4 May 2020

Greens raise concerns about planned law to fast-track resource consents

9:01 am on 4 May 2020

With consents for building projects set to be fast-tracked, some are worried it will put too much power in the hands of the ministers and block the voices of iwi and environmental protesters.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said her party objected to removing public consultation, even for a limited time. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

As a result one of Labour's governing partners, the Greens, will only commit support for the legislation's first reading, so they can hear the views of the public during the select committee process.

Cabinet has agreed to put a rocket under the consenting process to boost the economy as it enters a sharp downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new legislation, due to be passed in June, would take away the ability of the public and councils to have input into whether projects proceed and instead hand this power to a small panels of experts, chaired by an Environment Court judge.

Decisions would be issued within 25 working days and, while existing Treaty of Waitangi settlements would be upheld, appeal rights would be limited to points of law and judicial review.

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Environment Minister David Parker said some large-scale projects would automatically get a green light, and in those cases the panel's only role would be to set conditions.

A pandemic called for extraordinary measures, but Parker said even extraordinary times had an expiry date, so there would be a two year sunset clause.

"There will be people who would be very disturbed if we were going to forever take these decisions out of the hands of councils with rights of public participation and centralise everything and I personally think that would be going too far."

"The balance within democracy is changing democratically to reflect the challenges of the time," he told Morning Report.

He said the environment will still be a top priority under temporary changes to the Resource Management Act.

The panel chaired by a sitting or retired environment court judge brings the skills needed to apply the environmental test, he said.

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said her party objected to removing public consultation, even for a limited time.

"This is why I want to hear from the public, and iwi and hapū, with concerns to the select committee process ... we will be listening and taking on those concerns to get further improvements to this bill."

Labour, New Zealand First, National and ACT are all agreed on something - the RMA is not doing its job.

National's spokesperson for RMA reform, Judith Collins, said it was about time changes were made and her party would likely consider the changes "favourably" once it had a chance to see the details.

"It does seem to me to be a recognition the RMA is not fit for purpose for doing almost anything."

Road works, road repair. (file photo).

The government says the type of project that would benefit from quicker consenting includes roading, walking and cycling, rail and housing. Photo: 123rf

The government says while existing Treaty of Waitangi settlements will be upheld - appeal rights will be limited to points of law and judicial review.

Mike Smith from the National Iwi Chairs Forum is leading their work on the matter - he will be meeting with ministers about it later today.

He said they're glad to see environmental initiatives are now more front and centre and that land returned via treaty settlements will be protected from development.

These protections were not initially in the legislation.

"The devils in the detail," he said.

However he said the language needs to be changed to avoid a simple "pat on the head and lets move along type clause to get out of any real action".

"We're wondering how much the aspect of political expectancy has got to do this ."

The legislation risks poor decision making, Jen Miller of Forest and Bird told Morning Report.

There is a lack of clarity and communication about what the legislation will mean for the environment, she said.

She isn't confident that the decision-making process will factor in a large project's long term environmental effects.

Under the RMA there's been ongoing destruction of the environment, she said.

"Climate disruption will cause huge impacts on people and our environment.

"In our view, projects need to provide help genuinely provide opportunities for recovery for people and the planet."

ACT leader David Seymour was happy for what he called "professional protesters" to be removed from the equation.

"In a lot of cases the ability of people who have nothing to do with the project ... to object and obstruct for the sake of it - good riddance if that's gone."

But Seymour said there should be greater cost benefit analysis to make sure money was not just being thrown at anything, in these very tight times.

"If we put public funds into projects that return lower value benefits than what they cost, we're actually going to make ourselves poorer in the name of an economic recovery."

Collins said under the current law, small businesses and developers stood no chance.

That begged the question, she said, that if government could not get things through without legislation "what chance does any small developer or home owner have? The answer is not much".

Collins has been extending an olive branch to the government for some time to work on RMA reform and Parker said National would get to see the draft legislation in the next few weeks - before it went to the House.

A wider review of the RMA is already under way but no legislative changes were planned before the September election.

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