On 17 October the Government announced that a unique, "one-off" planning process will be used to develop the Auckland Council's first Unitary Plan.  The Unitary Plan is a resource management plan that will replace the district and regional plans and policies of Auckland's former councils.  It will be the principal regulatory tool guiding the management of Auckland's land and natural resources.

The Auckland Council approached the Government last year, seeking a simplified and streamlined alternative to the regular planning process outlined in Schedule One of the Resource Management Act 1991.  Due to the size and complexity of the task and the outdated nature of the outgoing plans and policies, this project was estimated to take six to ten years.

The Government agreed that the regular process was unsuitable, instead proposing the "one-off" planning process.

The proposed process begins with the Council developing and proposing a Unitary Plan, as in the regular process, but with particularly thorough public consultation.  The Council will then publically notify the Unitary Plan.

An independent hearings panel then takes over, displacing the usual council hearings.  This panel will be similar to a Board of Inquiry and comprise members appointed by the Ministers for Conservation and the Environment.  It is intended that a retired High Court or Environment Court judge act as chair.  The panel will hear public submissions and evidence regarding the Unitary Plan, with powers to direct mediation and caucusing and a process that allows for cross-examination.

The independent hearings panel will report its findings on the Unitary Plan back to the Auckland Council. Those parts of the Panel's findings which are endorsed by the Council will take immediate legal effect.  In respect of recommendations the Council does not accept, full rights of appeal to the Environment Court on points of law remain.

The Council will have three years from the date of notification in which to approve any panel findings not appealed, or subject to variation or plan changes.  This timeframe may be extended with the approval of the Ministers for Conservation and the Environment.

Although faster, this streamlined process is not expected to be any cheaper, costing an estimated $14-21 million.

This process will be provided for in the Resource Management Amendment Bill, expected to be introduced by the end of this year.  Public submissions will be invited by the Select Committee considering the Bill, likely to be the Local Government and Environment Select Committee.