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OPINIONPoliticsMay 6, 2020

The sprint to shovel-ready must not ignore the marathon

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The new fast-track process for major projects will need careful drafting to balance the short-term gains with the long-term effects on climate change, writes planning expert Hamish Rennie.

David Parker has announced that some large, “shovel-ready” projects will begin sooner than planned, bypassing public consultation processes under the Resource Management Act. The aim is to boost the economy in the wake of the downturn created by Covid-19.

There are matters of concern in the environment minister’s announcement, the most unfathomable being that no appeals will be allowed to the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court.

One wonders if the government should not simply remove the Supreme Court from our judicial structure if it sees it as having no role in two of the most significant issues in our country – freshwater management and Covid-19 recovery.

Parker has indicated that the sustainable management principles of the RMA and treaty rights will be upheld. This is welcome, but will be cold comfort to the many New Zealanders who have successfully campaigned to remove the provisions in the RMA that prevent climate change from being considered.

The amendments to the RMA to address climate change will not come into force until 2022. By that time, many of the decisions under the Covid-19 recovery law will have been made without consideration of the legacy effects on climate change.

On the positive side, Minister Parker has indicated that RMA national directives, such as the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, will be applied in the decision-making. But this will not alleviate the concerns of surfers who went to the High Court to prevent damage to the nationally significant Mangamaunu surf break by a proposed cycleway, a late addition to the northern corridor approved under post-Kaikoura earthquake fast-track provisions.

The previous government experienced similar challenges in Christchurch over subdivision approvals; there is unlikely to be much opposition testing of those aspects of the legislation. The broad purpose of the Covid legislation means appeals, such as that at Mangamaunu, would have little chance of success.

The drafting of the legislation will need to ensure that processes allow public submissions and hearings. These were much constrained under post-quake response legislation.

The current RMA processes enable decisions that are well-informed, with people providing information through the submissions process. Local people are often far more knowledgeable about their socioeconomic and biophysical environments than experts brought in to assess a particular project, especially in fast-track situations.

When working for a proponent, experts may well be constrained in the information they are allowed to gather or present. Farmer groups, recreation organisations, tourism operators, fishers, hunters and environmental groups, as well as individual landowners, have all made use of the RMA processes to test information and ensure the decision-makers are well-informed. That includes understanding the values attached to aspects of the environment.

For major projects, this has meant a slower process due to much more extensive and significant impacts. These projects need well-informed decision-makers, and the risk with fast-track processes is that key information will not be heard.

Covid-19 recovery is not like the recovery from the Kaikoura and Christchurch earthquakes, where major infrastructure and homes needed urgent repair. It is a crisis without damage to infrastructure and has been well-managed to minimise the loss of life.

The economic packages provided by the government have meant that most businesses are now, to some extent, reliant on the government. This has revived memories of the 1970s when the government owned most of the major employment industries.

Then, as now, fast-track legislation was introduced (the National Development Act), to provide “think big”, turnkey projects a smooth route through the process of considering environmental and social impacts.

The Mackenzie Country, Clutha and Waikato River Hydro-Electric Power Schemes and fast-tracked projects of the 1970s have left us with much appreciated valuable amenities and renewable energy resources. The cumulative costs to the environment are less apparent and have faded in significance as each new generation grows up in a much modified reality.

However, this time, the inability to consider the impacts on climate change may haunt us much more profoundly if not well-integrated into decision-making.

Dr Hamish Rennie is an associate professor of planning at Lincoln University, a member of the New Zealand Planning Institute and the NZ Association for Impact Assessment and an experienced expert witness and hearings commissioner under the Resource Management Act

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