Infrastructure minister David Parker gave his fourth speech in recent months about resource management reform through a framework the MfE has worked out closely with the Infrastructure Commission and other key agencies. This is a summary of that presentation.
Reforming the resource management system is a priority for the Government and we are committed to seeing it through by repealing the RMA and enacting the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), and Spatial Planning Act (SPA), this parliamentary term,“Parker iterated.
Parker claims that the Spatial Planning Act, for the first time, will provide for a mandatory spatial function across all regions. “They will set out a vision and objectives to guide the region over the next 30 plus years, accompanied by a set of priority actions that will help to turn the vision into reality.”
The content of Regional Spatial Strategies will reflect regional circumstances, he says, identifying: Areas appropriate for development; areas where significant land use change is required (for example, to meet growth needs or comply with limits); indicative locations for future infrastructure corridors and strategic sites; areas to protect or enhance; and areas subject to constraints (for example, natural hazards)
The Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA)
The NBA is the primary piece of legislation to replace the RMA as an integrated statute for land use and environmental protection.
“We did consider separate development and environment acts but concluded that would not resolve the tension between the two objects,” says Parker.
A key part of this legislation is the National Planning Framework (the NPF) through which the Government says it will provide “direction” and enable it to revolve potentially conflicting outcomes at the national level.
The Ministry for the Environment and the Infrastructure Commission, he says, is currently working on new national direction for infrastructure as part of the development of the NPF and the ‘infrastructure provisions’ of the NPF will include direction for planning instruments, such as Regional Spatial Strategies and, in time, will establish a suite of nationally consistent planning and technical standards for infrastructure to be applied to a range of infrastructure activities and effects.
In addition, the National Planning Framework and Regional Spatial Strategies will also provide direction to local and regional decision-makers writing plans under the NBA. These will replace current RMA plans and cover both resource allocation and land use for a region.
As with the RMA, Part Two of the NBA will include its ‘purpose and principles’, guiding how decisions should be made under the new legislation. Parker says the first part of the purpose is to provide for ‘Te Oranga o Te Taiao’, which he says is a Maori concept defined as the “health and well-being of the environment”.
“A critical element in our move to create a more supportive resource management system for infrastructure and development is the shift in the legislation’s purpose from merely managing adverse effects to promoting positive outcomes for both natural and built environments.
Under the NBA, the Government, along with local and regional decision-makers, will have to focus squarely on the long-term outcomes they want.”
How it works through Regional Planning Committees
The new legislation will set up Regional Planning Committees that will make decisions on the Regional Spatial Strategies and NBA Plans for each region. These committees will include regional representatives from all local authorities and representatives of Maori groups. “The Government is not proposing 50-50 co-governance,” Parker adds.
“When making decisions on Regional Spatial Strategies, the Regional Planning Committees will include a representative from central government. The role of the central government representative will be to corral the multitude of central government agencies (for example, the NZTA and Kainga Ora) to engage in the process.
“We know there is significant variation across the regions of New Zealand and a key design consideration for the reforms was providing as much flexibility as possible to allow regions to work out arrangements that suit them best. Each region must however have a Regional Spatial Strategy in place by a certain date.”
How NPF provisions on infrastructure work
The NPF will give direction to the Regional Planning Committees developing Regional Spatial Strategies to, for example, actively plan for additional infrastructure capacity to support urban development.
“It may also provide direction on how the strategies should, along with NBA plans and designations, provide for matters such as infrastructure corridors, or the integration of infrastructure with land use.”
The NPF will include good practice planning and technical standards for infrastructure, says Parker, that “should” improve the consenting processes for infrastructure and reduce timeframes and associated process costs. Any existing national direction on infrastructure, (such as those covering telecommunication facilities), will be transitioned into the first NPF.
“There are hundreds of issues that can be standardised – we are looking at what to prioritise for the first NPF. We are also considering whether we need an ongoing work programme on infrastructure standards which could be implemented as transitional national direction under the RMA, rather than waiting for NBA plans to be finalised.”
Designations will continue as the primary ‘land use’ tool for public infrastructure under the NBA. “However, the ‘scope’ of matters that designations are required to address will be narrowed by higher-order instruments.
“The National Planning Framework will establish the high-level policy and rule framework for infrastructure (including nationally consistent standards), while Regional Spatial Strategies will guide decision-making on designations by spatially identifying existing and future infrastructure locations to align with long-term regional growth.”
Inclusion of infrastructure in the RSS will ensure strategic alignment by protecting existing infrastructure from inconsistent growth patterns and by guiding Regional Planning Committees when considering the delivery of future infrastructure, says Parker.
“This could take the form of infrastructure corridors that are set aside for future, co-located, infrastructure, or it could spatially identify strategic infrastructure locations that must be protected against reverse sensitivity. Infrastructure that is identified in the RSS will be considered against narrower ‘tests’ at the time a designation is sought.”
Procedural changes will enable land for infrastructure to be secured early through ‘footprint’ designations.
