Cabinet approves bill to fast-track consenting of projects of national significance

Cabinet has approved a bill that would fast-track the consenting of projects of national significance.   

RMA Minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones announced the bill had been approved and will receive its first reading under urgency on Thursday afternoon. It will then be sent to the Environment Committee for public submissions.  

The bill aims to create a one-stop shop to fast-track consenting and cut red tape to make it easier for New Zealand to build major infrastructure.   

Development of the Bill is part of the coalition agreement between National and NZ First and is a key component of the Government's 100-Day Plan. 

"Consenting major projects in New Zealand takes far too long and is far too expensive," Bishop said.   

"A recent report by the Infrastructure Commission shows that the cost of consenting infrastructure projects has increased by 70 percent since 2014, and the time it takes to get consent has increased by as much as 150 percent over the same period."    

Bishop said the coalition government is "determined to cut through the thicket of red and green tape holding New Zealand back" and make it clear to the rest of the world the country is open for business.   

He added it will help build a pipeline of projects around the country to "grow the economy and improve our productivity".  

"The Fast Track Approvals Bill is based on the previous RMA fast track regime developed by the previous government but is far more extensive in its scope and will be far more effective."  

Projects will become eligible for fast track through one of two ways - either through a referral by the joint decision of the Ministers of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Transport upon an application, or by being listed as a project in Schedule 2A of the Bill.  

Once a project has been referred into the fast-track process, it will be considered by an expert panel which will apply relevant consent and permit conditions.   

Panels will have a maximum of six months to do so. The project will then be sent back to joint Ministers to either approve the project (with conditions) or decline the project. Ministers will also be able to refer a project back to a panel if they determine the conditions recommended are too onerous.  

Projects listed in Schedule 2A of the Bill will be automatically referred into the fast-track process, and the listing of a project in Schedule 2B of the Bill will be required to be taken into account by Ministers if and when a project comes before them for referral into fast-track.  

The Bill does not currently contain any projects listed in either Schedule 2A or 2B. To ensure a thorough and transparent process, the Government will be establishing a Fast Track Advisory Group of independent experts to provide advice to Ministers on what projects should be included in the legislation.   

In the coming weeks, Ministers will establish the group, publish the criteria, and applicants will be able to submit projects to the group for evaluation.  

Cabinet will decide on the exact mix of projects and the projects will be inserted into the schedules of the Bill through the select committee process.  

"The one-stop shop nature of this new regime is overdue," Shane Jones said.   

"For too long New Zealanders have had to wait years, even decades, before crucial projects in their regions are approved and consented, and the benefits flow to communities. Our new fast-track regime starts to change this."  

The new regime will allow the fast-tracking of:  

  • Resource consents, notices of requirement, alterations to designations and certificates of compliance under the Resource Management Act 1991  
  • Marine consents under the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Environment Effects Act 2012  
  • Section 61 land access arrangements under the Crown Minerals Act 1991  
  • Applications for archaeological authority under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014  
  • Concessions and other permissions under the Conservation Act 1987 and Reserves Act 1977  
  • Approvals under the Wildlife Act 1953  
  • Aquaculture decisions under the Fisheries Act 1996  

Bishop said the bill will also include a more efficient mechanism for Public Works Act 1981 processes.  

"Our new regime will unlock the construction of major infrastructure projects in this country while still ensuring the protection of our environment and existing Treaty settlements."

Opposition parties and environmental group slam changes 

Labour is hitting out at the bill with Environment spokesperson Rachel Brooking saying it shows Ministers' ears are well and truly taken by lobbyists.

"This Bill hands lobbyists and Ministers the keys to our country without transparency when it comes to our resources. The greed of corporations both foreign and local could reshape New Zealand," Brooking said. 

"This will make New Zealand a banana republic where a Minister can be lobbied to make a decision and can disregard the interests of the public. We should not decide what happens in New Zealand via lobbyists with fat wallets.

"I'm not sure when Chris Bishop or Shane Jones became environmental experts, or studied the ins and outs of ecology, climate change or health and safety, but the idea of them having final say without the input of experts and communities is frightening."

Brooking said the 100-day plan promise to outline projects to be included in the Bill has not been kept and the legislation is incomplete without it.

"Labour had appropriate legislation and processes for both fast track consents and longer-term Resource Management Act reform. Pitching this as a solution for red - or green - tape helps no one except lobby groups. It is not the way forward for New Zealanders, it does not help infrastructure and will not be effective.

"This legislation is not in New Zealand's economic or environmental interest and could raise questions of legitimacy over these projects in the long term. It has the potential to undermine all of our environmental protections and our international standing as a country that has proper processes for investment decisions."

The Green Party also criticised the bill with outgoing co-leader James Shaw accusing the Government of "giving big industry a free pass to bulldoze New Zealand's precious native wildlife".

"This is one of the most significant assaults on the environment undertaken by any government in my lifetime," Shaw said.

"Ministers are handing themselves extraordinary powers to approve projects that could include new coal mines, mining on parts of our precious conservation estate, and the destruction of the seabed.

"Our understanding is that this could even include projects previously rejected by the Environment Court on the basis that they were far too harmful to have any place in Aotearoa."
Shaw said it's hard to see the bill as anything other than a shadowy, antidemocratvie way of "fast-tracking projects that will increase climate pollution and trash our environment".

"There is serious concern that the government is basically putting the future of our natural world at the mercy of party donors and powerful industry lobbyists.

"Let's be clear: this is not about considering things quickly - existing streamlined processes already allow for that. The only logic here is in allowing industries like oil and gas to make money from destroying the natural world we depend upon for our very survival.

"We have not seen anything like this in New Zealand for five decades. Today's announcement shows this government for what it is: this the single most anti-environment government we have seen.

"Environmental laws will be ignored and public input sidelined. This brazenly anti-democratic disregard for environmental protection should have no place in Aotearoa.

Shaw said rather than relying purely on the discretion of a Minister, we must ensure that expert advice and the views of affected communities are a significant part of the decision-making process.

WWF is also criticising the bill saying it puts New Zealand on a fast track to "environmental destruction" and an "unprecedented assault on nature and democracy".

"This bill is at the heart of the Coalition Government's systematic attack on our natural world," said WWF New Zealand's CEO Dr Kayla Kingdon-Bebb.

"Such an egregious assault on our environmental laws and democratic processes was never part of their election campaign and has taken us all by surprise. New Zealanders didn't vote to trash our iconic landscapes and consign our threatened species to extinction simply for a boost in export revenue and a few expedited developments.

"It's astonishing that this Government would choose to prioritise lining the pockets of private developers at the expense of the environment we all depend on, particularly at a time when climate change and nature loss pose unprecedented risk," she said.

The new fast-track regime is being touted as the solution to lengthy consent processes, but Dr Kingdon-Bebb said it will instead pave the way for Ministers to approve pet projects without proper scrutiny or environmental checks and balances, and open them up to opportunities for corruption.

"It's placing unbridled power in the hands of a handful of development-focused Ministers, cutting the public out of decision-making, undermining the rights and interests of tangata whenua, and running roughshod over New Zealand's Treaty obligations," she said.

The full list of projects set to be fast-tracked has not yet been published, although Ministers have previously hinted at new coal mines on public conservation land, seabed mining projects, and irrigation dams as among those being considered.