By Barry Mosley, principal planner/director, Auckland Council
The Resource Management Act has governed the management of land, air and water in New Zealand since 1991. A review of this legislation is proposed. Contained in the current Resource Management Act are processes which dictate the level of community participation in decision-making. This article explores the opportunity for community participation in resource management decision-making and asks the question of whether there is a need to revisit the status quo.
New directions for resource management
A Resource Management Review Panel has been appointed by the Minister for the Environment, the Hon David Parker, to undertake a comprehensive review of the resource management system in New Zealand. The main focus of this review is to be the Resource Management Act (the RMA) but the Panel has also been asked to review the relationship between the RMA, the Local Government Act (LGA), the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA) and the Climate Change Response Act (CCRA).1
The specific aim of the review is to improve environmental outcomes and better enable urban and other development within environmental limits. The drivers of the review include concerns related to: significant pressures on the natural environment; urban areas struggling to keep pace with population growth; an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change; ensuring that Maori have an effective role in the system, consistent with the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi; and improving system efficiency and effectiveness2. Of some interest is whether the review will consider a shift in opportunities for community participation in resource management decision-making.
Current possibilities for participation in resource management decision-making
New plans and plan changes under the Resource Management Act have always afforded the wider public the opportunity to make submissions and be heard. However, at the resource consent decision-making stage councils have had the opportunity to determine the appropriate level of notification for any resource consent application.
Notification has fallen into one of three categories under the Resource Management Act 1991. A resource consent application could be fully notified, meaning any person could lodge a submission. It could also be subject to limited notification. Limited notification occurs where only a targeted population of persons are afforded the opportunity to lodge a submission on a resource consent application. In these cases, notification is based on a view formed by the Council that beyond the targeted group of persons there are no other persons likely to be adversely affected by the nature of the proposal contained within the resource consent application. Lastly, a resource consent application could also be non-notified, meaning it would not be publicly notified and there would not be any opportunity for public submission.
National and local trends in public notification of resource consents
Nationally the notification of resource consents has been low. To date a considerable emphasis has been placed on timeliness and high approval rates for proposals. Ministry for the Environment data indicates that nationally the percentage of all applications processed in New Zealand by all Councils on a notified basis (either full public or limited notification) ranged between 3.48 percent to 4.16 percent annually between 2014/15 to 2018/193.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city with considerable growth pressures. The graph below highlights even a stronger trend to towards non-notification than that nationally. On the 8 November 2016 Auckland Council placed a public notice in the New Zealand Herald notifying that the Auckland Unitary Plan would become ‘Operative in Part’ on Tuesday 15 November 2016. Between 2016 to 2020 Auckland Council processed 60,711 consents. Of these consents for which notification decisions were required 0.5 percent were fully publicly notified, 0.27 percent were limited notified and 75.9 percent were non-notified. (Unspecified consents shown in figures 1 and 2 relate to Resource Management Act 1991 applications where Auckland Council data is unspecific as to any notification decision reached).
Implications of the pattern of notification
Whilst there is a balance to be struck between efficiency of process and public participation in decision-making there is an argument that better environmental outcomes could be achieved if public notification was more widely used in circumstances where a resource consent application or multiple resource consent applications could:
- Create issues of wide public concern;
- Present potential significant adverse environmental effects;
- Greatly undermine policy directions within a plan; or
- Contribute to cumulative effects which if replicated over time would seriously degrade a resource.
Examples of resource consent proposals that might well fall into one of the four categories listed above would be those where the health of waterways could be impacted, finite versatile soils could be lost or a significant landscape degraded.
Often resource consent proposals which possess elements in the above listed criteria are deemed to be non-complying activities in resource management plans under the Resource Management Act. However, this classification has not necessarily provided any great assurance that such resource consent proposals would be afforded wider public scrutiny.
The below figure highlights that between 2016 to 2020 of the 2877 resource consents processed by Auckland Council and considered to be non-complying (and for those consent applications assessed for notification) 3.27 percent were fully publicly notified, 0.9 percent were processed by limited notification and 85 percent were non-notified. Interestingly 88 percent were granted.
Under the Resource Management Act 1991 there has been a high reliance on non-notification of resource consent applications. The review of the resource management system in New Zealand affords the opportunity to revisit current practices around notification. There is a need to look at areas where the current resource management legislation has failed and ask the question whether greater public participation in resource management decision making has the potential to ensure better outcomes. It seems incongruent that in the case of the management of resources such as rivers, lakes and the coast, where there is wide public interest, that the infusion of community values in decision making processes would not support a pathway to better outcomes. LG