Minister for the Environment, the Honourable David Parker, commenced the Resource Management Reform session outlining the key areas of interest for the infrastructure sectors across the recently introduced Built and Natural Environment and the Spatial Planning Bills. The cost of the current consenting system is particularly significant for infrastructure projects with this typically being around 5.5% of total costs, well above international benchmarks. There were a couple of very interesting insights provided, including the explanation as to why a co-governance model (similar to the Water Services Entities legislation) was not adopted for the new resource management system, although iwi representation is included on the powerful Regional Planning Committees. The infrastructure sector audience was encouraged to make submissions to the Environment Select Committee. Following Minister Parker’s speech, he had to return to Parliament to undertake the first reading of the two Bills.

The Ministry for the Environment’s Lesley Baddon then provided a valuable deeper dive into the details of the Natural and Built Environment Bill and the Spatial Planning Bill. Lesley Baddon outlined the key shifts in the new system, including acknowledgement of the critical role that infrastructure plays. Current consenting processes take a huge amount of time, effort, and cost. The new system will focus effort at the front end of the planning process enabling a more nationally consistent evidence-based approach in the form of a National Planning Framework (NPF). The NPF is being developed with Te Waihanga and will be in place by 2025 to inform development of the first Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). Priority content for the first NPF will include all existing RMA national direction, new infrastructure content, and other new content to fill key gaps in the existing national direction.

Importantly for infrastructure providers, the role of designation has been clarified with RSSs to provide high level guidance on infrastructure protection, locations and delivery. Access to designation powers is extended to include non-network utility operations, such as ports, who can apply to become ‘requiring authorities’ for public benefit infrastructure. A new planning system predicated on outcomes will be challenging. It’s a cultural shift. It’s a technical shift, and a capability shift.

Infrastructure New Zealand’s Michelle McCormick then facilitated a star panel discussion on the new resource management system with Bell Gully’s Natasha Garvan, Wikaira Consulting Limited’s Jade Wikaira, Buddle Findlay’s Dave Randal, Porirua City Council’s Stewart McKenzie and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, the Right Honourable Simon Upton.

The panel covered a number of questions including whether the new framework can help our infrastructure get to where it needs to be in 2050. Implementation was considered a critical factor, including a significant amount of ministerial control over components such as the NPF.

It was noted that the current reforms still don’t resolve the funding and financing of infrastructure, which would be key for the sector. Culture and capability to respond to that strong change is also considered key with local authorities collaborating with Māori, and effectively codifying what’s already best practiced under the RMA where infrastructure providers have to partner with iwi Māori to deliver things. The system should acknowledge the trade-off of infrastructure development and environment protection.

The recognition of the conflicts between different outcomes in the legislation is considered sensible but ultimately needs some resolution which falls to the Minister for the Environment through the NPF. Ultimately governments will, through regulation, control the level of environmental regulation in line with their philosophical and electoral interests.

All agreed that the most significant change that’s proposed is mandatory spatial planning and this is welcomed. But it will place heavy demands on local government, officials and politicians. Central government resourcing of the transition is key but will also require culture and behaviour change for all participants.