Phase Two of the Government's Resource Management Act (RMA) reforms continue with the 13 October release of the Ministry for the Environment's discussion document "Building Better Cities". The discussion document focuses on options for reform of urban and infrastructure planning to enable urban areas to function more effectively. However, the "options for change" are not limited to the RMA. They extend to the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA), Land Transport Management Act 2003 (LTMA) and the Public Works Act 1981 (PWA).

The options for reform respond to concerns about the lack of explicit integration of related statutory processes which influence urban and infrastructure planning, as well as concerns with timing and duplication of processes in the RMA, PWA, LTMA, and LGA. It is consistent with the Government's aim of having simpler and more efficient RMA processes, which was a focus of Phase One reforms and resulted in the Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Act 2009.

The discussion document identifies four urban planning and five infrastructure problems. It then contains 51 high level "options for change", each with a number of further options, to address the identified problems.

The options raised have the potential for broad ranging reforms, which will depend on options that are taken further. While the discussion document does not make any recommendations or identify any preferred options, there are a number of key themes running through it, including:

  • greater Government input or direction into local planning matters; and
  • changes to designation powers under the RMA for network utilities and infrastructure.  

Key options for change discussed, include:

  • Greater Government input or direction into local planning matters: the discussion document emphasises greater use of National Policy Statements, National Environmental Standards or the National Infrastructure Plan to express Government policies and objectives, use of a Government Policy Statement to set out the Government's objectives for Auckland, and/or the Government having a statutory role in the certification of the Auckland Spatial Plan before it is adopted, as well as a role in its review.
  • Expanding the spatial plan for Auckland: expanding the role and recognition given to the Auckland spatial plan is identified, with the potential for this plan to be the single plan for Auckland, replacing all RMA plans and policies or alternatively incorporating the Regional Land Transport Strategy and Auckland Regional Policy Statement.
  • Expanding the use of spatial plans to other parts of the country: options include spatial plans being either mandatory or voluntary, with use being either wide-spread or limited to areas with urban growth pressures.
  • Changing the eligibility to obtain designations (a form of planning approval for network utilities and infrastructure) and the related ability to compulsorily acquire land: the discussion paper raises the option of broadening the ability to obtain designations based on the type of infrastructure provided, rather than projects being public in nature. This possibility is balanced by options for restricting, in some instances, other rights and powers that come with designations, including limits on the ability to compulsorily acquire land (as well as changes in decision-making power and limits on the ability to prevent incompatible development on designated land).
  • Altering the detail required to be provided in designations: a concern was raised about the level of detailed information which is increasingly required for the approval of designations. Options considered in the discussion document include providing for concept designations, which would not involve the level of detail currently required for designations, and depending on the level of effects addressed may only require limited approvals to be subsequently obtained.
  • Streamlining of process to obtain all necessary approvals for a project: the discussion paper raises the option of creating a "project consent" which would integrate all necessary approvals under the RMA and other statutes (such as the PWA, and presumably Historic Places Act 1993), with a single point of appeal. Other options for streamlining include removing the two-stage notice of requirement / outline plan process and establishing a development's limits when a designation is established; and providing for subsequent consents to be classified as controlled activities where a concept designation is established.
  • Extended use of the PWA, and a willingness to revisit how compensation is calculated: although only touched on, there appears to be a willingness to expand the types of projects that could make use of the PWA process, including enabling local authorities to acquire land for major urban renewal projects - one option includes further Government oversight.
  • Introduction of a national plan template: while not central to the discussion document, there appears to be some support for this concept in order to allow consistent treatment of NESs and NPSs at the local level.

What next?

Feedback sought on discussion document

Feedback is sought before recommendations are made to the relevant Ministers, and then to Cabinet. Given the potential scale of the reform for all sectors of the New Zealand economy, serious consideration should be given to making submissions.

Submissions must be lodged by 5pm 17 December 2010. A 19 page question and answer form is included in the discussion document, although more general submissions can be made.

Simpson Grierson is well-placed to assist you in making a submission.

More wide-spread LGA reforms

Note too that further LGA reforms are being considered. These include a review of the function and structure of local government, including the respective roles of central and local government. A discussion document is expected to be released by 31 July 2011.