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Fast Track Approvals: What it could mean for Wairarapa

The promoters of one major project in Wairarapa – a large-scale community water storage proposal that was canned in 2021 and is now being advanced by the Wairarapa Water Advocacy Group – say they plan to “put forward a specific application” to the Fast Track Approvals Bill. LUCY COOPER looks at what it could mean for the region.

The Fast Track Approvals Bill [FTAB] was introduced under urgency during the government’s first 100 days as part of New Zealand First’s coalition agreement with National.

According to the government’s press release on the bill, it is intended 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”.

It will speed up the delivery of infrastructure and development projects with significant regional or national benefits by creating a ‘one-stop-shop’ for approvals under several regulatory regimes.

Key features of the bill – and perhaps the most contentious – are the extensive decision-making power it hands to a select group of ministers and that once an application has been made under the bill, there is no requirement for ministers or their expert advisors to seek comment from the public or affected parties.

How does the bill work?

The FTAB allows the Ministers of Transport, Infrastructure, and Regional Development – Simeon Brown, Chris Bishop, and Shane Jones, respectively [the “joint ministers”] – to choose projects for swift approval, bypassing not only the Resource Management Act [RMA] but other legislation including the Wildlife Act, the Public Works Act, and the Reserves Act.

Projects can be fast-tracked by being directly referred to an expert panel [known as Part A projects] or be referred by the joint ministers to the expert panel [Part B projects].

The online application process for project owners to access the fast-track approvals process opened on the Ministry for the Environment website last week.

Simon Casey, former ACT party candidate for Wairarapa and spokesperson for Wairarapa Water Advocacy Group [WWAG], confirmed to the Times-Age that WWAG “will work with Irrigation New Zealand and others on how we put forward an application” for a large-scale water storage project in the region.

Back to the future?

The expert panels will comprise at least four members, convened by a former or retired Environment Court or High Court judge appointed by the ministers.

Their task is to consider the effects of projects, propose conditions for managing them, and make recommendations to ministers.

The final decisions on fast-tracked projects are entirely in the hands of the ministers, who can also send an application back to the panel for further review if they disagree with the proposed conditions and invite applicants to relodge proposals.

Professor Andrew Geddes has noted that the bill “needs to be recognised for what it is, which is an empowering of the executive branch to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the days of [Robert] Muldoon and arguably goes a lot further”.

Tom Kay, freshwater advocate with Forest and Bird, is unequivocal in his assessment of the bill’s implications.

“It’s a total loss of democracy,” he told Times-Age.

“So this is three ministers in Wellington making decisions on projects. They can ignore expert panels that are put in place to try and provide an expert opinion on the effects of these proposals.

“Not only does that undermine expert opinion, but they can ignore local planning decisions as well. So they don’t have to listen to community submissions. They can undermine the rules that have already been written in a region in terms of the district and regional plans.”

Who asked you?

Helen Marr, a resource planning consultant based in Wairarapa who has studied the bill, said it’s “pretty unclear about what the applicant’s consultation responsibilities are”.

“The bill is very narrow in its consideration of the people who might be affected.”

But while the applicants’ responsibilities to consult may be unclear in the bill, the expert panel’s consultation duties are more clearly defined but still offer little meaningful opportunity for community input, Marr said.

“There’s no requirement for panels to publicly notify an application – in fact, they’re not allowed to – and they can only seek a comment from a limited number of people. The local council, local iwi authority, and adjacent landowners can make comment”, Marr said.

Those approached for comment then have only 10 days to respond.

“And these are big projects,” Marr said, with potentially far-reaching effects and documentation running to potentially thousands of pages.

“That is not enough time for a council to consult with its community, or an iwi to consult with its hapu. Being able to read all the information and give informed comment back to the panel in 10 days is not very realistic.”

The lack of recognition of hapu groups in the bill’s consultation requirements is also a cause for concern, Marr said, particularly for those groups that don’t have a Treaty settlement.

“It’s a very centralised approach, which isn’t consistent with Te Ao Māori because that’s about the people in the place, and who look after that place, who are the most affected.” The lack of opportunities for communities to scrutinise potential fast-track projects – now or once the bill has passed – also concerns Rawiri Smith, Kaimahi o Kahungunu ki Wairarapa. “I don’t know that rushed kind of situations give iwi the best opportunity to stand together with others, but also to stand by themselves and say, ‘After the examination of the facts, this is what we’d like to do’.”

The “overwhelmingly clumsy” FTAB raises uncertainty about how it will intersect with established Deeds of Settlement Acts and the legal status of the Treaty principles as they relate to those settlements, Smith said.

“We’ve got some things in our Deed of Settlement that trump the RMA,” he said. “If somebody’s changing laws so we are not getting what we were promised then we would be really concerned about that, as a number of iwi are.”

Lost opportunities?

Considering the possible implications of the bill on fair and equitable access to resources in Wairarapa, Smith favours a more cautious and considered approach.

“There’s always a mistake of maybe doing things too fast,” he told the Times-Age.

“In the Muldoon era we were encouraged to ‘think big’ by the government on a whole range of different things. But I don’t know that we cope well with the dangers of unexamined work.”

He also voiced the concern that continuing to promote a dam – “which we’ve already had a good look at” – might preclude or undermine other regional opportunities.

“I don’t know that they’ve examined other things like, for example, in another year the groundwater survey will be able to tell us about where our groundwater’s going, and perhaps give us an indication of how much we’ve got, or if there’s any confined aquifers.

“The thing is that we might already have a dam built and discover [the water’s] under our feet.”

‘We must have the community behind us’

WWAG’s Simon Casey agrees a transparent process is preferable so “that the public is aware of options and can comment on those”.

“We must have the community behind us,” he said.

He pointed out that the process of reviewing the original Wakamoekau storage dam project is still underway, and options arising from that review will be put to the community for feedback.

“The fast track option is to ensure that once a solution is chosen, it is not necessarily frustrated by even more years of delay and increased costs that add no value.”

Submissions on the Fast Track Approvals Bill close on Friday, April 19.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Best way forward and if it wasn’t for Muldoon thinking forward we would still have the horse and cart 😀. TO BLOODY MANY EXPERTS GETTING RICH AND TO MANY ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND climate change DINGBATS. Thank heaven for a forward 🙏 thinking 🤔 government 🙏.

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