15 May 2024

Hazard-prone development likely under fast-track law, insurers and engineers warn

7:56 am on 15 May 2024
Flooding in Wairoa after the river burst its banks due to heavy rain from Cyclone Gabrielle.

Flooding in Wairoa, Hawke's Bay, after Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023. Photo: Wairoa District Council's Emergency Controller

Proposed fast-track laws could perpetuate inappropriate developments in natural hazard zones that put people and property in harm's way, insurers, local authorities and river engineers have warned.

The Insurance Council is among submitters warning that the Fast-track Approvals Bill does not currently do enough to prevent housing and infrastructure from being developed on land vulnerable to climate change risks.

A Hawke's Bay local government committee, still reeling from the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle, said the bill would undermine their coastal hazard planning and allow the types of risky developments that councils are desperate to stop.

The fast-track law would sit over a range of existing acts and regulations and would mean an application would only need to go through one process for approval, instead of several consents under the existing system.

Owners of projects with "significant regional or national benefits" could apply to the three responsible ministers for access to the process. The project would then go to an expert panel, which would vet the application and make a recommendation, which ministers could either accept or decline.

Insurers have been among the loudest voices warning of New Zealand's growing exposure to flooding, coastal erosion, and other climate change-related risks.

Along with local councils, they have called for changes to the country's planning laws and a robust national system for adapting to climate change and relocating communities at the highest risk.

In its written submission to the Environment select committee, which is holding hearings this week, the Insurance Council said it was "paramount that the Bill does not inadvertently provide a pathway for projects which expose communities to excessive financial and physical risk of natural hazards".

"Allowing development in higher risk areas will result in, at best, costly and potentially uneconomic protection measures needing to be put in place or, at worst, interruption, emergency response costs and eventual managed retreat and/or claims for compensation which government (and ultimately rate and tax payers) have to meet," the Council said.

It recommended strengthening parts of the Bill that refer to natural hazards, including requiring more detail on how a project could be affected by such risks, and allowing government ministers to decline a fast-track application, even if it met other eligibility criteria, if the exposure to current or future risk was too high.

"We've seen evidence over decades of planning decisions being made where, if they hadn't been made, some communities could be more resilient to the types of events we're expecting," council chief executive Kris Faafoi told RNZ.

"So it's making sure that natural hazards information and decision-making is baked into these processes so we can prevent this harm from happening."

The Council specifically supported the establishment of a fast-track pathway for projects that would support adaptation, resilience, and recovery from natural hazards.

Labour Minister Kris Faafoi has announced he is leaving politics

Insurance Council chief executive Kris Faafoi says natural hazards provisions in the Fast-track Approvals Bill must be strengthened. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Rivers Group - made up of 400 engineers, scientists, hydrologists and other river specialists - said it strongly opposed the Bill in its current form.

While the group saw "some benefit" in streamlining the consenting process, it was "very concerned" by what it called the Bill's 'singular focus' on getting projects delivered.

"We consider it highly likely that this focus will result in increased development in locations at high risk of flooding, resulting in future loss of life and economic impact when these areas flood."

There was very little provision for the expert panel to reject a project because of negative social or environmental reasons, the group wrote.

The portfolios of the three reponsible ministers - transport, infrastructure and regional development - doubled down on that.

"They are likely to prioritise development without thorough consideration of natural hazards or potential adverse impacts to the environment."

Rivers Group chair Richard Measures said New Zealand already had a legacy of poor planning decisions.

"Our concern ... is that it's creating another pathway that bypasses some of the existing checks and balances," he said.

"Developers will find a way to use any loophole to get developments approved, and it seems that the Fast-track Bill provides a lot of opportunities to permit development in at-risk locations."

The Bill merely paid "lip service" to the effects of climate change, Measures said. "It doesn't really prioritise that."

Forest and Bird freshwater advocate Tom Kay said he also feared that hard engineering solutions to climate change could also be fast-tracked, over more appropriate but less traditional adaptive solutions.

He pointed to a proposal to ring-fence Westport with flood walls: "That's the kind of project that's a massive risk through this process. We're essentially turning Westport into this massive bathtub."

The Clifton to Tangoio Coastal Hazards Strategy Joint Committee, made up of councillors and mana whenua representatives from across Hawke's Bay, said the Bill had the potential to help speed up climate adaptation work on the Hawke's Bay coast.

However, the challenges the committee was grappling with were because of past decisions to enable development in areas exposed to hazards, its chair Jerf van Beek wrote.

"Without proper safeguards, the Bill could compound those challenges."

The select committee will reconvene on Wednesday to continue hearings, which were expected to take six weeks.

It planned to hear from all 550 groups that submitted on the Bill, together with 550 individuals, selected from thousands of submitters who asked to appear before the committee.

There were 27,000 submissions made on the Bill in total.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs