Local Government NZ chair, Stuart Crosby

The Prime Minister yesterday put out a number of political fires by deferring or cancelling a series of Ardern Government initiatives.

But while he was doing that, a new blaze was starting in a Select Committee as submitter after submitter came along to attack the Resource Management Act  (RMA) replacement, the Natural and Built Environments Bill (NABE).

Most ominous was the submission from local government, which claimed the legislation would fundamentally change the relationship that local communities have with those that make decisions. 

Once again the Government will be reminded that “all politics is local.”

The NABE objections are an echo of the criticism of the opponents of the Three Waters reforms and their supposed loss of local control, which Prime Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday said the Local Government Minister, Kieran McAnulty, would now have another look at.

“And that will mean seeking further feedback from local government and from Maori,” he said.   

Under the RMA, there are over 70 planning documents drawn up by regional and territorial councils.

That number will shrink to 15 under the proposed legislation, and the plans will be drawn up not by directly elected representatives but by people appointed by Councils and local iwi to Regional Planning Committees.

The 2020 review of the Resource Management Act headed by Judge Tony Randerson found that the number of planning authorities and the overlap between many of them was “extremely complex”, and there was a lack of clarity about their roles and responsibilities, and many institutions had insufficient capacity and capability to fulfil the roles expected of them.

The proposal to reduce the number of plans was welcomed at the Select Committee by Infrastructure New Zealand, the infrastructure industry lobby group.

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The organisation’s policy director, Michelle McCormick, said there had been significant costs for national infrastructure bodies having to submit on 70 plus plans.

“We see this as supporting more efficiency in streamlining and being able to have conversations at a much more appropriate regional level,” she said.

That efficiency argument is also fundamental to the Three Waters proposal to reduce the number of water entities in New Zealand to four.

The Communities 4 Democracy says on its web page: “We believe in the rights of our local communities to make decisions about their own services. We don’t want to hand over the control of how we service our communities to remote and unaccountable water companies.”

The same sentiment was evident at the Select Committee on the NABE Bill.

“Quite simply, the regional representative groups will be relatively independent of the local councils who will then have to implement something that potentially they might not actually agree with,” said Stuart Crosby, the chair of Local Government New Zealand.

Complicating the argument is the Review of the Future of Local Government which is currently being undertaken by the Government.

The draft report of the Review published last October pointed to changes in local government structures, in part necessitated by the There Waters and resource management reforms.

“At the moment, the structure of local government will not support the changes we need,” it said.

“There are current capacity and capability challenges which will be exacerbated as the current Resource Management and Three Waters reforms continue. “

Selwyn District Council Mayor, Sam Broughton, told the Committee that the NABE reforms did not match up with the Review’s proposals.

“The bigger picture here for us is that this reform doesn’t match in line and well with the future for local government discussion,” he said.

“We’re going to end up with another set of boundaries set up for communities to try and understand and get their heads around.

“It’s another whole set of relationships that needs to be formed between government agencies and local government and communities.

“The reform also fundamentally changes the relationship that local communities have with those that make decisions.

“And moves the decision-makers one more step removed from local communities and the accountability that elected members currently have in this space.”

Broughton said Councils were worried that local communities were going to have significantly less influence over what their unique places looked like.

“The case for change has been made, but we don’t think there’s been enough discussion about what these changes might mean, and they are significant,” he said.

“So we would like to see things slowed down to make sure that we get it right.

“We do want to make sure that this is done and done well.

“We agree with the objectives.”

He said public understanding and awareness of the proposals needed raising.

“One of the key losses is a local voice into decision-making. I would say there’s probably our biggest concern.”

Federated Framers told the Committee the whole reform package needed another look.

Its RMA spokesperson, Mark Hooper, said the  reform package outlined was not demonstrably an improvement on the current RMA, “and in fact, it’s likely worse.”

“Despite the rhetoric of better, faster, cheaper, it’s really hard to see how this will be the case,” he said.

“All the same frameworks are still in place.

“It still has all the aspects of the environment bundled together, and it still has the environment court setting over everything.

“Resource consents will still be needed for the same farming activities.”

And Hooper had concerns about the new role for Councils.

“We worry that the proposed reform could mean the end of district councils in New Zealand,” he said.

“The reform package shifts all town planning away from city and district councils to new regional entities, and this is occurring at the same time that city and district councils are also losing responsibility for three waters.

“Taken together, these two reforms severely undermine the long-term viability of city and district councils.

“And this has been done without clear evidence base that amalgamation will lead to better outcomes.

“A broader debate is needed on the role of local government before local government is dismantled in a piecemeal fashion.”

But while National’s Environment spokesperson, Scott Simpson, supported Federated Farmers’ concerns about the Council’s loss of clout in the planning process, his colleague, the party’s RMA spokesperson, Chris Bishop, took an opposite view.

“People often say local democracy is of critical importance, and I think we all agree on that to some extent,” he said.

“But what if the effect of local decision-making is to stymie legitimate development that the wider community has an interest in, such as housing growth in a particular area or the development of industry that provides jobs and growth for the whole country?

“So I guess my question is where does local democracy stop and the legitimate interest of the national interest kick in?”

Hooper replied, saying it was about leadership.

“Yes, there can be problems, but is the solution to shift it to national or regional planning, will that give us better outcomes? I think that’s yet to be demonstrated to us,” he said.

Together Federated Farmers and Local Government New Zealand are a formidable lobby; the question now is whether the Government will add the NABE legislation to yesterday’s list of proposals to be reviewed or deferred.