RMA reform to fast track shovel ready infrastructure (and other) projects
In the words of Minister Parker speaking on proposed Covid-19 reforms to the RMA; “these are extraordinary times that need extraordinary solutions”.
On Sunday 3 May 2020, the Government announced Cabinet approval to amend the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) through the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast Track Consenting) Bill. Details on the Bill have not yet been released, however some of the key headlines from the Minister’s Media Release suggest the following measures will be implemented to “get shovel ready projects moving”:
- A new consenting process will replace the current RMA procedure, with ‘access’ to that process to be determined by the Minister for the Environment himself;
- Fast track consenting is intended to apply to “significant” projects only, and can be applicable to the private as well as public sector;
- Shovel ready (or ready to go once construction industry returns to normal) are likely to be prioritised;
- Decision making on fast track consents is to be made by an appointed Expert Consenting Panel headed by an Environment Court Judge (i.e. not local councils), although it is acknowledged that projects progressing through this process can have a “high level of certainty consent will be granted”;
- No Environment Court / merits appeal rights.
The media release and the Ministry for the Environment both state that environmental management safeguards will be built into the system and Part 2 of the Act will apply. It therefore remains to be seen just how much of a clear green light such projects will get, depending upon what weighting Part 2 and other national direction will be given, and what role (if any) public and NGO consultation will have. These devils will be in the drafting.
Applying all of its powers of urgency, Government could feasibly pass this Bill into law as early as June 2020. Private developers, NGOs, and councils should therefore be considering now what personnel, project management, and planning they will need in place in order to potentially take advantage of this ‘extraordinary’ process. It is also noted that this legislation will potentially only last two years before repeal.
This is not the first time such reforms have been made to the RMA. In the aftermath of disasters such as the Kaikoura and Christchurch earthquakes, consenting processes were also by-passed. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, the National Party has commented this announcement supports its own pledged commitment to repeal the RMA if elected to Government in 2020. Meanwhile the Government launched a review panel in July 2019 which was tasked with producing a proposal for comprehensive reform by mid-2020. With over 18 RMA amendment acts having been passed since its inception in 1991, there is surely no remaining question that the system is indeed broke and in need of a fix, one way or another.
Just how the Government will hang on to its ambition of (pre-Covid19) higher economic goals such as carbon zero when weighing up projects quick to get off the ranks and generate employment, as against those that prioritise environmental outcomes, will be a true test of these proposed reforms.
Want to know more?
If you have any questions about RMA processes in light of Covid-19, please contact our specialist Environment, planning, and natural resources Team.