As MPs begin considering feedback on two proposed laws to replace the Resource Management Act, Auckland Council warns against placing too much power in the hands of a cabinet minister

The country’s biggest local authority, Auckland Council, is warning of ‘ministerial over-reach’, ‘unfettered powers’ and the risk of political interference in new planning laws to centralise control of resource management.

Auckland Council’s submission on two new laws to replace the Resource Management Act is being signed off at a committee meeting today but a draft from officials says the Spatial Planning Bill goes too far in diminishing the influence of local communities in favour of a cabinet minister’s sole powers.

“Those powers go too far and amount to ministerial over-reach, whereby a minister could direct changes to a Regional Spatial Strategy for political reasons without any prior public consultation or engagement with Māori. Auckland Council recommends that provisions which enable the minister to direct a Regional Planning Committee to amend its RSS be removed.”

The submission on the Natural and Built Environment Bill likewise attacks “the relatively sweeping and unfettered powers given to the minister in the Bill”, saying in many cases the ministerial functions and powers would undermine local democratic input and decision making.

The two bills are part of the Government’s three-law reform of the Resource Management Act; a Climate Adaptation Act is not yet out for consultation.

MPs on the environment select committee have already begun assessing feedback from councils and others on the new laws, which would set up regional planning committees to replace those like the Auckland Council planning, environment and parks committee which today finalises Auckland’s submission.

The Natural and Built Environment Bill directly replaces the 30-year-old RMA and the Spatial Planning Bill replaces existing requirements for a spatial plan for Auckland. The Government would set a national strategy, and regional committees would make their plans consistent with its rules and guidelines.

“The scale of the reform is substantial and will have significant impacts on Auckland Council,” the draft submission says.

The council has already given its view to a review panel in 2020, to an ‘exposure draft’ of the Natural and Built Environment law in 2021, and to a further discussion document on both bills in March of 2022.

Auckland Council is now “generally supporting the intent of the bills in many areas” but recommends a wide range of amendments due to concerns over new, independent Regional Planning Committees and the extensive powers of over-ride provided to the Minister for the Environment.

It says the new regional committee system would be unnecessarily complex, adding a new layer of bureaucracy.

“It replaces the fundamental planning role of councils, diminishes local voice and lacks democratic accountability, and undermines integration with decision making on funding and financing.”

Unsurprisingly, the council believes its own planning committee “is ideally placed to perform this role” but with additional representation from Māori, among others.

The council submission says the bill doesn’t link planning, infrastructure and funding sufficiently under the new regional spatial strategies.

“Implementation plans do not address the infrastructure challenges facing many communities and how this will be funded.

“There is a disconnect between more permissive planning proposed and current tools.”

The council wants both laws amended to “avoid locating development and infrastructure in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change”.

“The impacts of climate change should be explicit considerations to inform decisions on the location of development and existing and planned infrastructure investment.”

Under the Natural and Built Environments Bill, the council strongly opposes the independent regional planning committees.

“Auckland Council requests that when a region is a unitary authority [as in Auckland] the RPC should be the same as the standing committee of the council augmented by one ministerial appointee .. and at least two Māori representatives.”

Auckland wants central government to cover the cost rather than local bodies.

It strongly supports “all the clauses in the Bill that ensures the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi must be given effect to. Council is strongly supportive of all mechanisms that ensure inclusion of Māori, iwi and hapū in decision-making.”

If new funding and financing models are not introduced for growth infrastructure, the council predicts barriers to successful integration of land use and infrastructure would continue.

“If new tools are not provided, the status quo is likely to endure, irrespective of the legislative changes being proposed.”

The submission also calls for explicit requirements in the bills for any new bodies to have to engage with local boards and local communities.

Auckland was given extra time to finalise its submission for the select committee and will forward its written views after discussion at Thursday afternoon’s committee meeting.

“While the extension of time is welcomed, the very short timeframe given to respond to such a significant reform is noted.

“This has impacted on the level of analysis able to be carried out across the bills and it is therefore possible that all potential implications have not been identified..”

The select committee is due to report back on the two bills by May 22.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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