In what has to be seen as a big win for the Maori Party, iwi have gained substantial new powers to have a say in the granting of resource consents and to monitor those consents once they are issued.

The powers come in changes made to the Resource Legislation Ammendment Bill which yesterday finally emerged from the Local Government and Environment Select Committee where it has been the behind-the-scenes subject of a power play between the Government and the Maori Party.

Ironically the report came on the same day as a High Court decision which shows how controversial Maori involvement in planning consents can become.

The  decision, though it rejected an appeal by Auckland’s Independent Maori Statutory Board against decisions over significant and cultural sites in the Unitary Plan, underlines how pervasive iwi considerations have already become in planning and consenting in Auckland.

That situation will now be the norm for all local authorities in New Zealand because the  Resource Legislation Amendment Bill has the potential to dramatically change the way plans are drawn up and consents granted.

And the Bill now goes further, allowing iwi a role in monitoring compliance with consents once they have been granted.

It is an open secret around the Committee, that National agreed to modify the Bill as part of its relationship with the Maori Party which the Prime Minister, Bill English, consistently nominates as one of his preferred coalition partners after the next election.

The Bill reported back yesterday has changed what were originally proposed as Iwi Participation Agreements to a new more powerful agreement between iwi and a local authority called a “Mana Whakahono a Rohe”.

The Committee’s report says “ We consider that elements of Mana Whakahono a Rohe arrangements improve upon the proposed iwi participation arrangements because they are initiated by iwi, and have a broader scope that includes consenting and monitoring.”

The most potentially influential of the roles for the new bodies will be that they can be included as an affected party on any consent application.

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The new proposal gives more power to Maori, but the original proposal for  Iwi Participation Agreements  was attacked even from within National.

Judith Collins said the agreements were “highly debatable” when she made her run for Leader last December.

“”I think iwi have a right, as does anyone else, but I think this country needs to think very carefully about the economic results of being able to say that one particular group can stop anything,” she said.

The potential problems that such agreements can cause were evident in a High Court decision yesterday declining an appeal by Auckland’s Independent Maori Statutory Board against a decision of the Auckland Council to limit the number of significant and cultural sites that people seeking consents would be obliged to consult iwi over.

At one stage there were 9000 sites under consideration though that number was eventually reduced to around 2000. (It was the process of reduction that was the subject of the Appeal)

The Unitary Plan proposed that resource consent should be required for earthworks within 50 metres of a scheduled site of value (with some exceptions). 

 A cultural impact assessment would be required as part of any resource consent application.

One lawyer, representing a group vehemently opposed to the Maori sites claimed that already some 18,000 property owners had been suddenly obliged to pay up to 13 iwi for cultural impact assessments for what could be very minor works on their own properties.

Wellington lawyer and former ACT MP, Stephen Franks, who acted for some groups which opposed the Unitary Plan’s policy told POLITIK that he worries that the provisions open the way for corruption.

He points to cases he has been involved in where clients have been asked for six-figure sums by iwi representatives for a cultural impact report.

He says that he voted against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill because he believed it threatened Maori property rights, but he said he opposed the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill for the same reason — that the proposals giving iwi a role in the consenting process threatened property owners’ property rights.

But the Government has little choice because both David Seymour and Peter Dunne oppose the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, has been forced to rely on the Maori Party to get the votes to get the Bill through Parliament.

Smith has confirmed that the Maori Party support for the Bill came after the Government strengthened the original  Iwi Participation clauses.

“The Mana Whakahono ā Rohe/Iwi Participation Agreement provides a better framework for councils to meet their existing obligations to consult with local iwi,” he said.

“The Government supports these provisions because we want iwi involved in how natural resources are managed and because formalising the process will help achieve better outcomes with less delays and costs.

“This is a huge bill, and the Maori Party was not a member of the select committee.

“They need time to digest all of the select committee’s detailed changes to ensure they are consistent with their agreement with the Government.

“I will be meeting with the Maori Party co-leaders on ensuring we have got the detail right.”

National have long promised changes to the Resource Management Act — and they get those with more streamlined planning processes and a greater use of National Planning Standards and Policy Statements which can over ride local planning procedures.

But the Mana a Whakahono agreements are the price they are paying.

However, the changes also fit with a more consciously pro-Maori Party position which National has adopted since Bill English assumed the leadership.

English says that the relationship with the Maori Party is based on respect.

“We are working with the iwi leadership in its various forms and the Maori Party and what we’ve found is that, in my view, the partnership is mutual respect,” he told POLITIK last week.

“It’s a relationship of respect not agreement, and a good understanding of what their aspirations area. 

“And all of those aspirations are great for New Zealand because they are about Maori doing better and the increasing willingness to take on the work and investment of making it better.”

The moves announced in the legislation yesterday take the partnership concept one step further because rather than it being between the Government in Wellington and iwi leadership it will now be a partnership between local iwi,  and local councils right across the country.

That will be much more challenging – as Auckland has shown.