RMLA President’s Report – December 2014

I write this report within a state of some fatigue, no doubt common to many practitioners in Auckland engaged in the Unitary Plan hearing process.  I have nothing but admiration for the Hearings Panel as they confront a diverse ‘smorgasbord’ of complex issues that are at the forefront of current RMA debate, including urban expansion, natural hazards, biodiversity, water management, and landscape protection, to name a few.

We recently met with the Minister as an executive to discuss (among other things) the thinking around what will now be the 2015 amendment legislation.  The Auckland Unitary Plan process is undoubtedly in the Minister’s mind at present, as a possible exemplar of how efficiently planning processes can operate if well implemented.

A clear message we were left with (“ringing in our ears”) is that the Minister simply does not accept that the current First Schedule processes enable Councils to respond effectively to important social, environmental and economic issues over their ebbs and cycles, and before it is too late to make the desired impact.  The Minister also stressed that we will have the most significant resource management reform we have ever seen in front of us, when a bill emerges in 2015.

The RMLA has previously prepared a position paper on Plan Agility, which was an unprecedented step reflecting the significance of the issue.  The paper concluded as follows:

“Rather than dispensing with any one or more phases of the current plan preparation process altogether, the Ministry for the Environment should harness the range of constructive proposals for better public engagement at the outset of the plan review procedures (thereby reducing the need or likelihood of submitters exercising an appeal right), alongside the suggestions for continued improvement in the case management of plan appeals, and as recently recounted by Acting Principal Environment Judge Newhook.

Adopting that approach, along with further incentives to promote a genuine commitment to collaborative processes suggested in this document, we consider that the imperatives of plan agility can be realised without raising the strong concerns held by many members about a potential reduction in the quality of planning outcomes arising through a removed or limited right or scope of appeal to the Environment Court.”

The reality is however that we need to engage constructively as an Association in reform around plan preparation.  We can take it as a given that some form of alternative procedure to the First Schedule will be part of the reform, as was signalled in the 2013 discussion documents, and applying beyond water management.  We have all witnessed the increasing resort otherwise being made to bespoke legislation (Auckland, Christchurch, special housing areas legislation) out of frustration by Government over timeframes associated with the conventional RMA plan preparation procedures.

To that end, the National Committee is considering a number of initiatives to be proactive in this area, including submitting a model for consideration by the Ministry which adopts the best elements of the Auckland Unitary Plan process, and that outlined in the 2013 Freshwater Reform Discussion Document.  This model would be available beyond water management, but perhaps for targeted application to specific issues of relative significance or urgency, rather than entire plan reviews each generation.

If any members have any particular ideas they would like to share with us to inform such a model, reflecting lessons from the Auckland Unitary Plan, current Christchurch Replacement District Plan processes (or involvement in the special housing areas legislation) in particular, please do not hesitate to direct that to us (refer details below).  Time is likely of the essence for the RMLA to have an impact on policy development in this area, so don’t delay in submitting your thoughts.

We are also considering the road show series for 2015.  One idea emerging is a focus on Plan writing with an aim to reduce the degree of “clutter” within our planning instruments, which must be at least a part cause of inertia surrounding Plan preparation and timely review.  The Environment Court has advised that it is keen to partner with us on this topic, building on the success of the 2014 conditions road show series.

Further, we have discussed (with the Ministry staff) a proposal to prepare a roadshow series looking at best practice techniques in collaboration.  These techniques will need to be employed by local authorities in the context of the NPSFM 2014 National Objectives Framework, but may well become relevant more generally in alternative plan procedures under the forthcoming reforms.  We need to ensure that the profession as well as local authorities are “upskilled” to engage in those types of processes constructively, in order to produce the best outcomes.

In the meantime, the National Committee has now had one full face to face and a telephone conference since the 2014 conference, to cement in our portfolios, and prepare ourselves for the year ahead.  Planning is well underway for the Tauranga conference, and an exciting and compelling range of presenters within the Mātauranga Māori theme is taking shape. 

We are also delighted to announce that the Nelson Marlborough branch has agreed to take on the 2016 conference.  A return to this region is timely given the place of that setting in the case currently shaping (or reshaping) our resource management system.  The Supreme Court decision in King Salmon is having a huge impact within the Auckland Unitary Plan hearings, as its implications drive changes to the all important Regional Policy Statement provisions.

With all of this said, I pause simply to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a relaxing break.  Rest up – we are going to need all the stamina you can muster to get us through the year ahead!

Martin Williams


NB       Please email karol.helmink@rmla.org.nz with any comments on plan preparation reform ideas.