The Government has been busy in the RMA space, recently releasing two discussion documents. "Improving our resource management system" proposes a number of reforms including to provide greater national consistency and guidance, ensure there is more efficient and effective consenting, and have fewer resource management plans. A paper on "Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond" proposes changes to the planning process and the establishment of a national objectives framework for water. All of these proposals are likely to have implications for the planning and consenting framework that applies to the wine industry.

Efficient and effective consenting

The Government proposes Councils will be able to provide an "approved exemption" for technical or minor rule breaches of the plan. This should reduce red tape and provide a quick and cheap approval process.

There is also a proposal for regulations to direct non-notification for some activity types.

In respect of those resource consent applications that are non-notified, Councils currently have 20 working days to make decisions. It is proposed that this be reduced to 10 working days for those that are most straight forward. Again, there may be an opportunity for some activities related to grape growing and wine making to be classified as "straight forward" and this would certainly be expected for a number of rural activities.

Further amendments to the consenting process could include limiting the scope of submissions and third party appeals to allow consent hearings to be more focused and consequently more time and cost efficient. The Government also wants feedback on the merits and risks of changing appeals to the Environment Court so they are by way of rehearing instead of de novo (heard afresh). This means that the appeal would not be treated as a new hearing but the Court would have some ability to choose to rehear certain evidence. If adopted this would put greater emphasis on the need for robust evidence at the Council hearing.

Fewer resource management plans

The Government proposes that all councils will have a single plan in place within five years with consistency provided by a new national planning template developed by the Government. This will be particularly useful for those wine makers and grape growers with operations in multiple districts.

If district and regional councils group together to jointly prepare their single plan then the Government proposes a streamlined plan development process with limited rights of appeal if certain criteria are met. This includes one set of rules per area so that the single plan enables effective catchment management and brings material efficiency/cost gains. There only ability to appeal council decisions would be if the council did not accept the recommendation of the independent hearings panel.

Collaborative planning process

The Government proposes to amend the RMA to provide a collaborative planning process that councils may choose when preparing freshwater planning instruments. This involves appointing a collaborative stakeholder group with representatives from the community and parties that have a major interest in the water body who provide advice to the council. A hearings panel would then hold a hearing with Environment Court rigour. As for joint single plans, appeal rights would only be available where the council deviates from the recommendations of the hearings panel.

National objectives framework

The Government proposes to establish a regulated National Objectives Framework that requires all water bodies to meet the minimum state for ecosystem health and human health for secondary contact. In addition to this establishment of some national bottom lines, the Framework would include a set of values a water body can be managed for (such as irrigation or swimming) with associated minimum states set at a national level. The values chosen for each water body would be a local decision. Once in place this Framework will affect how water is managed throughout New Zealand.

First published in NZ Winegrower, May 2013.