First published in Law News, Issue 39, 26 October 2012.
On Wednesday 17 October, the Minister for the Environment, Amy Adams announced that the Government will amend the Resource Management Act, thereby giving effect to the Council's request to fast track Auckland's first Unitary Plan. This will clearly raise eyebrows from a number of quarters, but may be perceived by some as an indication of the Government's commitment to ensuring that the local government amalgamation process in Auckland is a success.
The Minister has proposed an independent hearings panel, that would be appointed by Ministers for the Environment and Conservation, to be chaired by a retired High Court or Environment Court Judge. This has parallels with the Board of Inquiry process. While the Panel is due to be jointly appointed by the Ministers in consultation with the Council and the Maori Statutory Board, there is still the risk that this could take the decisions on Auckland out of the hands of Aucklanders. No doubt the Government will heed reaction to this risk, such as was encountered in Canterbury, and have regard to those asserting this to be an abrogation of democratic rights by ensuring the membership of the panel is representative of Auckland. Given the potential length and scope of any hearing, this could reduce the pool of available commissioners. The Environmental Defence Society has suggested that more than one hearing panel is required to make the process work, and depending on the number of submitters that may well be the case.
The hearing panel will make recommendations to Council, and if the Council accepts those recommendations the provisions will be immediately operative. Appeal rights on points of law will remain. However, if the Council does not accept the recommendations in full, appeal rights to the Environment Court remain. This is clearly an incentive to the Council to accept the recommendations of the panel. It may also be an opportunity for the panel to deliver findings in interim or draft to the Council at an early stage to ensure collaboration to facilitate an agreement on the recommendations.
The Minister has left open to the Council to make an application to the Court that the Plan would have interim effect when notified. The Court would have to be persuaded that should be the case. Amendments to the Resource Management Act to provide for these procedures are to be introduced to the House by the end of the year and public submissions will be invited as part of the Select Committee process. It is unclear whether the usual public submission period for legislation will be fast tracked to ensure the legislation is operative in time for the notification of the Unitary Plan, currently scheduled for September 2013.
As we head into an election year for local government the implications of this process and decision will be considered and debated from all quarters. The most important thing is for all those with an interest and stake in Auckland to be involved and contributing to the draft Plan prior to its release in March 2013, and taking an active role before formal notification, currently scheduled for September 2013.
The Environment and Resource Management Committee of ADLSI will be keeping a watching brief on processes and report further in future Law News editions.
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