National's plans for the RMA

What’s business’s biggest beef with the Government? High on most lists — including the Government’s business compliance cost committee’s — is the Resource Management Act (RMA). The National party aims to capitalise on it to win business votes.

To many in business the RMA has meant uncertainty, delays, court appeals and added costs. Some projects drown in a soup of bureaucracy and objections. Some would-be investors just give up.

The National party’s environment and conservation speaker, Nick Smith, instances the American forest products giant, Weyerhauser, which he says pulled the plug when faced with 86 objections to a timber processing plant for Nelson. So the trees that might have gone through Weyerhauser’s plant go out through Nelson port as logs.

The forest industry group of industry executive and officials from seven government agencies pulled together by Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton in January named the RMA as one of the three top constraints on getting added value from the “wall of wood” reaching maturity.

“People underestimate the degree to which the RMA constrains economic growth,” Dr Smith said in an interview.

He will take a team of National MPs to 32 regional public meetings, starting October 1 and timed to put pressure on candidates in that month’s triennial local council elections.

The Government tacitly acknowledged the risk to investment early this year when Mr Anderton and officials jawboned councils into running in parallel the six RMA consents needed for the Sovereign Yachts Hobsonville project and so drastically reduced the waiting time.

This sort of hands-on intervention for selected projects enables the Government to retain the strong environmental and heritage cast of the RMA — which it sees as an international economic competitive advantage — while capturing approved investors.

Dr Smith reckons ministers should not be involved, except in setting broad national policy and national standards. “Ministers should focus on getting the law right,” he said in an interview. “They should not play favourites. You can’t have different rules for different players.”

But he equally rejects the demands of some in business — and by Owen Jennings of ACT — for a ground-up rewrite of the law from first principles of property rights, with only a narrow range of measurable effects to be considered. Dr Smith declares himself “pragmatic” and says the RMA is much better than the Town and Country Planning Act it replaced because it focuses on the effect of activities instead of prescribing what may be done where.

Instead of completely new law, Dr Smith wants the present act to be made more business-friendly by introducing more clarity and certainty, national standards, less scope for objections and separation of decision-making on consents from policy making.

He says the RMA can paradoxically have environmentally detrimental effects. His three examples: a new landfill at Gisborne which would be less polluting than the present one is being held up by objectors. Auckland’s;lans to alleviate Auckland’s air-polluting transport woes are likely to years to work through the RMA process; a 1.2 MW power station , for which a consent was applied for in 1998 and which could right now be relieving the power shortage, is still held up.

Much of Dr Smith’s prescription — to be finalised at the National party’s three-day caucus retreat next week — was in an amending bill tabled in 1999 by Simon Upton, Environment Minister in the National-led government then in office.

This year a Labour-Alliance-Green dominated select committee stripped Mr Upton’s amendments from the bill and firmed up objectors’ rights, legal aid for objectors and heritage protection provisions. The Government’s alternative mechanism to improve administration of the RMA is to get councils to benchmark their procedures against best practice.

In fact, around 47,000 of the 50,000 consents a year are dealt with by council staff without public notification. The New Zealand Yachts project at Whangarei, also fast-tracked by ministers, did not require notification under the RMA.

Around 3000 go to hearings and about half of those go on to the Environment Court. Even so, there is a big backlog of court appeals, adding to delays.

Moreover, Dr Smith says, the Government’s amendments this year will allow appeals against non-notification. Peter Winder, Local Government New Zealand chief executive says councils are opposing this as “unnecesssary and completely contrary to the Government’s drive to reduce compliance costs”.

The Government has also blocked proposals to seek security for costs from objectors who are found to have been vexatious.

Dr Smith wants Mr Upton’s proposed amendments reinstated, though with some changes and additions. He wants:

* controversial projects permitted to go direct to the Environment Court, to save time and costs involved in two hearings when it is clear before the first hearing the matter will go to the court anyway;

* independent commissioners and not councils to hear consent applications (Dr Smith wants that in all cases that go to a hearing, though he has yet to get his colleagues’ agreement on that);

* consequently, councils to have a rule-making capacity only and no longer have scope to, in effect, set rules case by case, which adds to uncertainty — though Dr Smith acknowledges that councils might respond by making their rules more prescriptive;

* introduction of mediation for contested cases;

* councils required to accept or reject an application and not delay applications by repeated requests for more information;

* a new category of limited notification to provide a middle course between non-notification and a full hearing;

* removal of economic and social factors from the definition of “environment” to stop objections designed to block competition;

* removal of the capacity of the Historic Places Trust to act both as advocate and judge (by subsequently placing a heritage order on a property) in cases with a heritage dimension;

* a presumption that land may be subdivided unless barred instead of requiring all subdivisions to get consents;

* simplification of the process of developing national policy statements, to which council plans must conform; at present the procedure is more complicated and takes more time than passing a bill in Parliament, which Dr Smith says gets priorities wrong;

* more national standards, for example of air and water quality and dioxins, to establish more uniformity across the country;

* a ban on appeals against non-notification, a requirement that objectors establish standing (as under pre-RMA law) and restriction of appeals to objectors who were involved in the first hearing, with scope for applicants to recover costs and damages if vexatiously delayed;

* specification as to which iwi must be consulted in each area, to limit scope for multiple interventions; with an explicit requirement that councils must do the consultation, to stop a growing practice of what Dr Smith calls “backhanders” to iwi to get their consent quickly.

Dr Smith would also remove the present requirement for coastal consents to be decided by the Minister of Conservation. When he was the minister, he says, he approved all 106 which came to him. He contrasts this with present Conservation Minister Sandra Lee’s rejection of the Whitianga marina project.

The National regional campaign in October will aim to bring councillors, developers, environmentalists, farmers and lawyers face to face And Dr Smith intends to spice up the gatherings: “I have found shitty examples in 27 of the 32 regions.”