Judge lays blame for appeal delays back on city council

By Wayne Thompson

A judge says Auckland Council causes delays in settling planning appeals because its officers insist on approval from councillors for mediated deals.

Environment Court Judge Jeff Smith vented his frustration after a court-convened conference of parties to a year-old appeal over Rodney subdivision rules.

Avoiding delayed council plan changes is part of the council's argument to the Government in favour of removing the public's right to appeal to the Environment Court against its first draft unitary plan.

Council officers estimate a $9 million legal bill and up to 10 years of delays if the region's new growth planning rule book draws 170 appeals.

But in a minute to the Rodney parties obtained by the Herald, Judge Smith said: "This court is particularly concerned that representations are being made to Government on the basis of the court failing to progress planning appeals sufficiently rapidly.

"To the contrary, there have been significant delays in almost every Auckland Council planning appeal that this court has dealt with due to counsel seeking further time for negotiation and/or requiring approval from the relevant planning committee.

"In future, it is likely that the court will require either the chief executive officer or the planning director of the council to attend pre-hearing conference to advise the court as to reasons for council delay, given its criticism of court delays."

Judge Smith's criticism comes after Acting Principal Environment Court Judge Laurie Newhook examined the processing of appeals on the new Hauraki Gulf Islands section of the district plan.

Three years on, 13 of the 41 appeals remain unsettled. Judge Newhook's review said it was a notable example of the court not being adequately hands-on with case management at the outset. A year had been lost while the former city councils tried to negotiate solutions. When the court realised this, it had immediately directed everything to mediation.

In court-directed mediation, he said, much time and even the need for hearings could be saved by agents having delegated authority to settle when the opportunity arose.

The council's legal costs for just the Gulf Islands plan may reach $1 million, and the unitary plan is to replace 12 district and regional plans and policies.

Chief planning officer Dr Roger Blakeley said yesterday the council had not complained to the Government about delays in the court progressing planning cases sufficiently rapidly.

The council hearings committee meets fortnightly but chairwoman Noelene Raffills said yesterday she and deputy Penny Webster were available "within a day" to sign urgent decisions needed by the court during mediation.

Officers didn't think it was "best pro-cess" that they have the authority to settle on the spot and they preferred the committee to make the decision.

District plan review

41 appeals filed mid-2009
1 year's failed council negotiations
March 2010 court orders mediation:
31 mediation sessions held
13 appeals remain, mostly big landowners
$1 million estimated council legal bill.

- NZ Herald

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