NZCA advice on a combined process for resource consents and DOC concessions for nationally significant proposals

To: Director-General of Conservation
Date: 17 February 2011

The NZCA’s comments are informed by and relate to the advice in the information sheet that the combined process is expected to be applied to only one or two applications a year of an order of magnitude of the Milford-Dart tunnel and the Mokihinui Hydro Scheme.  In other words, the focus is on major projects on public conservation land with potentially significant adverse effects on nature conservation, recreation, and other community values. 

In response to the three questions posed:

Q1 If you were an applicant for a nationally significant proposal, would you support using this process?  Do you believe it will result in fewer costs overall?

The NZCA is never likely to be an applicant or have an application called in by the Minister.  Having had no first hand experience of seeking a resource consent and landowner’s permission for a major development project, it is unable to judge whether this process would be beneficial or less costly to the applicant, the decision-makers, or to other interested parties.

Q2 Are the existing RMA tests for a nationally significant proposal (section 142 RMA) appropriate in this context?

The existing RMA tests for a national significant project are not appropriate for decision-making about public resources designated for conservation purposes.  The principles and basic philosophy of the Resource Management Act are founded on the concept of sustainable management, often referred to as “sustainable development”. That is very different from those of conservation legislation which are protection and, in some cases such as national parks and nature reserves, preservation in perpetuity.

The proposed criteria should be amended to require that genuine consideration and proper weighting are given the important considerations in conservation legislation such as risks to, or impacts on, indigenous species and ecosystems, the cultural values of tangata whenua, and the benefit, use and enjoyment of the general public including free and unimpeded public access.

Q3 Can you suggest any improvements to the proposed combined process?

A decision within 20 working days for a nationally significant project does not allow a busy Minister with many portfolios to give any credible consideration to the proposal.  The Minister may wish to question the Board of Inquiry about some of its reasoning.  She may wish to get legal or technical advice. 60 working days would be a more realistic, but still minimal, period.

The Minister should be the decision-maker on the concession application and her role should not be delegated.

The Board of Inquiry itself needs to have membership with expertise in conservation legislation, planning and values.  The RMA focussed criteria suggest that the Board is more likely to be exclusively or at least dominantly made up of persons with greater familiarity and expertise in sustainable management and development.  The existing pool of trained persons under the RMA makes them the easy choice for a Board of Inquiry, especially in the short term. This would not instil public confidence that board membership was unbiased or sufficiently informed to understand all the implications of the proposal put before it. The Board needs to have membership which is equally balanced as to its RMA and conservation expertise.

The Board needs to be empowered to seek advice from the Department of Conservation and the Department empowered to respond to such requests with regard to the concession aspect; as well as to submit on the RMA aspect.

The Minister should be able to have confidence that the recommendation of the Board of Inquiry is well-informed and sound, both from a conservation and a landowner point of view.

Public conservation land has been set aside for conservation. Some private and Maori land also has conservation designations. Land without a conservation designation is where development should be considered in the first instance. A combined process risks encouraging a perception that all land is available for development on an equal basis.

Conclusion

The pros and cons of the proposal balance each other out.  The case for substantial law reform is therefore not strong.

The NZCA is not convinced that the proposed combined process would be in the best interests of conservation.  Its view is that common sense administrative streamlining measures could achieve beneficial process improvements without legislative amendment being necessary.

Yours sincerely

Don Ross
Chairperson,
New Zealand Conservation Authority

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New Zealand Conservation Authority
PO Box 10420
Wellington 6143
Telephone: +64 4 471 3289
Fax: +64 4 381 3057
Email: nzca@doc.govt.nz