The National government has announced plans to streamline the Resource Management Act to achieve efficiency gains in the resource consent process.
Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, identified key elements of the reform package as:
• Removing frivolous, vexatious and anti-competitive objections
• Streamlining processes for projects of national significance
• Creating an Environmental Protection Authority
• Improving plan development and plan change processes
• Improving resource consent processes
• Streamlining decision making
• Improving workability and compliance
• Improving national instruments
The Government has backed off its election promise to remove references to the Treaty of Waitangi in the legislation because of opposition by the Maori Party - which is in a confidence and supply agreement with National - as well as claiming such removal was no longer needed because of existing case law and improved practices.
An Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) will be created to achieve national environmental goals. The government will use this agency to get around the appeals process to the Environment Court for proposals of "national significance".
An EPA board of inquiry will be the vehicle for fast-tracking these nationally significant projects so that board decisions are made within a 9 month time frame. The effect for major projects will be that the EPA board process will re-centralise decision-making, effectively removing local authority decision-making over such projects and subjecting decisions to more political interference at the level of national government.
As emphasized in earlier posts on the RMA, the late Robert Muldoon, Prime Minister of the National government in the last 1970s-early 1980s, can be heard cackling from the grave that his late 1970s fast track proposal to bulldoze through projects despite environmental issues is about to come to fruition.
While some environmental organisations such as the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), concede the need to improve the speed of the appeals process, they point to the narrowing of appeals to points of law as a mischaracterisation of the role of the Environment Court as a judicial tribunal rather than its true function as an expert tribunal.
More fundamentally, environmental groups such as the EDS and Greenpeace are concerned that the proposed RMA changes, yet to be enacted, effectively strengthen the hand of large developers and undermine public participation and environmental sustainability. With the RMA's fundamental principle of a "balancing test" that is readily interpreted to weigh more heavily in favour of commercial over environmental interests it is hard not to be persuaded that the revised RMA will result in a backsliding in New Zealand's efforts to move towards environmental sustainability.