The announcement by the Minister for the Environment Amy Adams yesterday, that the Government will amend the Resource Management Act to give effect to Auckland Council's request to fast track Auckland's first Unitary Plan, will be a surprise to many. While there was strong opposition, from some parts of the legal community in particular, to the suggested one tier hearing process and removal of appeals, the Government's 'hybrid' approach has been carefully considered to maintain public rights to be heard. However, it is unclear from the Government's announcement whether the Council's request to remove the further submissions step from the planning process has been agreed to. This would be a significant change to the opportunity for informed public participation in the process.

The Minister was focused on ensuring that there would be sufficient stakeholder and community engagement in the process, but to ensure that most, if not all, of the Plan's provisions would be operative in three years, rather than being bogged down in a quagmire of legal wrangling that could otherwise take more than a decade to resolve. The key to the proposed process is that the hearings panel for the Plan will be totally independent from Auckland Council and be chaired by a retired High Court or Environment Court Judge. The panel would be appointed by Ministers for the Environment and Conservation.

The powers of the hearing panel to direct robust mediation, caucusing of witnesses and grouping of issues, as well as allowing cross examination, should assist with refinement of issues and testing of evidence during the hearing process. The capacity for active case management will assist. Effectively, this is bringing Environment Court type rigour and procedures into the first, and in most cases only, substantive hearing on the Plan.

Similar to the decision making process on a Notice of Requirement, the panel will deliver its findings by way of recommendations to the Council. If Council accepts those recommendations, the provisions will be immediately operative, subject only to appeals on points of law. However if the Council does not accept those recommendations, full appeal rights to the Environment Court will be available. It is intended that the amendments to the Resource Management Act to provide for this Unitary Plan process will be introduced into the House by the end of the year and public submissions will be invited as part of the Select Committee considerations.

Clearly, the implications of this process and decision will be carefully considered and no doubt hotly debated. However, the key for all those with a stake in Auckland is to get involved in the discussion groups and workshops on the draft Plan, to have a say before the draft is released in March 2013, and to ensure that concerns and interests are incorporated in advance of formal notification in September 2013.

Bell Gully has the skills and experience to assist with that process.

See the Government's press release: www.beehive.govt.nz