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Fast-track Approvals Bill a “war on nature”

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Fast-track Approvals Bill

Greenpeace Aotearoa has accused the coalition Government of declaring a "war on nature". Photo: Adobe Stock

The coalition Government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill aims to speed up approvals and cut consenting costs for regional and national projects of significance. These could include coal mines, fish farms, seabed mining, or wind turbines.

The proposed fast-track regime gives three ministers – Minister for Infrastructure Chris Bishop, Minister for Transport Simeon Brown, and Minister for Regional Development, New Zealand First’s Shane Jones – the power to skirt existing environmental checks and balances to approve projects deemed to be of national or regional significance.

To access the fast-track approvals process, project owners would need to apply to the three ministers. A project would then be referred to an expert panel for assessment and recommendation to the ministers, who would ultimately determine whether the project proceeded.

Against the Bill

The minister responsible for RMA Reform, Chris Bishop, has said that only people directly affected by a project will be able to have their say. This means the general public, including those with expertise in environmental matters, would be prevented from providing input or opposing developments. This limitation has drawn criticism from conservation groups, with Dr Russel Norman, executive director of Greenpeace Aotearoa stating the new Government has launched “a war on nature” .

“While the public voted for a change of Government, they did not vote for more pollution in rivers, mines on conservation land, and being excluded from having a say on protecting the places they care about.”

Nicola Toki, chief executive of Forest & Bird, described the legislation as a “major step backwards”.

“New Zealanders care deeply about their environment and want it to be looked after. Our environment is already facing massive risks from climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to restore and protect what we have left, not open up more precious places, including public conservation land, to development, including mining.”

The New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers said the bill “violates public interest”.

The NZFFA is a politically independent advocacy for trout and salmon recreational fishing, the habitat of rivers, lakes, and streams and the environment.

“This bill is the worst environmental legislation since Muldoon’s National Development Act of 1979,” said NZFFA president Casey Cravens.

“The Fast-track Approvals Bill violates public interest and would lead to rash exploitation of natural resources with no regard for environmental consequences.

“It is short-sighted, lacks transparency, and ignores an evidence-based approach to decision-making. This legislation is profoundly undemocratic and may violate many of our most basic laws – from the Resource Management Act to the Treaty of Waitangi to the Conservation Act, the Reserves Act, and the Wildlife Act.”

WWF New Zealand chief executive Dr Kayla Kingdon-Bebb said the legislation will pave the way for ministers to approve pet projects without proper scrutiny and give private developers the green light to “wreak havoc on the environment”.

“It’s deeply concerning for our democracy and the environment on which we all depend,” she said.

“Our rivers and lakes are dying, and our treasured native species are on the brink of extinction. Slashing the environmental checks and balances we have in place is just another nail in the coffin for our wildlife.”

Fast-track Approvals Bill
Submissions on the Fast-track Approvals Bill closed on 19 April 2024. Photo: Adobe Stock

There is also mounting concern the Fast-track Approvals Bill may breach Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, with environmental consultant Tina Porou saying it will have “grand repercussions for hapū and iwi”.

“The proposed fast-track bill, in its current form, is unfortunately pro-development, constitutionally flawed, and concentrates power into three ministers,” she said.

Unlike the COVID-19 Recovery (Fast-track Consenting) Act 2020 or the RMA, the legislation doesn’t include a Treaty principles clause. However, it does have an overarching Treaty clause requiring “all persons exercising functions to act in a manner that is consistent with existing Treaty of Waitangi settlements”.

That means developers would be unable to seek fast-track approval to build on land returned to iwi as part of settlements.

“The bone-chilling part of it is that it excludes hapū and iwi from having a substantive role in decision-making within the system to protect the environment,” Porou said.

For the Bill

Despite the outcry, there is support for the bill. Proponents of the bill argue for its economic benefits and efficiency gains.

The bill will allow bypassing consent requirements under multiple laws, including the RMA, a process that can take years and cost more than $1 billion a year, according to the Infrastructure Commission. Projects previously declined by the courts would be eligible to apply.

“This new regime, which forms part of National’s coalition agreement with New Zealand First, will improve the speed and process for resource approvals for major infrastructure projects, unlocking opportunities in industries such as aquaculture and mining in our regions,” Regional Development Minister Shane Jones explained.

RMA Reform Minister Chris Bishop said Aotearoa New Zealand’s current consenting regime is holding the country back.

“Our fast-track proposals will lift New Zealand’s living standards, lift productivity, and grow our economy – all while still protecting our environment,” he said.

Federated Farmers has voiced support for the bill. The farmer lobby said it supports the aim of the bill to enable faster approval of infrastructure and other projects that have significant regional or national benefits.

“Consenting major infrastructure and other projects in New Zealand takes too long, costs too much, and places insufficient value on the economic and social benefits of development relative to other considerations,” said Feds board member and transport spokesman Mark Hooper.

“Problems consenting major infrastructure projects contribute to economic recession, which is the situation New Zealand currently finds itself in.

“It leads to poor social outcomes due to a lack of, or poorly maintained public infrastructure and lack of employment opportunities,” he said.

“This is felt particularly keenly in the regions, where employment opportunities are often limited.”

The bill has also been given a tick by the West Coast Regional Council, who said it will lead to more jobs, and, despite the controversy, has environmental safeguards in it.

In a submission released in April, the council said the proposed fast-track approvals process could be used for West Coast road and mining projects and a previously rejected hydroelectricity scheme.

“The West Coast is rich in natural resources, and utilising the fast-track process for larger developments will add significantly to jobs on the West Coast,” the council submission said.

“Improving regulation and investing in critical infrastructure are key to the West Coast’s economy, including forestry, fishing, agriculture, mining and tourism.”

Gisborne District Council also wrote a submission on the bill, supporting fast-track consents for housing, roading and water storage. Its submission also presented local iwi consent priorities and concerns associated with the proposed legislation.

Gisborne Deputy Mayor Josh Wharehinga supported the submission but raised concern that the fast-track consent approach was a “slippery slope” for the environment.

“This is an overreach from the central government on our local decision-making,” he said.

Submissions on the Fast-track Approvals Bill closed on 19 April 2024. 

Words by Shannon Williams

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