The Resource Management Reform Bill, designed to speed subdivision and regional infrastructure projects and to grease the progress of the Auckland Unitary Plan, was reported back from select committee on Tuesday and is expected to be passed before the end of this year.
Most of the committee’s proposed changes could be described as procedural but some are more controversial and will be opposed by Labour and the Greens.
Amendments to the Resource Management Act 1991
This Bill is very much a first instalment of the Government’s reform agenda for the RMA this term. A far more radical and far-reaching Bill is currently being prepared for presentation to the House later this year (see Chapman Tripp’s commentary here).
A key focus of this first Bill is to introduce a six month consenting procedure for medium sized projects (specifically including residential subdivisions). The committee has recommended a number of small changes and clarifications to tidy up this process.
Other recommendations in relation to the RMA component of the Bill include:
- a provision that, where a council allows direct referral of a consent application to the Environment Court, the council becomes a party to the Environment Court proceedings and must be available to give evidence (we consider that this is sensible and will ensure that the Court is fully informed of the council’s perspective as it makes its judgment), and
- a recommendation that section 32 reports must include reference to opportunities for economic growth that are “anticipated to be provided or reduced”, rather than those that are expected to “cease to be available”. Labour and the Greens oppose this amendment, considering that it creates a pro-development bias. We expect to see further changes along these lines in the second Bill.
Unitary Plan provisions
The Local Government (Auckland Transitional Provisions) Act 2010 gave the Minister for the Environment broad regulatory powers regarding the preparation of the Unitary Plan.
The committee wants those powers to be trimmed back by:
- clarifying that they can be used only to deal with unforeseen situations or issues which arise regarding the preparation of the Unitary Plan, and
- requiring that the Minister consult with Auckland Council and the Hearings Panel before recommending any regulations.
Other changes will also reinforce the primacy of the Hearings Panel (for further information on the Hearing Panel’s role, see here). In particular, the committee proposes that:
- the Hearings Panel should have the power in some circumstances to direct the Auckland Council to initiate a variation to the Unitary Plan, and
- when making its final decisions on the recommendations put to it by the Hearings Panel, the Auckland Council must not consider any submission or other evidence which was not first made available to the Panel.
In addition, the committee proposes that only the owners or occupiers of land covered by a proposed designation or heritage order must be directly notified by the Auckland Council. Everyone else, including neighbours, would have to rely on the general public notification through the newspaper.
Proposed changes include:
- where the Auckland Council amends a provision recommended by the Hearings Panel, providing a clear right of appeal to the Environment Court against the effect of the Council’s amended decision
- providing for merit-based appeals to the Environment Court in some circumstances where the Hearings Panel makes a recommendation that is outside the scope of submissions, and
- requiring that where a person is planning to appeal a decision on a point of law and also to have the decision judicially reviewed, both proceedings must be lodged together and the High Court must endeavour to hear them together. The idea behind this amendment, as with many of the committee’s proposed amendments, is to minimise delays.