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Our once in a generation chance to nail infrastructure legislation

By Peter Silcock, Chief Executive, Civil Contractors New Zealand.

An exposure draft of the bill has been circulated and a Select Committee is currently digesting feedback from the public and a wide variety of groups, including councils and many of the contractors involved in developing our critical infrastructure. A second and final round of public feedback is planned for next year and will complete what is a once in a generation opportunity to get the management of our built and natural environment right.

This is important to councils of course because they are variously responsible for resource management, environmental protection, and regional development within their boundaries. Essentially, councils are at the sharp end of implementing the process set out within the legislation. Civil contractors, who are our members, are the ones that are bound by and implement the resource consent conditions on the ground and pass the costs to clients and the public.

The NBA is one of three pieces of legislation being developed to replace the current, and often vilified, RMA. Commentators say the decades old RMA has done nothing to halt a decline in the natural environment but has added substantial time and costs to the development of our infrastructure and built environment including contributing to our eye-watering house prices.

Reforming the 30-year-old RMA is therefore a welcome, but a considerable task which will have impacts for all New Zealanders. So, is the exposure draft of the NBA up to the job?

The name of the proposed Bill which incorporates both the natural and built environment is a promising start and there are some welcome proposals, but the key shortcoming seems to be the lack of a mechanism to balance the needs of New Zealanders around the built environment, (think – homes, commercial buildings and transport, water, energy, and communications networks) and the need to preserve and restore the natural environment.

It also needs to balance the needs of our productive environment (our farms, orchards, and plantation forests) and our recreational needs (parks, sports fields, golf courses, walking and tramping tracks and shelters) with our natural environment.

By its nature, the construction of our built environment modifies the natural environment. That has been happening for centuries all around the world. These issues are not new issues, and we are not alone in trying to manage them. The issue for me is that the Bill needs to give councils who will be implementing it clarity around how to balance between environmental protection and social and cultural well-being.

Councils have a responsibility to represent a vast array of interests in their communities, so we need a system to allow for all these interests, whether competing or not, to be considered. The West Coast Regional Council is going as far as saying the Bill “undermines good local governance, taking power away from local communities and handing it to the Government”. This could impact how the Bill can be used to assess wider community benefits with potential negative environmental impacts.

This speaks to Civil Contractors New Zealand’s major concerns which are that the proposed new Act – is unclear and lacking in detail.

In its current form, there is a risk that it could block infrastructure that the country is crying out for, such as the creation of new subdivisions for housing. It could also impede projects with hugely positive environmental outcomes, like new cycle paths that would encourage low carbon travel, flood or erosion protection works that can protect towns and vulnerable habitats alike, and drainage systems that prevent the discharge of waste into the natural environment.

This is an issue many New Zealand councils have picked up on as well. When submitting his own council’s feedback, Marlborough Mayor John Leggett said; “There is significant work left to be done and it is difficult to provide comprehensive submissions when the draft contains so little detail.”

This could unfortunately exacerbate the exact problem that the Bill needs to address. How will it allow local governments to reduce blockages and accelerate the planning process if it provides no obvious mechanism to reduce the time and cost of built environment projects?

This is a concern mirrored by others, too, with 10 Southland and Otago councils, including the Dunedin City Council, saying it “could lead to long and costly arguments and legal action”.

So, while CCNZ supports the new legislation, we don’t think the Bill is going to work in its current state and without that detail. Local councils and the civil construction industry are important voices in this debate.

While we have all clearly identified some problems and shortcomings of the exposure draft, we now need to further develop ideas around how the planning system will deliver on our collective expectations around protection of the environment and modern, productive, and environmentally sustainable cities, towns, farms, and infrastructure.

The RMA has been in place for 30 years, so let’s not wait another 30 to make the changes that New Zealand desperately needs.

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