It has now been one year since the National Planning Standards (‘planning standards’) prepared by the Ministry for the Environment came into effect. Hamish Wesney and Stephanie Styles, from Boffa Miskell, discuss the result.
All councils, to some degree, have been working through the process and interpretation issues with implementing the planning standards during this period.
Only one Proposed District Plan has been publicly notified since the planning standards came into effect, however notification of many more plans are imminent this year.
In this article we reflect on the original purpose of the planning standards, highlight the types of implementation issues being experienced, and offer suggestions on how councils can efficiently implement the planning standards.
Why National Planning Standards?
The planning standards were introduced in response to overly complex planning documents; excessive time and costs in understanding how plans work; inconsistent implementation of national direction; duplication of resources to develop plan content; and best planning practice not being applied.
The outcomes intended for the planning standards are: Less time and resources are required to prepare and use plans.
Plan content is easier to access, and relevant content easier to find.
National direction is consistently incorporated in plans, resulting in better implementation on the ground.
Councils focus their resources more on plan content that influences local resource management outcomes and is important to the community.
Good planning practice is applied quickly across councils through the National Planning Standards.
How is the implementation going?
In this first 12 months, councils that were in the final phase of preparing new planning documents have been at the forefront of working through the implementation of the planning standards.
By contrast, those councils that were at the end of their plan review processes, undertaking rolling reviews, or commencing plan reviews, appear to have had more limited experience with implementation.
In working with a number of councils on reviewing and preparing planning documents, we have observed some emerging themes and trends which will test the outcomes sought for the planning standards and councils’ role in their achievement.
First, we are seeing a greater focus on researching, evaluating and drafting provisions; with less time spent debating plan structure and format.
At this early stage of implementation, this indicates some key outcomes of the planning standards are starting to be achieved. Despite less time being spent on plan structure and format, questions are arising with the ‘structure’ standards themselves, particularly where issues fall under two or more chapters in a planning document.
The structure standards seek to locate provisions in one place (chapter) with cross-references to achieve simplicity. In theory this structure works; but, in reality, many issues can fit under more than one chapter or one rule may achieve multiple purposes.
Examples of this include: Coastal inundation lines, which are both a coastal environment issue and a natural hazard issue; clearance of indigenous vegetation, which is a biodiversity issue but also contributes to natural character and landscape values.
To overcome this situation, cross-references are the effective response and duplication should be avoided.
Second, we understand some councils are still unsure about applying the Zone Framework Standard; particularly given the range and subtle differences in the choices on offer.
In part, this uncertainty arises from the similarities between the descriptions of some zones (e.g. General Rural Zone and Rural Production Zone).
In our view, the appropriate zone to use will be obvious in most cases. However, in marginal circumstances where either zone could work, the actual zone name selected is of limited consequence as it is the provisions for the zone that are of primary importance.
Third, and probably predictably, the Definitions Standard appears to be causing the most debate.
By their very nature, the definitions in the planning standards need to be relatively broad to apply at a national level.
We have seen a tendency among some councils to create sub-definitions that offer a more refined local descriptor.
An example of this is the very broad definition of ‘primary production’, which includes aquaculture, agricultural, pastoral, horticultural, mining, quarrying or forestry activities, and initial processing of these commodities.
To limit this in sensitive areas, a number of councils are considering additional definitions of ‘farming’ to apply only to agricultural and pastoral activities.
Although this type of response is understandable, it could have the unintended effect of perpetuating the problem that this standard is attempting to address. In coming up with new terms and definitions we need to be mindful of the outcomes sought by the planning standards and test ourselves – are these new terms really necessary and will they result in a more consistent, simple and efficient planning document?
Fourth, a move to digital plans – thereby making accessibility much greater for users – is one of the greatest opportunities offered by planning standards.
While there have been some positive advances in developing digital plans, capacity constraints within the industry, cost barriers and resourcing challenges are likely to hinder timely implementation of the Electronic Accessibility and Functionality Standard.
We are aware the planning standards provide a longer timeframe for smaller councils to implement this standard. Regardless, we see a real opportunity for central and local government to work together on a digital solution, particularly targeted at smaller councils.
Last, for those councils that are nearing the end of their full plan review processes or undertaking rolling reviews, there is the temptation to defer implementation of the planning standards.
Although this is understandable, we believe it would be worthwhile for these councils to explore how their current plans can initially be re-housed to align with the planning standards structure and format standards, particularly as this can be implemented without using the publicly notified RMA Schedule 1 process.
At first it might appear that there is limited scope or ability to avoid notification; however, based on our experience of scoping the re-housing of plan content for a few councils, there is greater potential than may initially be apparent.
Where to from here?
The planning standards provide a great opportunity for councils to deliver on many of the outcomes sought by our communities, including being efficient and accessible and locally relevant.
Implementation issues are inevitable in applying the planning standards, but Ministry for the Environment has been supporting councils with timely advice on implementation queries, which in our experience has been most helpful.
Future opportunities we see for councils to focus on include:
Adhering to the ethos of the planning standards of developing simple plans.
Concentrating on research, evaluation and plan provisions themselves, rather than labouring over structure and format standards matters.
Getting on with the business of re-housing current planning documents outside the RMA Schedule 1 process.
Collaborating with central government to prepare an ‘off the shelf’ e-plan.
Seeking support from central government to provide planning expertise to smaller councils to assist with re-housing their current plans.