New Zealand to fast-track major infrastructure projects as bill approved

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A bill to fast-track consenting regime for infrastructure projects in New Zealand has been approved by Cabinet.

The Fast Track Approvals Bill has been approved by Cabinet and will receive its first reading under urgency this afternoon, before being sent to the Environment Committee for public submissions.

Development of the Bill is part of the coalition agreement between National and NZ First and is a key component of the Government’s 100 Day Plan.

“Consenting major projects in New Zealand takes far too long and is far too expensive. A recent report by the Infrastructure Commission shows that the cost of consenting infrastructure projects has increased by 70 per cent since 2014, and the time it takes to get consent has increased by as much as 150 per cent over the same period,” says RMA Minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones.

“We are determined to cut through the thicket of red and green tape holding New Zealand back, make it clear to the world that we are open for business, and build a pipeline of projects around the country to grow the economy and improve our productivity,” says RMA Minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones.

“The Fast Track Approvals Bill is based on the previous RMA fast track regime developed by the previous government but is far more extensive in its scope and will be far more effective,” says RMA Minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones.

Projects will become eligible for fast track through one of two ways – either through a referral by the joint decision of the Ministers of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Transport upon an application, or by being listed as a project in Schedule 2A of the Bill. 

Once a project has been referred into the fast-track process, it will be considered by an expert panel which will apply relevant consent and permit conditions. Panels will have a maximum of six months to do so. The project will then be sent back to joint Ministers to either approve the project (with conditions) or decline the project. Ministers will also be able to refer a project back to a panel if they determine the conditions recommended are too onerous. 

Projects listed in Schedule 2A of the Bill will be automatically referred into the fast-track process, and the listing of a project in Schedule 2B of the Bill will be required to be taken into account by Ministers if and when a project comes before them for referral into fast-track.

The Bill does not currently contain any projects listed in either Schedule 2A or 2B. To ensure a thorough and transparent process, the Government will be establishing a Fast Track Advisory Group of independent experts to provide advice to Ministers on what projects should be included in the legislation.

In the coming weeks, Ministers will establish the group, publish the criteria, and applicants will be able to submit projects to the group for evaluation. Cabinet will decide on the exact mix of projects and the projects will be inserted into the schedules of the Bill through the select committee process.

“The one-stop shop nature of this new regime is overdue,” says RMA Minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones.

The new regime will allow the fast tracking of:

  • Resource consents, notices of requirement, alterations to designations and certificates of compliance under the Resource Management Act 1991
  • Marine consents under the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Environment Effects Act 2012
  • Section 61 land access arrangements under the Crown Minerals Act 1991
  • Applications for archaeological authority under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014
  • Concessions and other permissions under the Conservation Act 1987 and Reserves Act 1977
  • Approvals under the Wildlife Act 1953
  • Aquaculture decisions under the Fisheries Act 1996

The bill will also include a more efficient mechanism for Public Works Act 1981 processes.

New Zealand to improve the speed and process for resource approvals for major infrastructure projects

Expert Reaction to fast-track consenting regime

Dr Caroline Miller, Honorary Research Fellow, Massey University, comments:

“Ahead of the details of the new fast track consenting legislation, it is worth reflecting on the consequences of that accelerated process. The new government wants to cut through the red tape of the ‘overly restrictive RMA’, suggesting that the new consenting regime will have wider powers than present local government processes.

“Speeding up the process will almost certainly limit, probably through a tailored process, the opportunities for affected individuals and communities to make submissions. Inevitably, appeal rights from the new consenting authority’s decisions will be significantly reduced or done away with.

Individuals and communities will find this difficult to accept given one of the central aspects of the RMA was to open up participation in planning processes. There may also be an attempt to return to the past by narrowing who can participate to those ‘affected greater than the public at large’ (the situation under pre-RMA planning legislation), thereby neatly excluding environmental and other groups, who are used to participating under the RMA.

“It may prove difficult to reverse RMA participation expectations given they have been in place for over 30 years. This may be all the more the case, given that the government has already signalled the new process will be used for large infrastructural projects, aquaculture, mining and any economic activity which will ‘supercharge New Zealand’s economic potential’.

Inevitably these are projects with wide ranging and significant effects, the type of project individuals and communities expect to have their voices heard on. The fact that the government has already signalled it has a list of projects to which the new legislation will apply, will amplify community concerns.

“There will also be the issue of who will sit on this very powerful decision making body, dealing with an array of large projects. The Environment Court Judges and Commissioners may play a part, but this could lead to delays in processing the Court’s existing appeals.

Commissioners accredited under the Making Good Decisions programme will probably provide other members, though again this will reduce the pool of commissioners to deal with existing local government hearing. Those Commissioners may have conflict of interest issues, recently highlighted in the Wellington city hearing on medium density housing provisions.

“So, while the new system will be dedicated to speedy procedures, they may provoke considerable community concern and generate their own administrative complexities.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a Fellow (Retired) of the New Zealand Planning Institute and help with submissions in a general way.”

Professor John Tookey, School of Future Environments, AUT, comments:

“New Zealand’s need for infrastructure provision is a classic Kiwi paradox. On the one hand everyone accepts the need for new and expanded infrastructure. The country considers itself to be a developed economy. Therefore our demands and expectations are high and continue to rise. 

We know that we have under prioritised infrastructure in the past and we need to better in the future. On the other hand we like to consider ourselves to be an inclusive society. Instinctively we rail against State imposition of directives. We like to stand up for the ‘little guy’. 

We believe all voices should be heard. Indeed the Treaty of Waitangi itself enshrines in statute key principles of equality, redress, cooperation and consultation. Hence our internally conflicted position is very real.

“New infrastructure is both a lead and lag indicator. Lag in the sense that its provision usually follows an expanding population and development. Consider the peripheral communities on the outskirts of Auckland that are still to get decent roading schools or surgeries etc. Lead in the sense that new infrastructure provision attracts new residents to an area. 

The North Shore of Auckland was little more than orchards and paddocks prior to the bridge in 1959. Consequently infrastructure decisions in terms of scale and priority are inherently political, with huge social and societal impacts for the future. When measures are taken to increase the speed of delivery of potentially expensive and impactful infrastructure, nerves are struck and cages are rattled.

“While no-one expects to impinge on the ability of the government to govern, some realities need to be accepted. The government’s attempts to drive ‘progress’ will inevitably raise significant pushback. There will be an ongoing expectation of redress and challenge to the fast-track decisions that are made. The processes of consultation and cooperation are not going to go away overnight, irrespective of political aspiration.

“It’s not surprising that the new government have sought to spend political capital at this stage of their administration. It will be interesting to see if the expenditure is sufficient to overcome the inertia. Conversely, how compromised is future policy with such a wafer thin majority in parliament? We’ll have to wait for the longer term to find out whether this particular juice was worth the squeeze.”

No conflict of interest.

Source: Crown copyright

Source: Science Media Centre

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