Nats ready 'controversial' RMA planning shakeup

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 14:39 26/02/2009

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THE GOVERNMENT is poised to make radical changes to the Resource Management Act, drastically raising fines, cutting the time spent considering major projects and limiting some appeal rights.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says the bill will be a major change to the country's planning laws the most important since the RMA came into effect in 1991 and admits "some of the changes will be controversial".

The changes will also enable local councils to make planning changes more quickly and aims to prevent companies using the law to stymie competition from rival firms.

Smith told the Sunday Star-Times that the bill, which "streamlines and simplifies" the act, will be introduced when parliament meets the week after next.

Expect radical changes to planning processes, Smith said, but without changing the environmental purposes of the act.

There had been concern among environmental groups that National was going to change those and bring a "stronger development flavour" into the act. It was not doing so.

The planning process for major projects such as wind farms and hydro-electric dams was too bureaucratic and slow, Smith said, citing the 13 years taken to consider the proposal for a marina at Whangamata and the many years spent over the Wellington city bypass.

"It's been too drawn out, which we think is bad for the economy and incredibly draining," Smith said.

Instead of a two-step process involving first a local body hearing and then another in the Environment Court, major projects could now be heard by a board of inquiry headed by an Environment Court judge or a retired judge. Local bodies could nominate people also to serve on the board.

The board would also have the power to commission their own independent reports on proposals.

Appeal rights against the decisions of the boards would be limited.

"It is our intention to limit the number of appeals that go further up the track."

The bill would be "pretty aggressive" in dealing with vexatious or frivolous objections and would crack down on companies that used the planning process to try to frustrate commercial rivals.

Smith cited the example of supermarket chains that tried to prevent rivals setting up in their neighbourhood.

The government would "increase the power of the courts to be able to ping players that have abused the RMA process", he said.

"The fundamental problem at the moment is that even if a participant knows the case is going to be defeated eventually, they can tie a proposal up in the courts for years.

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"The worst penalty they face is a few legal bills and a couple of hundred thousand dollars of legal costs against them. That is small beer compared with the $4 million or $5 million they may be making per year by not having competition in that key marketplace."

The bill would enable local councils to make changes to their plans more quickly the average time taken to make a planning change at present was six years. The law change would remove the requirement that those making submissions on proposed changes had to be given the opportunity to comment on other submissions. This made the process much more complex and slow.

"There will be some controversy around our attempt to find a better balance between the rights of citizens to participate in the planning process and the time it's taking."

Fines for major breaches of the act were also to be toughened, Smith said. "The maximum fine under the current act is $200,000.

"The equivalent in Australia is $2m and in Canada it's $4m."

The bill would go to a select committee, Smith said. 

- Sunday Star Times

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