26 Nov 2015

Maori Party MPs to back RMA bill

8:28 pm on 26 November 2015

A compromise on new resource management legislation is necessary for the government to progress a significant overhaul of the current law, the Environment Minister says.

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Environment Minister Nick Smith announces the bill at Parliament today. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The Maori Party has agreed to back proposed changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA) through to the select committee stage, finally giving the government the numbers to progress long-awaited legislative changes.

Afterwards, the party said it would continue to work with the government in good faith.

The government had introduced the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill to Parliament, which Environment Minister Nick Smith said would better support business growth and housing development.

"There are dozens of provisions in this large bill around getting process improvements.

"For instance, the RMA is working in the old world of everything being in paper where tons of paper is transferred around the place. We're allowing documents to be served by email, for instance key pieces of evidence being able to be available by website."

He has had to back down on the initial proposal to make significant changes to sections six and seven of the RMA, as it is written now, which provide environmental bottom lines.

In the last Parliament, the government failed to get enough support to pass the proposed bill because of objections from allies the Maori Party and United Future.

It had to once again defer the bill when the National Party lost a seat in the Northland by-election in March this year.

Dr Smith said there would be minor changes to section six and seven relating to managing significant risks from natural hazards, which had arisen from the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission.

He said it was also an important provision for dealing with the challenge posed by sea level rise from climate change.

The bill was a compromise, Dr Smith acknowledged.

"And they [the Maori Party] felt very strongly about the provisions that National had proposed in section six and seven.

"There were eight changes that were in the proposals that were put up in 2013 that were not in the bill as a consequence of their advocacy."

'Ensuring early involvement of iwi'

The other conditions of the Maori Party's support included changing "the tone" of those two sections relating to the balance of growing the economy and protecting the environment, Dr Smith said.

"The issue the Maori Party has felt most strongly about is ensuring early involvement of iwi in the development of plans."

Part of that, he said, were iwi participation plans.

"They require that, when councils start the planning process, they are required to sit down with iwi and come to an agreement about the way in which they'll be able to be included.

"I actually think there are advantages for all New Zealanders in these changes, because one of the big frustrations for many of the iwi I have spoken to is they get inundated with thousands and thousands of minor resource consents that just hold the process of which they have little interest.

"On the other hand the issues of real importance to iwi end up getting lost in the process."

The Maori Party said iwi were not looking to introduce more barriers to development or planning, but wanted to be involved from the outset to avoid problems later down the track.

The party's co-leader Marama Fox gave the example of the Whaitua project in the Wairarapa.

"The Ruamahanga River has suffered... so iwi were consulted after the fact, and then that consultation was ignored about the use of the water and the local council's decisions about the use of that water. They now have come at great length to an agreement to clean up that river with regional council.

"But if they'd been included in the planning at the beginning we could have avoided the level of deterioration in that river right now, and the involvement of the iwi at the beginning could have ensured a better planning process going forward."

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said iwi wanted to be involved in project planning from the outset. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

She said the legislation would also encourage the development of papakāinga housing.

"This will complement the reform of Te Ture Whenua Māori Act, which promotes the use of Māori land including for housing initiatives."

Proposed changes to planning and consents

The bill contains changes to several other acts and includes provisions to speed up local council planning and consent processes.

Dr Smith said the bill addressed the significant problems with what he described as the "cumbersome planning processes" of the RMA.

"Standard planning templates will be introduced so we don't have every council reinventing the wheel and having dozens of different ways of measuring the height of a building.

"Plan-making, which currently take six years, will be sped up and made more flexible.

"A new collaborative planning process will encourage different interests to work with councils on finding solutions to local resource problems."

It simplified the consenting process, he said.

"It narrows the parties that must be consulted to those directly affected - meaning a homeowner extending a deck only has to consult the affected neighbour.

"Councils will have discretion to not require resource consent for minor issues."

A new 10-day fast-track consent would be available for simple issues and councils would have to have fixed fees for standard consents.

Fencing equipment on an organic farm in the Manawatu.

Dr Smith said the changes would allow national regulations requiring stock to be fenced out of rivers and lakes. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

There were also environmental management provisions, Dr Smith said - including allowing national regulations requiring stock to be fenced out of rivers and lakes, and strengthening the requirements for managing natural hazards such as earthquakes and sea level rise from climate change.

Opposition: 'We will be watching'

The Labour Party said the bill must not be used as a chance to tinker with the current RMA's role of protecting the environment.

Its environmental spokesperson Megan Woods said her party would have to have a careful look at the 200-page bill.

"We will be watching to make sure there is a decent chance for people to have their say through the select committee stage over what will clearly be a complex piece of legislation.

"The RMA is New Zealand's core environmental protection and those protections must remain. That is our bottom line.

"Our offer to work together on sensible reforms is still on the table. This offer stands."

She said Labour would be concerned if there were any changes to Environment Court appeals or anything that undermines case law around the environment.

"We will be looking to see if the bill elevates private property rights above wider community interests," she said.

Labour MP Megan Woods during caucas run April 2015.

Labour MP Megan Woods during a caucas run in April 2015. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The Green Party said the bill appeared to be a boon for seabed miners and property developers.

"The more than 200 proposed changes in the bill need to be carefully scrutinised to ensure New Zealand's natural environment and sustainable urban development are not compromised for short-term financial gains.

"The bill appears to significantly increase the minister's powers at the expense of local councils and to further politicise environmental decision making by having the minister, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency, appoint hearing panels for developments in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone," it said.

The bill is expected to have its first reading in Parliament next Thursday.