The following article is an opinion editorial by Te Waihanga Chief Executive Jon Grayson.
Red tape has been an ongoing frustration for New Zealand’s infrastructure sector, with the current system causing significant delays to projects. Others are concerned that fast tracking is code for compromising environmental outcomes. The Government is looking at how resource consenting for certain infrastructure and development projects could be fast-tracked once the wider construction industry can pick up tools again, without compromising environmental outcomes. Te Waihanga supports the upcoming legislative changes that will go some way to balancing these objectives – the Fast Track Consenting Bill, and from a long-term perspective, the review of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).
If the Fast Track Consenting Bill is passed, Ministers will be able to bypass the standard resource consent processes under the RMA. This will enable infrastructure work to commence much faster than it ordinarily would.
Te Waihanga believes the measures in this Bill represent a reasonable trade-off between good process and speedy implementation of projects, which can assist in recovery. Circumventing the usual bottlenecks will undoubtedly assist with New Zealand’s economic recovery. It will complement the Infrastructure Industry Reference Group’s work to identify infrastructure projects to support New Zealand’s post COVID-19 recovery. It will also support projects that will stimulate employment in hard-hit regions.
Te Waihanga also welcomes the review of the RMA. We made a detailed submission on the reform bill in February. One of the reasons for the establishment of Te Waihanga was the widely held view of a significant infrastructure gap in New Zealand. There is significant evidence for this view. For example, the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2019 ranks New Zealand as 46th out of 141 countries for the state of our transport, water and electricity infrastructure. There is clearly room for improvement.
According to the International Monetary Fund, our infrastructure deficit is a cause of our low productivity growth and it makes it harder to raise our living standards. A strong infrastructure has been at the heart of national policies to improve competitiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
We are falling behind. Our policy, regulatory, planning, funding and delivery processes look dated in their ability to provide New Zealand with the infrastructure we need.
The resource management and environmental planning system has a critical and long-term impact on the planning, funding and delivery of infrastructure. Improvements in processes to reduce unnecessarily costly hurdles and delays are critical in a crisis. Indeed, they’re important at any time, provided the environmental objectives can still be met or – better yet – enhanced through innovative project design and delivery.
To deliver better infrastructure societal outcomes, it is important that we strive for an environmental planning system that is outcomes focused and enables and incentivises greater integration. It must deliver more certainty about upcoming infrastructure projects and ensure central and local government have access to best practice funding, financing and procurement.
Outcomes focus for long-term gain
Our current planning system is highly reactive. If we can shift to a more regional perspective to determine a vision and a plan based on long-term needs, it may help us to better manage the potential environmental impacts of a project than the RMA currently allows.
Te Waihanga would like clearer objectives to be set so that those making consenting and permitting decisions have a stronger sense of direction on priorities. We’d like to see a more holistic wellbeing approach, with infrastructure, sustainable development and housing affordability included under the RMA’s matters of national importance, as well as environmental protection.
For greater pipeline certainty, we need consensus across central and local government on major land use decisions and spatial plans for at least 10 years. Spatial plans could be backed by regional deals which ties planning and funding, providing even more certainty about future projects.
We’d like to see more integrated decision making – for example, councils within regions sharing resources and expertise. This review may also be a good time to reconsider who is responsible for what between central and local government and the market.
The case for institutional reform
There’s a mismatch currently with the levels of governance for different infrastructure and services. Water infrastructure and services are delivered locally, health services regionally and certain state highways that run through and shape local communities are delivered centrally.
When considering institutional arrangements, it is best to look at what central government, local government and the market are best placed to fund and deliver.
Our view is that territorial local authorities are best placed to work with communities on placemaking matters like town centre development and the provision of local amenities, for instance. However, some infrastructure services, such as water, need scope and scale to maximise efficiency, and lift service levels for consumers. This scope and scale are beyond the ability of many territorial local authorities to capture.
Hospitals and prisons facilities are examples of infrastructure which need to be coordinated at the national level.
Some infrastructure and services will be best delivered by the market, such as the supply of telecommunications, energy, airports, shipping and freight.
While reforming the RMA is important, Te Waihanga recommends going one step further and addressing current institutional arrangements to drive better infrastructure performance.
It’s clear that change is long overdue. We require cross-party support for this to happen – and the ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Once this is achieved, it will be a whole lot easier to create the future New Zealand needs.