Govt to fast-track RMA consents for homeowners

By Eloise Gibson

Getting approval to build or renovate your home is set to get faster and cutting down trees much easier under radical new measures proposed by the Government.

A package of sweeping changes to the Resource Management Act proposes making councils that dither over resource consents cough up some of their processing fee. Another more controversial measure would ban councils from requiring homeowners to get resource consent before felling trees of a certain size.

Homeowners often complain of long delays getting consent for buildings, alterations, demolition and other works affecting the natural environment. In its election campaign, the National Party promised to overhaul the system of resource consents.

Councils have between one and four months to process applications, depending on whether the development is put out for public submissions. Of the majority that are closed to public comment, about 74 per cent are processed on time, compared with 56 per cent where the public is involved.

The Government wants to speed up that rate by giving applicants the right to complain when councils miss those deadlines. If the council was at fault,

it would have to give the applicant a discount.

Developers and business groups yesterday welcomed the proposed changes, which the Government hopes will make it cheaper and faster to get the roughly 50,000 environmental permits New Zealanders apply for each year.

But Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule said many factors that slowed processing times were out of councils' control.

Auckland City Council city development committee chairman Aaron Bhatnagar said councils would be able to speed up consent processing thanks to other time-saving measures proposed. "We are being expected to lift our game and that's to be expected," he said. Other proposed changes include moves to cut the time taken to bring planning rules into force. Environment Minister Nick Smith said requirements for councils to respond individually to each submission on a rule, and to give every submitter the chance to comment on the submissions of others, would be "streamlined".

Hueline Massey of the Tree Council (Auckland) Incorporated, said proposed changes to tree laws had come out of the blue. The Tree Council would be "horrified" if the change went ahead, as it had fought to get rules preventing trees of a certain size or type from being felled without consent since the 1980s.

Ms Massey said rules were brought in to stop the "destruction of good trees without a good reason", which could deprive the community and subsequent owners of the land of trees. If the change went ahead it would be "open slather" for people to remove trees just because they annoyed them, she said.

Nick Smith said councils would have the option of listing individual trees or groves of trees for protection, instead of blanket rules. He said there were parts of Auckland where people did not let trees grow over 3 metres for fear of invoking council tree controls. "It is a nonsense that we have approximately 5000 resource consents a year for tree trimming. We think there are far less costly and bureaucratic ways of providing protection for urban trees,"he said.

But Ms Massey said it was a huge exercise to list an individual tree for protection. As a result there were only about 120 such trees in the Rodney District and similarly few in Auckland, she said.

Changes to the RMA:

Councils required to reduce their fee if they are at fault over late processing of a resource consent application.

Applicants for resource consent can skip the council hearing and go straight to the Environment Court, if the council agrees.

Councils will no longer be able to require a resource consent to trim or cut down trees of a certain height or girth. Rules differ for different councils.

District and regional plan process to be streamlined, with appeals to the Environment Court over planning rules limited to legal issues only.

Fines for breaking environmental law up from $200,000 to $300,000 for individuals and $600,000 for companies.

- NZ Herald

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