16 Dec 2015

Call to limit public appeals on council plans

8:38 pm on 16 December 2015

Limiting the ability of people to appeal council policy decisions could improve reforms to the Resource Management Act (RMA), according to Local Government New Zealand.

Birds eye view of Palmerston North housing.

Local Government New Zealand says public appeal decisions should be looked at. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

But the government said it was not looking at radical reform in that area.

The RMA, one of the country's significant laws, seeks to manage the environment and economic development.

This month, the government finally won enough support to go ahead with its long-planned changes to the law.

Local Government New Zealand has commissioned a report that looks at the reforms under way at the moment and what more could be done.

President Lawrence Yule said one example would be to look at whether people should be able to appeal policy decisions by councils.

"We elect people, in a local government sense, to make policy decisions. There is actually still an appeal process in that policy decision process and the tension is, should there be?

"Because ultimately that's what these people have been asked to do, they've been voted in to make policy decisions in consultation with their community."

Mr Yule said people could still appeal decisions made through resource consent or re-zoning processes.

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Environment Minister Nick Smith: "The government is not in the headspace at the moment for radical reform in that area." Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Labour environment spokesperson David Parker said any move to take away appeal rights for district and regional plans would need to be very carefully thought about.

He said there had been examples in New Zealand in recent decades where councils had had terrible plans.

"Most notable was probably in the Queenstown Lakes District, when one of their mayors stripped out all of the environmental protections around sub-divisions and, as a consequence, they had sub-divisions appearing high on the hills around Queenstown in a way that ruined their landscape.

"That was only fixed because of appeal rights to the Environment Court, so I'm not someone who thinks that you should take away appeal rights."

Green Party environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage said having the Environment Court consider appeals on plans added value, and it had improved a number of plans.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said the Environment Court had an important ongoing role to play.

"Councils and the local government sector more generally do get a bit grumpy when they have the Environment Court overruling their planning and value judgements that they've made relevant to their community.

"That is a discussion about, where does the Environment Court have a proper role in ensuring integrity in our environmental law, and where are they creeping into the space of elected representatives in making policy?"

But he said that was a complex discussion.

"The government is not in the headspace at the moment for radical reform in that area. There is some refinement in the current bill before Parliament, but again it's one of those areas where we're happy for the discussion to take place."

The Resource Legislation Amendment Bill will now be considered by Parliament's Local Government and Environment Committee.

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