Local Government Magazine

Through the legal looking glass

Resource legislation, new minister and elections: Brookfields Lawyers partner Linda O’Reilly looks into the year ahead.

As I sit to write this piece on a wild, wet and windy start to the new year, I wonder what there really is left to say about local government that has not been said already. The answer is, of course, nothing at all. As always the sector is buffeted by calls for change and reform, and we re-hash ‘solutions’ to perennial problems hoping that the magic of local democracy will create vibrant and healthy communities. Local government continues to be a work in progress.

I could talk about the recent Court of Appeal case, Mangawhai Ratepayers and Residents Association Inc v Kaipara District Council, in which the court upheld the right of the council to rate to fund the cost of the Mangawhai Wastewater Treatment Scheme relying on validating legislation and the protected transactions provisions in the Local Government Act 2002. It is an important decision which I commend you to read, but not a saga to recount while still on holiday.

Then there is the impenetrable topic of the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill looming large on the horizon, with changes not only to the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), but also the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012, Environmental Protection Authority Act 2011, Conservation Act 1987, Reserves Act 1977 and the Public Works Act 1981.

There are a slew of articles already to help readers digest what is proposed in this latest round of land use planning reform. But one of the biggest obstacles to speedy planning and consent turnaround in recent years must be the time spent by local authorities absorbing and implementing changes to the RMA itself.

Better connectivity between the various statutes that affect development is undoubtedly desirable. But who could not be daunted by this latest 235 clause set of amendments? Not to mention the fact that Auckland and Christchurch are currently undertaking district and unitary plan reviews, each under separate bespoke processes that differ from the standard RMA process, and where the results have yet to be seen.

The most recent appointment to the role of Minister of Local Government is Sam Lotu-Iiga. In his year-end speech after succeeding Paula Bennett, he reiterated her stance on tailor-made regional solutions to infrastructure challenges rather than forced amalgamation. But that could all change if, as seems possible, the government were to sweep away the current community board / local board / district / regional units in favour of some new structure with a more limited local versus regional dichotomy.

Over the past year the government’s perspective on local government seems to have been dominated by transport and affordable housing, where in fact there are shared local and national responsibilities to be addressed. On these issues the influence of the Productivity Commission is becoming significant.

As a Christmas present from the Commission we got its December issues paper, Better Urban Planning, with comments invited by March 9 this year (just in case you have nothing much to do after the holiday break). Its earlier report, Using Land for Housing (October 2015) and the research note The Effect of Auckland’s Metropolitan Urban Limit on Land Prices (March 2013), appear to significantly inform government policy towards the sector.

The issues paper is a broad “inquiry into the system of urban planning in New Zealand”, and promises to identify “the most appropriate system for allocating land use through this system to support desirable social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes”. Presumably it will also define what those desirable outcomes may be.

And then of course it is election year. So get ready, aspiring local government politicians and repeat offenders – now is the time to get your heads around what is coming up and to define your views on those changes. Personally I am prepared to vote for anyone who can even understand the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill.

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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