By PAULA OLIVER
Business groups are adamant that the Resource Management Act needs a major overhaul - despite criticism that they are living in the past and ignoring improvements already being made.
The controversial act has been under attack since Meridian Energy's surprise move to pull the plug on Project Aqua.
The RMA was one of many reasons given for the project's failure, but it has taken much of the blame and been tagged anti-development and costly.
The Act is now being reviewed by Associate Environment Minister David Benson-Pope
The Business Herald asked employer groups to nominate five specific changes they would like to see made to the act.
To a man they all wanted to revisit the ideas put forward in 1999 by National's Simon Upton as part of an amendment bill which would have changed the face of the RMA.
That bill was put together after extensive consultation but it was gutted by a select committee following a general election which put a Labour-Alliance coalition into Government.
The changes that business groups want made to the RMA include a process of direct referral to the Environment Court for projects of national significance, independent commissioners to hear consent applications, and limiting objectors to only those affected directly by a project - no matter how big it is.
All the changes come from a desire to speed up the consent process and make it more consistent.
Many of them were promoted by a ministerial panel on compliance costs in 2001.
Some would take a large portion of the consent process away from councils.
It is the bigger projects that struggle the most under the RMA.
Direct referral to the Environment Court would, backers argue, be appropriate when a developer knows that a project would inevitably end up in court. If that is the case, why not send it there immediately and bypass the time-consuming council hearings?
This is particularly relevant for significant projects like power stations or roads.
It is a well-aired argument.
But the change was chopped out of Upton's bill partly because it was seen as going against the RMA's core principles of public participation and local democracy.
United Future MP Larry Baldock told the Business Herald in late 2002 that his party wanted to see direct referrals to the Environment Court for projects with national or regional significance.
The business lobby is likely to need United Future to step up to the plate if it is to see its wishes granted - it already has the support of National and Act.
But when Baldock was asked last week if he would push for direct referral in the current review of the act by new Cabinet minister David Benson-Pope, the United Future MP was less supportive of the idea.
"We may have learned over the last year that direct referral is perhaps not the best way to go," Baldock said.
He said that the first hearings at a local council had value because they allowed a developer to deal with some objections early.
Baldock said that he was keen to see how a different process worked - one where the first hearing at a council was made more serious and people were made to front up with all of their evidence from day one.
"What some people do is not engage at the first one and wait until the Environment Court. So you're just wasting your time."
Baldock's alternative change could also mean that the Environment Court would not have to hear a case afresh. Instead it could base its hearing on evidence from the council's first hearing.
That is one spin-off supported by business groups, who have long protested that the court should not reinvent the wheel when handling a case that has been thoroughly aired at council level.
But they still want direct referral
to be made part of the RMA - a change that appears unlikely in the short term.
Another area of desired change is for objectors to be limited to those who are directly affected by a project.
Known as limited notification, the business lobby argues that it would eliminate the kinds of vexatious objections often made by one company against a competitor's project, or by environmentalists who are based a long way from a project.
"We don't think that people in Auckland should necessarily be able to issue objections to, for example, the Aqua project in Waitaki unless they can demonstrate a direct commercial or public ownership interest," Employers and Manufacturers' Association (Northern) spokesman Gilbert Peterson said.
Those pushing for limited notification gained a small victory in changes made to the RMA last year - the practice was introduced for projects that carried minor effects.
"What we got was a nod and wink," Business New Zealand's Simon Carlaw said of the change. "It doesn't go far enough."
But again the RMA's core principle of public consultation is a solid obstacle to change.
The use of independent commissioners to determine consent applications has been long debated.
The expertise and experience of councillors is questioned by many in the business lobby, who want to see a register of qualified outsiders set up.
One of their biggest beefs with the RMA is the lack of consistent decisions across councils.
The Government has responded with a measure that involves councillors being involved in a voluntary accreditation scheme that will in theory make their skill levels equal.
Another change is the introduction of national environmental standards to cover air quality, drinking water and emissions, among other things.
The standards will be the same across the country, giving a bottom line of environmental protection that councils must meet.
The EMA supports the move.
"It would standardise the conditions for projects in Coromandel, versus a project in Gisborne," Peterson said.
The standards should be in effect on September 1.
Carlaw also acknowledges efforts being made to gain consistency.
"It needs to be conceded that efforts have been made. But you are not going to have this consistency ever, as a given, just by the nature of the beast that you're dealing with."
The man reviewing the act, David Benson-Pope, will not say whether he is considering any of the business wish-list. He has accused the business lobby of mounting historical arguments.
"I'm not going to have a big formal process, because I think everyone has had enough of formal processes on the RMA," he said. "I'm focusing on making progress here, not relitigating past territory."
A bill containing proposed changes could be ready within two or three months.
WHAT BUSINESS WANTS
A process for direct referral to the Environment Court for major projects of national significance
Access to independent, qualified commissioners to hear consent applications on request
Contestable processing of applications - with councils contracting out consent processing to improve efficiency
Limiting objectors to those affected directly by a project - no matter how big it is
Removal of the Environment Court's practice of hearing appeals afresh, if evidence has already been presented at consent hearings.
By PAULA OLIVER