19 Oct 2012

Fast-tracking council plan is misguided

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Published: The New Zealand Herald – Friday October 19 2012

The Ferrari-speed planning process has failed to gain traction

It was always a big ask. Auckland Council expecting the Government to rubber-stamp a Ferrari-speed planning process to fast-track the adoption of Auckland’s new unitary plan.

Instead, Environment Minister Amy Adams is offering the loan of a Wellington-designed people-mover that, fingers-crossed, will make the journey in three years – make that four, if a wheel falls off along the way.

And just to emphasise who is boss, Ms Adams has rejected Auckland’s desire to be co-driver of the vital hearings side of the process.

The council wanted the right to appoint half the members of the “hearings panel” which will adjudicate on public submissions.

It also wanted, at least at one stage of the lobbying, “political representation” on the panel.

A memo from council general counsel Wendy Brandon to planning manager Penny Pirrit dated February this year, and released after an Official Information request, said having politician panellists would ensure “the ‘big picture’ concerns and direction of the council are not lost sight of through the process”.

Ms Adams has rejected this, deciding the panel will be appointed by her and fellow Canterbury MP, Minister of Conservation Kate Wilkinson, and be “totally independent from the council”.

The Government proposes that once the council officially “notifies” the plan, its only way of influencing the final outcome will be to refuse to accept the panel’s recommendation on an issue and to appeal to the Environment Court – something which the council, but not ordinary mortals, will be allowed to do.

Ms Adams has also rejected the council’s request that the unitary plan be granted immediate legal effect on notification.

Despite these knockbacks, Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse welcomed the proposal, saying it “will greatly speed the implementation” of the unitary plan. But first it has to go before the select committee, and it’s probable the council will fight a rearguard action for the right to pick some of the hearings panellists and for a rethink on when the plan becomes legally effective.

As an Aucklander, I back the fight for a local say on who sits on the vital hearings panel. Why should two South Island MPs with no special knowledge of Auckland be better placed to make this choice than those who live here? The Government has already ridden roughshod over local democracy in the Canterbury region both these ministers represent. Are we just going to lie down and think of England too?

I have expressed my wariness of the fast-track proposals in the past. The hand on heart appeal by council planners to “trust us” to produce a plan that will make Auckland the world’s most liveable city-come-economic power house-come-tourist mecca gets my cynic juices flowing.

Why should we abandon all rights of appeal and trust a profession which has proved to be so much less than perfect many times before?

A defence of the past performance of the Environment Court by acting principal Environment Court Judge Laurie Newhook, writing in response, it seems, to some of the more extreme claims of the fast-trackers, adds to my unease.

Dated July 31, it appeared after months of claims by the fast-trackers that if left to the Environment Court, the unitary plan could be tied up for up to 10 years.

Referring obliquely to “current debate in the resource management field”, the judge noted the reform and refinement of case-management procedures within the court over the past decade. His analysis of several plan reviews suggests fast-tracking is already taking place within existing court processes.

With mediation, most disputes were resolved in about two years, not the 10 Deputy Mayor Hulse was repeating just two days ago.

Still, the one-stop-shop process now proposed does, by combining the council and the Environment Court processes, give cash-strapped community groups a better chance to be heard. For this reason, Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor gives it a qualified tick, “provided it contains all the checks and balances of the conventional two-stage process”.

He also wants more than one panel, to give those seeking a hearing adequate time to make their submissions.

Of course, the one thing still missing is the most important ingredient of all, the plan itself. That won’t surface until March next year.


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