all people to exercise their functions "in a manner that is consistent with existing Treaty of Waitangi settlements and other arrangements".

The reality is all of our team consulted with iwi up and down the country ... who are actually saying 'we want to be involved in doing these projects, actually we want to participate in building some of this infrastructure".

"We're going to make sure that as the parties that respect property rights all Treaty obligations previously committed to will be maintained and honoured."

Jones said there were 50-odd references to the Treaty in legislation and in many cases "they've been put in there without any thought given or an understanding of the context"

"The notion, however, that we should plonk a generic, unknown Treaty clause in every piece of legislation is not something that we agreed to."

'Red tape is strangling innovation'

Mining industry group Straterra chief executive Josie Vidal told Morning Report the current system was broken, and nobody was trying to get around the rules.

"The system is broken and it needs to be fixed. Mining is part of unlocking our economic growth, doing something fast doesn't mean doing it badly, and there is absolutely no suggestion that any of these projects, in the mining side, will be at the expense of the environment."

Vidal said environmental checks and balances remained in place and mining clients would keep the companies in check.

"It's red tape which is strangling innovation in this country. We've gone from a can-do to a whole bunch of people sitting round saying why you can't do things. It's 2024, we've got science, technology, engineering, we can fix problems."

It was misleading to say the changes would harm the environment, she said.

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