The Select Committee hearing submissions on the fast-track consenting legislation is starting to become a beat-up of regional councils.

The inflexibility and slow workings of the Councils were prominent in two submissions yesterday.

One, from the Coromandel Marine Farmers Association, simply said that the Waikato Regional Council’s planning decisions were likely to mean their industry would become extinct.

Another, from the Wood Processors and Manufacturers Association, said one of their members had recently taken 13 years at a cost of $2 million to get consent “due to the drawn-out regional council process.”

Submissions like those reflect the widespread frustration, particularly within the business community, about how Councils have applied the Resource Management Act.

However, there are different views about how far the Fast Track Bill should go.

Federated Farmers told the Environment Committee that while they supported the Bill’s objective, they believed property rights must be protected.

“There is no provision in (the Bill) for protection of the rights of private landowners either through this Bill or through the provisions of the Public Works Act 1981,” their submission said.

So, the Feds proposed that activities could only occur on private land if they had been agreed to in writing by the landowner or the land had been acquired under the provisions of the PWA.

The Feds’ principal policy advisor Natasha Berkettsaid there was also a need for broader agreement within a community.

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“These types of projects don’t occur in isolation; they occur in communities,” she said.

“And, if people feel that land has been taken in an inappropriate way or a process has not occurred in an appropriate way, then there can be a lot of discord around that project.

“And that leads to this loss of social license and lack of support for the project as well.

“I think people in communities are closely related; they’re neighbours and friends, and we all like to see a fair process.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Select Committee has already heard two diametrically different views on how the Coromandel should develop.

The peninsula has long been ground zero for environmental battles over mining and other developments, and the Coromandel Lobby Against Indiscriminate Mining was entirely predictable in its views.

The latest casus belli on the peninsula is a proposal for Oceana Gold to develop a major new underground gold mine under conservation land at Wharekirauponga north of Waihi, which is also, unfortunately, the habitat of the critically endangered Archey’s Frog.

The company needs to access the mine over a paper road, which is the frog’s habitat.

It has been estimated that if the mining company is eventually given the green light

, $1.8 billion worth of gold could be recovered.

Resources Minister Shane Jones, the main architect of the Fast Track Bill, has already dismissed the frog, saying, “If there is a mining opportunity and it’s impeded by a blind frog, goodbye, Freddie.”

Predictably, the chairperson of Lobby against Indiscriminate Mining, Pamela Grealey, is opposed to the Bill (and in favour of the frog).

“I think it’s probably the kindest thing we can say about all of this is that we’re absolutely appalled that this decision is in the hands of Shane Jones,” she said.

“He’s already said he doesn’t care.

“It’s profit before people. It’s short-term—really negative, with small amounts of gain from a financial perspective.

“So, we certainly know that with Waihi, which is just an absolute blight and has brought nothing to the town, all of the money stays with the central government.

“And it’s a tiny percentage of the amount that the Oceana gold makes.

“It’s something like 3 to 4% of all the money they make actually comes back to New Zealand and that goes to central government.”

From the other wise of the debate, the Coromandel Marine Farmers presented a complex argument which boiled down to them being critically affected by climate change and the warming of the oceans but prevented by the Waikato Regional Council from shifting their farms.

“We create a lot of value out of mostly sunshine and seawater, with little import, inputs and we create a large amount of exports, about $100 million a year of essentially mussels and oysters and employ many hundreds of people in the Coromandel and more in the adjacent regions,” said Tom Hollings, the Association Executive officer.

“But currently, we have a serious problem.

“The small muscles we need to grow into big ones have been dying badly in the last couple of years.

“In short, the environments changed because we are still the same people, and we know what we’re doing, but our techniques aren’t working well.

“It’s some sort of environmental change.

“It might simply be the warmer temperatures, and it may be less nutritious. It may be the La Nina easterly; it may be that and more, but it’s a survival problem, and it’s acute.”

Hollings said the answer was new and different methods of marine farming.

But the Waikato Regional Council had declared aquaculture a prohibited activity in the Coromandel which meant no new farms could be established.

“So, I think some of our members will already be lodging applications under this Bill. We give it our full support,” he said.

Jake Bartrom, a Coromandel mussel farmer, said the Waikato Regional Council was updating its coastal policy standard.

But it was taking an awful long time to do it.

“Our industry would still be in favour of fast track because the regional councils need to update their coastal policies every ten years, but it’s taken Waikato, so far, 24 years to update their plan,” he said.

“And on a comparative level with other councils, it will still take them ten further years to update their original regional coastal policy statement.

“That’s just too slow for our industry to adapt.

“So, for that reason, for the reason that it takes our regional councils so long to update and adapt the plans, we are in favour of the fast track consenting to ask the central government if we can apply and have permission to go mussel farming.”

The marine farmers weren’t the only ones having problems with Councils.

Mark Ross, CEO of the Wood Processors and Manufacturers Association, said his members wanted a more efficient consenting process that didn’t rely on regional council decision-making, as this was problematic for his members.

“For example, a recent consent took 13 years and cost one of our companies $2 million for little change due to the drawn-out regional council process,” he said.

As a consequence, he wasn’t confident that the independent panels set to advise the Minister on whether a consenting application should be approved would be much better.

The legislation provides that the expert panel would include a representative of local authorities.

“The knowledge and skills of that representative needs to be defined in the legislation,” he said.

“What we are saying is that for the local authority representative, the expertise required is not defined in the act, as we can see it.

“And we would a definition put in there that the local authority reps had certain skills and were competent to actually be on the panel.”

Alan MacDonald, the Head of Advocacy and Strategy for the Employers and Manufacturers Association, has represented the Association on the consortium involving the Environmental Defence Society, the Property Council and Infrastructure New Zealand, which began work on reforming the RMA eight years ago.

He said he supported the Fast Track legislation but wanted a sunset clause in it.

“The fact that both this government and the previous government have required fast-track legislation to do things is indicative of the fact that we actually need a good new environmental consenting process,” he said.

“And that’s something that we need to agree on cross-party and very quickly.

“It’s not ideal to have government ministers making these decisions.

“We’ve had them in the past, and they’ve been challenged all the way to the High Court and beyond, where they have been gotten wrong on both sides of the House.

“So it’s not an ideal thing.

“Any fast-track legislation should lapse as soon as possible after the creation, which should be written into the new legislation, which also just highlights the need to get this right.

“We do think that the panel and both the ministerial side and the advisory panel could do with a bit more balance, perhaps including the Minister of Environmental Conservation and also in the advisory panels.”

There is a clear signal coming out of this Committee that the existing planning process is too drawn out and too slow — and because of that, the regional Councils have a got to answer for.