Rein Brownlee's powers in - Greens

MICHAEL BERRY
Last updated 07:46 25/07/2012
Brownlee
DEAN KOZANIC
OUT OF BOUNDS: Justice Chisholm has ordered a judicial review of the process Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee took in rearranging Canterbury housing boundaries.

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The Greens are calling for Christchurch earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee's powers to be reined in.

Yesterday, the High Court released its decision that Brownlee had overstepped the limits of his powers in redrawing Canterbury housing boundaries.

"Gerry Brownlee exceeded his extensive statutory authority despite having the most draconian powers ever available to a minister in peacetime," Green Party MP Eugenie Sage said.

The Act made the minister and the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) "all powerful" but with the emergency period now over these powers should be scaled back to allow public input into planning decisions. 
 
"If normal RMA planning processes had applied, the parties who took the case would have been able to have their say and contribute to decisions without necessarily having to go to court.
 
"It is time for the law to be tightened up to stop the Minister acting as a power unto himself."

Sage said it was clear a review of the Cera Act was needed, and was in fact overdue.
 
An annual review of the "operation and effectiveness" of the Act was built into the legislation, she said. "It was supposed to have been completed in April, 12 months after Parliament passed the Act.
 
"We understand the minister may have a copy of the review. That should be made public immediately, and in particular we need to know how the actions of the minister himself were evaluated in the review. 
 
"The review needs to involve the public and to focus on the extent of the minister and Cera's powers and whether they are still necessary."

Sage said the Green Party had called for the extensive ministerial powers contained in the Act to expire after nine months, once the emergency period was over.

BROWNLEE OVERSTEPPED LEGAL LIMITS: COURT

In the first legal challenge to Brownlee's special powers, the High Court set aside the changes Brownlee made to the 1998 Canterbury Regional Policy Statement.

Justice Chisholm ordered a judicial review of the process Brownlee took.

Brownlee's changes had the effect of ending appeals that were going to be heard in the Environment Court over housing land boundary changes and excluding several property developers' land from residential development.

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It was those changes that had been successfully challenged.

However, other changes Brownlee made to the district plans of the Christchurch City Council and the Waimakariri District Council to allow residential developments of land at Prestons Rd, Halswell West and Kaiapoi were not challenged and are unaffected by the judgment.

The leading challenger, Christchurch fish processor Independent Fisheries, said last night the judicial review would allow the applicants - property developers and a supermarket operator - to take the case to the Environment Court.

That was where the case had been headed before Brownlee used his powers to change the Regional Policy Statement.

The parties siding with Brownlee during the court challenge were Christchurch International Airport, and the Urban Development Strategy (UDS) Partners (local councils) who originally drew Christchurch's housing boundaries.

Those boundaries had been earlier challenged by developers, including Independent Fisheries, and then redrawn by Environment Canterbury in the developers' favour.

That then led to an appeal by the UDS partners to the Environment Court and that was where the matters were when Brownlee's decisions effectively ended that and redrew the housing boundaries where the airport and the local councils wanted.

Independent Fisheries director Mike Dormer said the company owned 22 hectares of land near Willowbank Reserve which it wanted to develop for residential sections which had been excluded by Brownlee's decision.

"Needless to say, we're very happy with the umpire's decision after a long innings on a very difficult pitch," Dormer said.

"Brownlee hasn't done a bad job really in many aspects of patching it [the rebuild] together, but he has been ill- equipped for this commercial experience."

Justice Chisholm's decision related to how Brownlee made the decision rather than the decision itself.

Brownlee used his earthquake recovery powers unnecessarily and for the wrong purposes, Justice Chisholm said.

Brownlee's actions stepped outside the legal limits of his powers under the Cera Act.

"Having said that, I accept that the minister acted in good faith," Justice Chisholm said.

Brownlee also denied developers access to the courts on the matter, a "serious error" which deprived the applicants of a private right, Justice Chisholm said.

In a statement, Brownlee said last night the decision would not hinder the city's recovery.

The court had found freeing up land for houses and council staff for rebuild activity was within the purposes of the Cera Act, he said.

His motivation was sound and his actions "necessary", he said.

"Following the 22 February, 2011, earthquake we were faced with a pressing need for land to be freed up for urban residential subdivision."

Brownlee, or his office, will have to pay for at least some of the legal bills of all six applicants at the judge's order.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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