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The COVID-19 Recovery (Fast Track Consenting) Bill

On the 3rd of May, the Government announced a new fast-tracking consent process, a major element of its COVID-19 rebuild plan.

The proposed law change will fast track eligible development and infrastructure projects under the Resource Management Act by introducing a short-term consenting process to fast track projects that can boost employment and economic recovery.

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) will remain the primary legislation to manage the built and natural environment. The proposed legislation would not amend the RMA itself but would provide an alternative consenting pathway. The COVID-19 Recovery (Fast Track Consenting) Bill (the Bill) is currently being drafted. If enacted, the bill would fast-track resource consenting and designation processes for eligible projects, accelerate the beginning of work and support certainty of ongoing employment and investment across New Zealand. Environmental management safeguards would be built into the legislation in terms of economic, environmental and social wellbeing. Existing Treaty of Waitangi settlements will be upheld, as will sustainable management and existing RMA national direction.

The fast-track process is designed as a short-term intervention to help with economic recovery from COVID-19, and the legislation would have a ‘sunset clause’ meaning it will be repealed two years from enactment. It is anticipated that the bill will be enacted towards the end of June. Projects would be able to use the consenting process set out in the Bill once it is enacted.

The Minister for the Environment, Mr David Parker, will determine which projects will enter the fast-track resource consenting process for public and private-led projects, with reference to criteria, and with projects named through Orders in Council. Projects that help alleviate housing challenges, encourage active transport and enhance the environment are prioritised under the proposal.

The Minister has indicated that the sorts of projects that would be considered include roading, walking and cycling, rail, housing, sediment removal from silted rivers and estuaries, new wetland construction, flood management works, and projects to prevent landfill erosion. He also stated that ideas from district and regional councils as well as NGOs and the private sector will be considered.

The criteria that the Minister must apply have not yet been developed or released, but these will be critical to determine whether projects will be considered for the fast-track process. The level of employment generated by the project is likely to be a key consideration.

Some large-scale government-led projects, including those in the NZTA’s Land Transport Programme, will be named in the legislation to go through the fast-track consent process. Some works by government agencies will be able to start “as of right”. Designations for public assets and infrastructure can also be part of this fast-track process.

The resource consent applications for these projects will be processed by an Expert Consenting Panel. The Expert Consenting Panels will be chaired by a current or retired Environmental Court Judge or senior lawyer. Each Panel will have a person nominated by the relevant local councils and a person nominated by the relevant iwi authorities. The Panels will have expertise in resource management, technical project advice, environmental protection, tikanga Māori and mātauranga Māori.

Once a project is referred to the Panel there is a high level of certainty the resource consent will be granted. The Expert Consenting Panels will issue decisions within 25 working days after receiving comments on the application. (This could be increased to 50 days for large scale projects). Appeal rights will be limited to points of law and/or judicial review to the High Court, with one further right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

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