Yet another RMA amendment coming

This week another Resource Management bill is due to reach the House, promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. But yet another is in the mill — aimed at taking a tinge off business’s sourness about the act.

This third bill will underline the growing concern in the cabinet that some of its policy settings may be discouraging business investment, particularly by large foreign companies which can, and do, put their money elsewhere.

This concern led to Michael Cullen’s infrastructure group of ministers being set up early this year to develop strategies for roads, water and electricity.

Now there is a fourth item on the group’s agenda: the Resource Management Act.

Business’s concerns about the act are many and varied. Among them: inconsistency of decisions between one council and the next, long delays and multilayered hearings, cost, the requirement to consult and the need to pay Maori organisations for that consultation, vexatious or specious objections.

Also high on the list is the fact that decisions are initially made locally on major projects that may be in the national interest. Major roading projects needed immediately may take up to eight years to get through the consent process.

RMA concerns generated a third of the recommendations by then Commerce Minister Paul Swain’s private sector group on business compliance costs headed by businessman Al Dunn in 2001.

Barry Carbon, an Australian bureaucrat, was hired in July last year for a two-year stint as chief executive of the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) to restructure the ministry and focus it on solutions instead of identifying environmental problems.

That included making MfE and the Resource Management Act (RMA) more attentive to business needs. In MfE’s new statement of intent Carbon has set an objective of ” eliminating arrangements that present purposeless barriers to development”.

So Carbon has been talking to business and to councils. He has a team in MfE dedicated to the RMA. His findings are now starting to reach cabinet level. The intention is to get a bill into Parliament in the next few months.

One aim is to give councils stronger guidance. When the original act was drafted it was thought national policy statements by ministers would do that and the bill just passed has simplified that process. But few have been promulgated — a forthcoming exception will be one on biodiversity in July — and in any case they are not mandatory.

Another procedure, under which the Minister for the Environment “calls in” a decision, has been used only once. It is regarded as ineffectual because few proposals ever meet the requirements. The government has rejected calls for more use of the procedure.

So the focus has shifted to laying down national environmental standards which will provide parameters within which councils will make decisions. These will apply to such matters as drinking water quality, septic tanks (runoff from which is a problem for aquaculture) and noise. A package of such standards is being prepared.

Proposed criteria for national standards are that they add value, are cost-effective, deal with something that can be objectively measured and are achievable. There is no point in setting a standard which costs more than it delivers in benefits or which covers something that cannot measured to see whether it is meeting the standard or which cannot be delivered on.

Consistency across councils is the intention. This dovetails with attempts by Local Government New Zealand, councils’ umbrella body, to get councils voluntarily to apply uniform criteria and processes. MfE also measures council performance and publishes the results to shame poor performers into improvements.

Consistency is one bother. Localness is another.

At the heart of the RMA is a conflict between the national and local interests. Local issues and local politics can stall or delay a project and discourage the investor — even if there is a strong national economic or infrastructural case for the projects. No one knows how many potential developments stop before the consent stage because of local bureaucrats’ or politicians’ antipathy.

National’s Environment Minister Simon Upton proposed in his ill-fated bill of 1999 to allow promoters of major projects to go straight to the Environment Court, bypassing local decision-makers. That was taken out when his bill was gutted by the select committee, headed by the Greens’ Jeanette Fitzsimons, in the 1999-2002 term.

The problem with Upton’s proposal, as Labour ministers see it, is not just the finessing of local democracy, which Labour and the Greens have long championed — as one insider puts it, “you have to have local values taken into account”. Embedded in Green and Labour folklore is the National Development Act of the Muldoon era which overrode planning law to drive the Clyde Dam through as part of the ill-judged “think big” heavy industry programme.

Nor is the problem just that the Environment Court, now at last making headway clearing the backlog of cases after enlargement in 2001, might become clogged up with cases. Removal to the court could be by leave of the court, under conditions which limited that to important cases.

The issue the government focuses on is the potential loss of useful local knowledge to the consent process if a local hearing is bypassed.

So the challenge in the forthcoming bill will be to develop a process which reconciles national interests with local sensitivities and reduces delays.

Another dimension will be to get projects of national importance, which may cover up to four councils, dealt with as one application instead of separately.

The legislation already allows one council to delegate consent powers to another. MfE is examining methods of sharing information and consolidating resource consent functions. As part of that, it is examining the establishment of centres of excellence to evaluate consent processing.

A range of other matters raised by the compliance costs panel is being worked through. For example MfE:

* is developing guidance for councils on the consent process, including how consent applications are notified and charges for processing;

* trains councillors and staff on resource consent processing;

* is developing a voluntary or mandatory accreditation scheme for consent decision-making which should be ready next year;

* is developing good practice guidelines for councils for contracting out consent processing;

* is developing guidelines for applicants in consulting with Maori;

* runs a “quality website” for councils, on which 1000 practitioners and interested parties have registered;

* has developed consent processing performance indicators.

The tenor of this approach is incremental: to work on the roughest bits of the legislation and cajole and encourage and prod councils to more business-friendly responses, rather than to drive through major change at the core, as National and ACT are promising.

But the cabinet does seem to have conceded a need to remove some roadblocks to investment. So if the next bill and the other improvements leave investors like Carter Holt Harvey still ruminating on the sidelines, more changes might yet be in the offing.

Then there is the politics of the matter. Helen Clark is determined to keep the Greens in the governmental loop and they already think RMA policy is too friendly to big developers. On the other side, however, United Future’s Peter Dunne is sympathetic to business frustrations.

Balancing those tendencies and attending to economic need will keep the RMA in the spotlight for a good while yet.