Environment Minister David Parker

What will undoubtedly be the most controversial legislation Parliament will deal with this session, the Natural and Built Environments Bill and the Spatial Planning Bill, are due back in the House soon after a marathon examination by the Environment Select Committee.

Environment Minister David Parker appeared before the Committee yesterday to discuss his Ministry’s estimates.

And what was revealed was not just the huge volume of work that had gone into the Bills but also the substantial staff increase required at the Ministry for the Environment and the contracting of outside consultancies to get the work done.

But there are questions about whether the reforms, even after all the work that has gone into them, will do the job David Parker wants them to do.

Ironically, the Committee met on the same day that the free-market Think Tank, the New Zealand Initiative, produced a report showing that central government staff numbers had increased by 55 per cent since 2000.

The report’s author, Dr Bryce Wilkinson, said New Zealand’s public service had grown hugely under the current government.

The number of public servants on a full-time equivalent (FTE) basis, at 60,381 in June 2022, was 28% higher than in June 2017.

The economy-wide employment increase was 12%

Parliament’s Standing Orders meant neither Parker nor the Committee could discuss any changes the Committee might be recommending to the Bills, but it is clear there will be many.

However, what has been staggering about the process has been the sheer volume of paper that has gone through the Committee.

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The Bills themselves add up to nearly 1000 pages, and the Ministry produced a report on the submissions made to the Committee, which was also 1000 pages long.

Parker said some of the submissions had been “fantastic”, but the sheer number of them meant the Committee had a massive set of technical issues to work through.

“Because the Treasury released enough money to do this job properly, we’ve had an enormous team of people that are at the Ministry for the Environment working on it and, in addition to that, to get through some of the technical detail within the timeframe, they also contracted out to some consultants, some of the analysis of all of those submissions so that nothing was missed, which is why we were as a department able to bring forward a thousand-page departmental report covering off all of the technical issues as well as the high-level stuff,” he said.

But the workload has seen a substantial increase in the staff at the Ministry.

National MP Scott Simpson said the Committee was told in a confidential briefing paperback in March that the Ministry had 985.5 Fulltime Equivalent Employees (FTEs).

He asked how many the Ministry had now, three months later.

James Palmer, the Secretary for the Environment, told the Committee that “as of today”, there were 1061 FTEs.

He said the Ministry had approval to go to 1200 FTEs and therefore was still recruiting.

He said that about 15 per cent of the workforce (137) had been hired specifically to work on the resource management reforms and were on fixed-term contracts.

“And so those people have been employed on the basis that their employment is for a period of supporting the reform and that those roles would come out of the organization’s overall workforce at the completion of that work in the next year or two,” he said.

But Palmer seemed to suggest that he might need to shed even more staff.

“We’re still left with a significant workforce which may be challenging to sustain with the forward profile of funding,” he said.

Obviously, there has been a huge investment in terms of people resources in the whole resource management reform process.

A measure of that was given by Simpson, who said the Committee’s commentary on the Bill – which will explain its proposed amendments — is 200 pages long.

In comparison, the Finance and Expenditure Committee’s commentary on the Water Services Legislation Bill, which set up Three Waters, was 39 pages long.

But the question now will be whether all this effort could blow up in Parker’s face and destroy his hopes for bipartisan support for the legislation, as it looks likely that National will not support the bills in the House.

“There would be many of us sitting around this table who have delved into the detail of it (the two bills), and we’ve come up with a sense that what was hoped to be achieved isn’t actually going to be achieved and that the legislation is not going to result in the outcome that I think that you would have wanted and that there are remaining some still very serious flaws,” said Simpson.

“The legislation itself, the two bills, total about a thousand pages and the capacity for members of this Committee and, dare I say it, members of the public, lay people, to actually interpret and understand what is sought to be achieved is frankly very low.

“I just don’t think they can get their heads around it.”

Parker conceded that not all submissions to the Committee had supported the Bills.

But he said there was overwhelming support to go to only 15 regional planning committees, and that was probably the most fundamental change in the Bill.

He said there also seemed to be agreement that national direction was required, but it required some pro-development national direction that enabled infrastructure to be delivered at lower wasted process cost and lower waste of time costs.

And there was also agreement that we need to manage for outcomes rather than, as at present, effects.

“So those are sort of the high-level submissions, and I think there is societal agreement around them,” he said.

“It’s not unanimity, but I think there is societal agreement.”

Simpson has been a supporter for some years of resource management reform and has taken a very active interest in the process as it has unfolded.

However, he is clearly disappointed at the outcome.

“My concern is that we run the risk of not being able to achieve those high-level goals that you’ve just enunciated so clearly because those are generally laudable objectives,” he said.

“But when you get into the mire of the weeds of it, it’s really challenging.”

Simpson was particularly concerned about the language used in the legislation, which he said introduced a number of new legal concepts.

“When we have the Chief Justice no less come to the Select Committee and say this is going to keep lawyers busy for years, for decades, trying to interpret new terminology, new language, new words that simply haven’t been judicially tested before, and that those laudable goals that you’ve just talked about are going to get bogged down and mired and detail and appeal and basically the legal system I’m just really concerned about that,” he said.

Parker said he was grateful for the work the Select Committee had done in improving the language of the outcomes in the bills, which have been a particular focus of many submissions.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, actually proposed scrapping them altogether.

But Parker defended the new language and legal concepts.

“If you don’t have a clear change in language, you’re actually not going to get the clear shift from effects to outcomes in respect of legal principles that you can carry forward,” he said.

There is a body of opinion which has included the Environment Committee chair, Eugenie Sage,  which argues that the best thing to do would be to slow the whole legislative process on the Bills down and even let them be considered by the next parliament.

This whole process is too big to fail now.