Shane Jones, Minister for Regional Development

The Government’s ‘Fast Track Approvals Bill’, intended to speed up regulatory approval of major development and infrastructure projects, has sparked enormous controversy, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

But first, should Hawke’s Bay care?

It’s not yet clear what kind of projects here in Hawke’s Bay would seek to be expedited via the proposed fast track process. We don’t seem to have consenting problems with making routine repairs and upgrades to our stormwater and wastewater systems; a number of major housing developments are already underway; bridges and roads are getting repaired as fast as funding, requisite personnel and materials permit.

Indeed, any constraints on pace we face in HB are much more about the limited availability of funding, people and materials than slow ‘approvals’.

I asked our local MPs what prospects might be lurking out there.

MP Catherine Wedd responded: “I have been working with a number of organisations and councils who are struggling with long consenting processes in relation to infrastructure. The Fast Track Legislation … is certainly been welcomed by many here in Hawke’s Bay. I am sure there will be Hawke’s Bay projects put forward, which will be positive for Hawke’s Bay.”

No illumination there. MP Katie Nimon, who sits on the Environment Select Committee vetting the Bill, didn’t respond.

The most controversial ‘infrastructure’ project that might surface would be Ruataniwha Dam II. Its proponents hold existing consents, but could seek fresh approval of a ‘new’ dam with lessened environmental ‘constraints’ from development-friendly ministers like Shane Jones, who can’t seem to restrain his antipathy to the environment and its advocates. Other (potentially meritorious) water storage projects to service the Heretaunga Plains could also surface as fast track candidates.

Outside the water domain, perhaps the proposed widening of the Expressway would be fast tracked. Maybe repair of the Napier-Wairoa rail line. Maybe a new hospital. Again, in all these instances, funding would be the real issue.

Beyond those, it’s hard to spot projects of the major scale one would think necessary to command the attention of development-hungry ministers.

So, what about the Fast Track Bill?

The relevant legislation is ostensibly going through the normal legislative process, with submissions and hearing by the Environment Select Committee.

The top concern is that the Bill awards total discretion to three Ministers (Infrastructure – Bishop, Regional Development – Jones, Transport – Brown) regarding what projects get blessed. Yes, there would be expert panels to formulate any draft conditions that might be placed on a project, but the ministers are not bound to accept those recommendations. There is no reference to sustainable management of natural and physical resources.  Which, if any, ‘outside’ voices are required to be heard or heeded is murky. 

The Joint Committee fashioning our region’s coastal hazards strategy has noted the Bill and its uncertain effects – pro and con – and will consider making a submission to the Select Committee. I imagine our councils would have some serious concerns about being stripped out of the approval process for projects of major consequence to the region. As I write, the HB Regional Council is preparing a submission.

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS), obviously pro-environment but normally a calm voice of well-researched advocacy, headlined its reaction to the proposal: “The government’s war on nature goes nuclear”.

Says EDS CEO Gary Taylor: “This new Bill is deeply disturbing in most respects and is an unnecessary extension of Executive power to approve environmentally damaging projects.

“We have never seen anything remotely like this since the days of the National Development Act. The new legislation allows Ministers and Developers to ride roughshod over all of this country’s environmental protections with no effective checks and balances.

“Under the Bill, Ministers can make decisions on individual projects; there are no meaningful environmental criteria; participation rights by local communities and environmental groups are limited; local government may be shut out of the process; and appeal rights are severely constrained.

The full EDS critique is here.

Even the pro-business New Zealand Initiative is troubled by the unfettered discretion given in the proposal to individual ministers. Among its recommended “improvements” to the Bill:

  • Final decision approval, including the ability to apply conditions, should either be given to the expert panel rather than Ministers, or if Ministers remain decision-makers, disclosure requirements be included covering reasons for declining expert panel recommendations, applicants’ meetings with Ministers and any political donations applicants make.
  • Include the Minister for the Environment in the decision-making process to ensure environmental considerations are given sufficient weight.
  • A sunset clause to make fast-tracking temporary while wider substantial RMA reform (and reviews of other conservation-related legislation) is undertaken.

Given the tenor of comments made by Luxon and the supporting cast of empowered ministers, it will be downright shocking if any meaningful checks, especially of an environmental nature, are added during the legislative process.

“We are determined to cut through the thicket of red and green tape holding New Zealand back, make it clear to the world that we are open for business, and build a pipeline of projects around the country to grow the economy and improve our productivity,” said Minister Bishop. When asked “Will projects that were previously rejected by the courts be eligible for fast track?” he replied: “Yes they will.” 

Jones added that the Bill represented a change from a “cancel economy to a can-do economy”. 

Jones is yet to discover the reality and necessity of ‘win-win’ when it comes to marrying economic and environmental objectives for a sustainable future.


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