We live in uncertain times. Covid-19 has cast a considerable shadow over our everyday lives, our economy and the wellbeing of our people. The Government has responded quickly to lessen the social and economic disruption the pandemic has wrought here in New Zealand, and to lay foundations for a faster and stronger economic recovery while protecting the health of New Zealanders.
We have set out an extensive programme of new infrastructure investment, which will provide certainty to the regions and employers and deliver significant economic benefits. We are investing in projects that are ready to go, and also building a long-term pipeline of investment to boost confidence and certainty.
Accelerating infrastructure projects
Mid-year I took through Parliament the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-track Consenting) Act to help support the economic recovery by accelerating the consenting process for eligible projects to deliver jobs sooner and support economic recovery, as well as helping address New Zealand's infrastructure deficit.
The new Act is a short-term response to an extraordinary situation and will self-repeal in July 2023. It does not replace or circumvent the current Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), but it provides alternative pathways for speeding up decisions on resource consents and designations while ensuring that environmental safeguards and Treaty of Waitangi and Treaty settlement obligations are maintained.
There are three pathways to accessing the fast-track process. The first comprises 17 projects named in the Act. They can by law directly apply to an expert consenting panel for consideration.
The new Matawaii water storage reservoir in Northland was the initial project approved by an expert consenting panel led by former Chief Environment Court Judge, Laurie Newhook in October. This decision was made in 55 days from the time the application was lodged. This is around half the time a similar consent would have taken under the RMA, assuming there was no appeal.
The reservoir will provide drinking water for Kaikohe and support Northland's horticulture and agriculture sectors. Its construction will create much-needed jobs in the region, and the increased supply of water will have also attract and retain large- and small-scale investment that will further improve job prospects and social wellbeing.
A second pathway under the fast-track law allows anyone to apply to me as the Minister for the Environment for their project to be referred to an expert consenting panel.
Not every project is accepted. When making my decision whether to refer or not I must consider whether the project meets the purpose of the Act in terms of promoting employment, supporting ongoing investment certainty, and promoting the sustainable management of natural and physical resources. Factors I look at include public benefits such as increased housing supply, well-functioning urban environments, improved coastal or freshwater quality, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. I also consider whether it is a rehash of a prior rejected application or whether greater public participation is desirable.
I have already referred four extra projects including one relating to Transpower's Clutha Upper Waitaki Lines Project. This will provide accommodation for the people working to increase the capacity of the electricity network to boost New Zealand's drive to be 100 per cent renewable in electricity and improve the resilience of the national electricity grid.
Central Otago is one of the areas hardest hit by the downturn in international tourism caused by Covid-19, and speeding up projects like this will help create jobs while providing a much needed improvement to an important part of New Zealand's infrastructure.
The third pathway under the fast track law enables some work to be carried out without the need for a resource consent, such as specific works by KiwiRail and the New Zealand Transport Agency on their existing infrastructure.
A new era in resource management
While the fast-track consenting process is an immediate response to help us rebuild and recover from the impacts of Covid, our vision for the environmental management system is much more far-reaching.
We are committed to reforming the resource management system this parliamentary term. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to set the system up for the next 20 to 30 years. It provides the opportunity to enhance the wellbeing of generations to come by clearly setting the outcomes we need to achieve for the natural environment and for urban development and housing. It will also help us respond effectively to climate change.
The reform will be based on the comprehensive review of the resource management system by the Resource Management Review Panel, led by Hon Tony Randerson QC. This was the most significant, broad-ranging and inclusive review since the RMA was enacted.
After engaging widely on an issues and options paper, the panel delivered a package of sweeping recommendations intended to transform the system. Key is the replacement of the existing RMA with two separate pieces of legislation — a Natural and Built Environments Act and a Strategic Planning Act — along with a separate law to address issues related to climate change adaptation and the managed retreat from areas threatened with inundation.
An important part of the reforms is to ensure that infrastructure and land use planning decisions are aligned.
The panel recommended greater use of national direction by the Environment Minister, a more streamlined process for council plan-making, a vastly reduced number of plans, and a more efficient resource consent process. It also proposed that the future system should give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti and provide a clearer role for mana whenua in decision-making.
I expect to make substantial progress on the new legislation, based on their report, by the middle of 2021.
As we build back better and accelerate our recovery from Covid-19, we are enhancing New Zealand as a place to live, now and for future generations. The way we manage our resources, improve our infrastructure, and protect the environment is fundamental to this.
- David Parker is the Minister for the Environment.