Environment Minister David Parker speaking to the InfrastructureNZ conference

Environment Minister David Parker had no sooner left the InfrastructureNZ conference yesterday after explaining his Resource Management reforms than a conference panel started to unpick his proposals.

The panellists outlined a wide range of concerns about his Natural and Built Environments Bill and Spatial Planning Bill.

Perhaps the most forceful critique came from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, who said he could not understand why two Bills were needed.

“So far, nobody has managed to explain to me why we need two Bills,” he said.

“I think this can all be done in a single statute rather than saying, oh, they must be consistent with one another.”

There are two significant new over-riding features of the legislative package that Parker is presenting to Parliament.

One is a much firmer Ministerial hold on setting overall national resource management standards through a proposed National Planning Framework, and the other is the spatial planning requirement.

Regional planning committees would prepare these in each of the 15 regions.

Parker told the conference that they would be a signal where development would occur.

They would enable the protection of infrastructure corridors. They would be development signals flowing into the plans created under the other Bill, the Natural and Built Environments Bill, which is really a re-written Resource Management Act.

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“This will give local and central government and private sector infrastructure providers greater certainty for where they should be planning or where they should be investing,” said Parker.

“It will set out a vision for the region for the next 30 years, focusing on the big issues and opportunities.

“Essentially, it will be a giant plan or map with a few words, but it’s not going to be like a fully formed resource management plan.”

But in setting out the areas where development, particularly housing development, might occur, the spatial plans will offer an early warning of other services needed to develop the housing.

“You can see that they might say that this is the areas here that in future this should be released for development, and by the way, if we do that, we’re going to need some trunk corridor in the form of roads and rail and hospital and police station,” he said.

“We should be planning for those.”

POLITIK The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, speaking at the InfrastructureNZ conference

But Upton wondered whether they might not be too comprehensive.

He said spatial planning made sense if councils were talking about key elements of infrastructure and how they all lined up.

“I’m not convinced these plans need to extend to every corner of what are, in some cases, vast possible areas

“I’m from the Waikato.

“We have future proof that looks at the core Hamilton Metro and the wider area. That’s where you need spatial planning, so this will help. 

“But it doesn’t need to extend all the way to Mt Ruapehu, to Awakino, but that is what this is about.

 “We’re going to have spatial planning over every square centimetre of the motu, so there we are.”

But Upton offered a more sceptical view of how much environmental protection planning law could actually achieve.

“Can the new resource management system get Aotearoa where it needs to be in 2050,” he said.

“The short answer is no.

“That would be to ask too much of planning statutes.

“Obviously, it can be a part of the answer, but where we will be will depend on those various choices we make about how we want to live and how we want to consume.”

Upton said that in a democracy, we did not all agree on where we needed to be.

 “That  is why I’m reluctant to conclude that planning law can be anything other than the scaffolding on which a debate is conducted.”

 Upton was Environment Minister in 1991 when the original Resource Management Act was passed.

He said it had a single environmental outcome which, “depending on your viewpoint”, it more or less failed to achieve.

He elaborated on this in a September speech at the Resource Management Law Association conference.

The RMA’s focus on environmental externalities was, in effect, a single outcome,” he said.

“Having a whole list of them will not make life any easier.”

And so yesterday, he continued that theme.

“The proposed new legislation proposes multiple outcomes whose achievement will be in the eye of the beholder because the legislation very sensibly recognizes that these outcomes are in conflict with one another and that someone will have to resolve them, that someone is ultimately the Minister with the National Planning Framework,” he said.

Upton had hit on one of the most controversial aspects of the new legislation. A National Planning Framework will override and guide all local plans.

It is not a new idea.

Under the Resource Management Act, the Environment Minister has been able to promulgate National Policy standards that “trump” local plans.

There are currently six, covering freshwater, highly productive land, renewable electricity generation, electricity transmissions, urban development and coastal policy. One is currently being developed on indigenous biodiversity.

They will form the core of the National Planning Framework.

“The National Planning Framework is with existing national direction as the primary way that central government can influence outcomes on the resource management system,” Parker told the conference.

“The first ones are being worked on as we speak, and that involves migrating all of the current stuff across substantively unchanged, plus new directions relating to natural hazards and climate change. And also a new chapter on infrastructure, as well as an interpretive chapter step to assist councils and decision makers to negotiate their way between conflicting priorities where they rub up against each other.”

Generally, the idea of a strong national planning framework got a good reception at the conference because it offered the possibility of ending the confusion that over 100 separate local plans currently causes among people requiring consents in several jurisdictions for similar projects.

POLITIK Porirua City Council Planning and Environment Manager, Stewart McKenzie

“I think an integrated national planning framework that seeks to resolve the tensions between the various policy statements is necessary. I think regionalized and integrated district and regional plans are helpful, and I think a move to outcomes-based planning is also useful,” said Stewart McKenzie, Porirua City Council Manager, City Planning and Environment.

“These are all helpful moves and will help get us to where we want to be in 2050.”

But McKenzie was concerned about how the National Planning Framework might work in practice.

“I certainly support bringing together the national policy statements and using this opportunity to resolve as many tensions as possible,” he said.

“In fact, I’m more interested in the national planning framework than the act itself because it will do the heavy policy lifting around all those things that we hold dear.

“But I’m actually not that hopeful that the tensions will be resolved.

“We have this issue of topic-based policy statements like for renewable energy and transmission essentially versus attribute environment policy things like fresh water.

“I don’t see how we can trade off renewable energy generation against things like  Te Mana o te Wai so I can still see that resulting in gnarly consenting processes.”

There was also criticism that Parker’s legislation lacked ambition.

Bell Gully partner and leader of its environment and planning practice, Natasha Garvan, said vast parts of the Natural and Built Environments Bill looked like a cut and paste of the RMA rather than being an integrated, holistic new system.

“I think it could have been more transformative in terms of addressing some of the current environmental challenges we’ve got, as well as emerging issues,” she said.

But in terms of where it might take us to in 2050, that would largely depend on the government of the day and how the systems were implemented. 

She was concerned about the amount of power that the Minister and the government of the day would have.

“So if I just look at in terms of the government of the day and the new system, there’s a lot of ministerial control so, for example, the minister makes decisions around the National Planning Framework; the minister also makes decisions around whether there’s going to be exemptions to environmental limits, and the minister makes decisions on whether project will proceed through the fast track consenting process that we’ve heard about,” she said.

“And I just query whether the system should be weighted so heavily to Ministerial decisions and what will ultimately be political decisions and whether the success of the system should rest on that.’

The questions about the legislation at the conference were subtly different to the political debate that is taking place over it.

Speaking during the First Reading of the Natural and Built Environments Bill yesterday, National’s RMA spokesperson, Scott Simpson, who has taken a close interest in the six-year evolution of the new legislation said “The question and the test that we will apply to this reform package is: will it make it easier to get things done?

“I am sceptical, upon first glance, at this fairly significant piece of legislation.”

There had been hopes during the last Parliament that the legislation would receive bipartisan support for its first reading at least, but those were dashed yesterday when National voted against it. 

That leaves National potentially offside with the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association and InfrastructureNZ, who have endorsed the legislation in principle, albeit they will propose amendments once it goes to the Select Committee.

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