Navigating the Waters of Resource Management Reforms
A Closer Look at Fast-Track Legislation and Changes to Te Mana o te Wai Consenting

In the ever-evolving landscape of New Zealand's environmental policy, Water New Zealand and other industry organisations are at the forefront of engaging with the Ministry for the Environment. This collaboration aims to shape the government’s Resource Management Reforms policy, a pivotal movement towards enhancing the nation's water management and environmental protection approach.

The Advent of Fast-Track Consenting Legislation

New stand-alone fast-track consenting (FTC) legislation is at the heart of these reforms. This innovative measure is designed to streamline the process of consenting new national, regional, and local infrastructure and development projects. Slated to be introduced by 7 March as a key element of the Government's 100-day plan, the bill is anticipated to be enacted in late 2024.

This fast-track approach will introduce a process whereby joint ministers (Transport, Infrastructure, and Regional Development) can refer projects to a fast-track panel. Notably, this panel will possess a limited ability to decline applications, and the holding of hearings will be at its discretion. Importantly, the bill will incorporate specific protections for iwi and Treaty settlements, reflecting a commitment to honouring New Zealand's Treaty obligations and their partnership principles.

Rebalancing Te Mana o te Wai

Simultaneously, the ministry solicits stakeholder feedback to guide changes in how the hierarchy of obligations under Te Mana o te Wai is applied in consent applications and decisions under the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. This adjustment aims to more accurately represent the interests of all water users, ensuring that the sacred status of water is respected and preserved for future generations.

The Importance of Strategic Consideration

While the fast-track consenting framework promises to expedite development processes, it raises concerns regarding the potential for ad hoc consents that may overlook long-term environmental impacts, population growth, and the risk of stranded assets. Without the foundation of consistent national standards, the emphasis on speed could prove to be a short-sighted strategy, potentially leading to significant cost blowouts and environmental degradation.

The case of Wellington, New Zealand's capital, is a cautionary tale. The region has experienced notable cost blowouts, exacerbated by the government's decision to scrap broader water reforms. These reforms aimed at consolidation to mitigate and spread costs more effectively. Instead, the burden of increased costs is being passed to homeowners through a "cess" for water supply and drainage services, which, while legally valid, underscores the complexities of managing water resources fairly and sustainably.

Looking Forward

As Water New Zealand continues to provide critical feedback and engage in this vital policy development process, the focus remains on leveraging environmental benefits, flexibility, scalability, and cost-efficiency as key factors in promoting sustainable water management practices. The journey towards refining New Zealand's approach to water management and environmental protection is complex, requiring a delicate balance between development needs and the imperative to safeguard natural resources for future generations.

The coming months will be critical in shaping the future of New Zealand's environmental landscape. Stakeholder engagement and informed decision-making will ensure that the nation's water resources are managed with the care, respect, and foresight they deserve.

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