Local Government Magazine
Guest editorial

It starts with reform of the RMA

By Simon Court, ACT spokesman for the Environment, Transport and Infrastructure.
I am a civil and environmental engineer with 23 years’ experience in roles for the private sector and local government, including 12 years leading engineering, planning, tendering, and construction teams primarily in Auckland, and in Wellington and Fiji.

At the Auckland Council I worked on closed landfills, leading the investigation, consenting, design and site remediation. I provided technical support and strategic advice to business units on due diligence, risk and opportunity, procurement, and on acquisition and divestment of contaminated land.

My roading and infrastructure experience includes construct-only, design-construct and alliance delivery models and I managed a large team to deliver the UFB network to around 30 town centres in the Auckland region, and its CBD.

In Fiji I had roles for the consultant as construction manager and engineer to contract  projects being built by local, New Zealand and Chinese government contractors, and funded by the EXIM Bank of China, the ADB and World Bank.

My 10 years on landfills involved monitoring, construction and waste operations. For a remediation contractor, I cleaned up toxic timber chemicals, and dioxins like those found in Agent Orange, that toxic defoliant sprayed all over Vietnam, and made here in New Zealand. 

Because there were no specific clean-up regulations back then, the companies involved in these clean-up projects took a risk-based approach, and often using technology not even considered by the government at that time. With landfills and contaminated sites, in infrastructure and transportation, every investigation starts with a risk assessment. Through planning, design and delivery, risks are reviewed and managed to an acceptable level. 

You might think this is business as usual stuff for professional engineers and environmental practitioners, but not for the Government’s response to the pandemic that revealed that our current political class has zero appetite for risk. In my mind, the current Government stands out as the worst example of focus group based decision making. Rather than leadership, they are a “follow-ship”.

The Government responded to the wave of impending business failures and increasing job losses with announcements about a group of “shovel-ready” projects, and a wish list of short-term changes to the RMA to allow “fast-track” consenting, yet we know these projects are normally years in planning and consenting to reach procurement. 

But ignoring the RMA is BAU for the Government and its proposed urban development authority will run parallel to councils’ consenting authority and ride roughshod over district plans, community consultation and engagement, especially the Auckland Unitary Plan, so bitterly fought over for years. Another – ‘rule for me, but not for thee’ approach.

So this begs some obvious questions. Are politicians actually putting this group of projects on the fast track to failure, like Auckland’s light rail and Kiwibuild?

Will government directives lead to short cuts in the design phase, and hasty procurement to satisfy the desperate need to be seen to be “doing something”? 

Will “fast track” consenting deliver consent conditions reflecting the actual risk to the environment, heritage, and those communities in the way. Or, will commissioners on fast-track panels, rushing to meet arbitrary political timeframes, force project managers to accept far more stringent conditions to limit stakeholder resistance or public disputes? Overly stringent conditions lead to greater costs, add complexity and risk to design and construction, and without doubt, delay the delivery of vital infrastructure. 

Many “shovel ready” projects are simply political vanity, like a walking and cycling path tacked onto the Auckland Harbour Bridge, at a cost of almost $400 million dollars. 

It beggars belief, that instead of improving resilience in that most important strategic asset, the Government forces the asset owner to accommodate a feature limiting future choices in how that asset is managed, and introducing a host of new operations and maintenance risks.

And as a keen cycle commuter, I have grave concerns about mixing road and e-bikes at 70km/h downhill, with walkers and tourists. It’s a recipe for a health and safety disaster.

So why would we assume that “fast-track” consenting will lead to better projects built quicker, when the fundamental principles of the RMA and guidance around decision making remains unchanged?

Parliament has amended the RMA 18 times since 1991, not including the current attempt by Government to exempt its own projects. In one go it admitted there’s a problem and that it’s given up solving it.

The RMA has resulted in 3.5 million tonnes of waste going to landfill every year after a 2005 amendment banning high temperature incineration was passed around the same time the European Union decided to phase-out landfills, in favour of waste-to-energy and thermal destruction. Since then, Europe has practically solved its landfill crisis in under 15 years.

Our Government thinks it is going to solve our landfill crisis with huge landfill taxes, adding $60 a tonne for every household and business in the country. And MfE also intends to tax those clean fill sites where excess construction fill is tipped, a method used to rehabilitate   end of life quarries and areas to form future housing subdivisions.  

ACT believes we need a central government whose instinct is technology over taxation, innovation instead of ideology, and a fresh approach that works with the community, in a partnership approach with regional governments.

And this starts with the radical reform of the RMA. LG

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