“These changes allow designations for proposed infrastructure to be separated into two stages – a standalone notice of requirement (NOR), that addresses the need for the infrastructure and its spatial location, and the Construction and Implementation Plans (CIPs) that address environmental management measures.”
This approach enables requiring authorities to secure land for future infrastructure earlier, and to protect that land from conflicting land use, without needing to provide detailed information about how the effects of (future) construction and operation will be managed, says Parker.
“In conjunction with increased lapse dates, this approach enables better strategic planning and more cost-effective delivery of infrastructure.”
Construction and Implementation Plans (CIPs) will be the planning mechanism that identify and authorise the works required to construct the designated infrastructure, and that outline the measures to manage the impacts of construction and operation of the infrastructure in its physical surroundings.
“These changes provide better direction to requiring authorities and planning committees about the information requirements prior to commencing physical works. They also provide flexibility to allow ongoing development in a staged manner and over long periods of time.
Regional Planning Committees will have the discretion to determine whether or not to notify a new designation, and whether or not a hearing is required.”
Parker adds that there will be more detailed policies around key classes of infrastructure such as social infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, and trunk infrastructure such as powerlines, pipelines and roads.
“The first NPF will prioritise new direction for Regional Spatial Strategies, though the Infrastructure Commission is also considering what direction will be needed for NBA
plans under the new system.”
Urban development and positive outcomes
For housing and other forms of urban development, decision-makers will have to promote “positive outcomes” rather than focusing primarily on managing negative effects, says Parker.
“We are deleting amenity values from the RMA’s purpose and the principles … the explicit requirement to focus on ‘outcomes’ will make planning instruments stronger by requiring plans and consents to say how outcomes will be achieved.”
Limits and targets
Environmental limits and targets will play a central role in the reformed resource management system, says Parker, and these will be set by the Minister for the Environment.
These mandatory environmental limits and targets involve ecological integrity (such as biodiversity freshwater and soil) and human health, and set in the NPF or in NBA plans, after taking into account other objectives, for example economic development, intergenerational equity and the risk of harm to ecosystems or human health.
Parker says a recent MBIE report on building consents, identified a number of barriers to an efficient and effective building consent system, including; “A lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities, variability and unpredictability in consent processes, and all consents going through the same basic process that does not always reflect the complexity of the work.”
Under the NBA, decision-making will consider how a consent contributes to achieving outcomes, he says. “Notification considerations and decision-making at consenting will be assessed against plan provisions that must align with outcomes, targets and limits set out in planning instruments. Notification decisions will be able to be heard by the Environment Court, not the High Court as required under the RMA.”
The number of activity categories will be reduced from six in the RMA to four in the new system. “When it comes to allowing a particular activity, it will be yes (that is permitted), or probably (controlled), or a maybe (discretionary) or no (prohibited).”
The scope of permitted activities will be expanded to reduce the number of unnecessary consents, he adds. “Clearer guidance in the Natural and Built Environments Act will ensure decision-makers categorise activities efficiently to signal how appropriate an activity or resource use is in a region. Consent application notification requirements will be set out in the National Planning Framework and NBA Plans. This will help improve consent system efficiency and certainty by reducing the time taken to consider whether applications should be notified.”
Central control and council accountability
Parker says the Government’s current Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-track consenting) Act 2020, which has been operative for more than two years, will probably continue under the NBA for central and local government trunk and public infrastructure.
He also made reference to a number of proposals to boost the compliance, monitoring and enforcement (CME) regime, including broadening cost-recovery provisions to allow costs to be recovered for compliance monitoring of permitted activities and investigations of non-compliant activities.
“We are also looking at substantial increases in financial penalties with a broader range of offences subject to fines for commercial gain and the statute of limitations for criminal offending increased to 24 months.”
He claims the use of RMA mechanisms in the past to request specialised information and evidence from applicants has contributed to the major increase in costs and timeframes for consents, and past amendments to the RMA have failed to adequately address the problem because of a lack of accountability mechanisms.
“We are placing requirements on councils to consider the extent to which requests for information will inform their decision-making. Responsibility for efficiency and effectiveness will lie with elected councils and legislative mechanisms. Councils will have to ensure they have proper control of their planning departments’ activities.”
Parker adds that while individual consents are not subject to political control, his Government will make it clear that planning and consent processes in general are.
“The NBA will also enable the Minister for the Environment to require councils to publicly report on their performance, and provide good data to people who are interested in the performance of their council’s planning department.”
“The NPF, with its stronger, more integrated role for central government, will help resolve conflicts between the proposed NBA outcomes, for example between building more houses and preserving farmland or developing infrastructure versus protecting outstanding natural features,” says Parker.
“Key conflicts will be identified and resolved at the level of national direction and plan-making, not at the consenting level as is often currently the case. The NPF won’t of course be able to resolve all conflicts. Conflict resolution will still need to take place at all levels of the resource management system, reflecting local and regional variation across New Zealand.”