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How fast-track consenting might impact the environment and politics – Expert Reaction

Submissions on the Fast-track Approvals Bill close at the end of Friday.

The law would allow major infrastructure projects to bypass lengthy resource consenting processes – being assessed instead by an expert panel, with Ministers ultimately having the final say on projects.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the potential effects on the environment and politics/policy.*

Environment experts

Professor Ann Brower, environmental geographer, University of Canterbury, comments:

“One of the great strengths of our resource management system is the prominent role that environmental sciences and environmental expertise play in decision-making.

“Environmental science and expertise are central at every stage – from the proposal for a new development, to the consent hearing, to Environment Court if it gets there. The Fast Track Legislation will sideline science systematically.

“The recent MfE report, Our Land 2024, showed convincing evidence that our resource management decisions about our land have long lasting environmental effects. Our Land 2024 shows we cannot afford to sideline environmental science in our environmental decisions about our land and water.

“As if to prove the point that environmental science will be sidelined, expert panel members are not required to have environmental expertise. And neither conservation nor environmental expertise is immediately obvious in the Fast Track Advisory Board.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Caroline Miller, Honorary Research Fellow, Massey University, comments:

“The Minister for the Environment seems completely missing from this legislation, which seems to suggest that an environmental perspective has been completely sidelined. It is astonishing that such significant developments could be consented to without any input from the minister who has responsibility for protecting the environment and upholding the integrity of the RMA as legislation.

“The fast-track consent panel is made up of people who are very competent and experienced in developments and in infrastructure projects in particular. There is an urban planner included in the panel but he will face a difficult time in trying single-handedly to assert any environmental or planning perspectives. It certainly signals the desire to use this new legislation for large, complex projects with potentially very significant effects for the community they are located in. This will all be assessed through a rapid and truncated assessment process.

“There seems to be a number of signals that this process could be open to projects that have been declined consents in the past, including ones which have been appealed as far as the Supreme Court. If this is the case then it undermines the whole planning system and the public and affected parties’ roles in it. Essentially this will offer a second opportunity to advance a project that has been declined after extensive scrutiny. If that is not going to be the case, it may be prudent for the government to make a clear statement now, that this will not happen.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a Fellow (Retired) of the New Zealand Planning Institute and help with submissions in a general way.”

Professor Amanda Black, Director – Bioprotection Aotearoa, comments:

Note: this is an excerpt from Professor Black’s comments on our natural infrastructure.

“Land intensification and fragmentation continue to be the main factors driving impacts on our natural resources, with irrigation increasing and urban development expanding – increasing the pressure on our most highly productive land. This has also been covered by a 2023 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

“It will be interesting to see how this government balances these contributing and often competing economic interests of land intensification with urban sprawl with the proposed introduction of the Fast Track Bill – the government’s proposed legislation that will give government ministers the power to override relevant legislation without any consultation and due process.

“If we want to continue to enjoy our unique landscapes, including our unique biodiversity, then what we need to see are polices that provide clear pathways to improving land resilience and solutions that can be readily implemented to balance our needs and the need to maintain the integrity of our whenua.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Member, Mātauranga Māori and Science Advisory Panel, MfE.”

Associate Professor David Campbell, School of Science Te Aka Mātuatua, University of Waikato, comments:

“Aotearoa wetlands are diverse and globally significant. Seven of our wetlands are listed as wetlands of international significance under the Ramsar Convention. We should think of these as our “National Park of wetlands”, yet their future is far from assured. For instance, Whangamarino Wetland in the lower Waikato River Valley is threatened by sedimentation and nutrient enrichment from farmland erosion and a flood control scheme. Awarua Wetland in Southland has suffered large fires that have destroyed habitat.

“Under the government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill, wetlands, including our Ramsar sites, may be at risk from development for agricultural production or mining.”

“Peat-forming wetlands, including some of our Ramsar sites, are amongst the most carbon-dense ecosystems on the planet. Draining or damaging them releases carbon, including large, long-lasting emissions of CO2. Peatlands formerly drained for agriculture occupy only 1.3% of Aotearoa’s agricultural soil area, yet their ongoing emissions are equivalent to 8-10% of our national net emissions. We urgently need to protect our remaining wetlands from development.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Margaret Stanley, ecologist, University of Auckland, comments:

Note: This comment is an excerpt from an article in The Conversation.

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s environment is in deep trouble. Talk of a “crisis” can be unhelpful if it encourages a sense of hopelessness. But with the government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill approaching rapidly, now is arguably the time to use the word. By emphasising short-term economic gain, it risks eroding the country’s already fragile natural capital and pushing biodiversity further into decline.

“Ecosystems cannot be restored. Once destroyed, they are gone forever. This is known in restoration ecology as the “Humpty Dumpty effect”. Here are just some of the facts:

  • only 22% of Aotearoa’s original vegetation remains
  • at least 79 species extinctions have been recorded
  • remaining species currently threatened or at risk include 94% of reptiles, 90% of seabirds, 74% of land birds, 76% of freshwater fish and 46% of plants
  • 90% of our wetlands have been lost, as well as 80% of our active sand dune ecosystems
  • 63% of rare ecosystems are threatened
  • 46% of lakes over one hectare are in poor or very poor ecological health.

“New Zealanders often imagine native vegetation is well protected and the wholesale land clearance practised by earlier generations has stopped. But many terrestrial ecosystems are still being cleared today for development.

“Aotearoa New Zealand is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (signed in 1993) and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (signed in 2022). By removing existing environmental protections, the Fast-Track Approvals Bill threatens to undermine these international obligations.

“Ecosystem processes, such as pollination and soil formation, underpin primary production and provide pest and disease resilience. Failing to recognise the value of New Zealand’s natural capital – which has previously often been regarded as value-less economically – risks leaving future generations with even less to support their economy, health and wellbeing.

“Degraded ecosystems can reach a tipping point, when they collapse and stop functioning – for example, the “eutrophication” of freshwater systems, which become nutrient-rich and depleted of oxygen. The economic loss from soil erosion alone (192 million tonnes lost annually) is estimated at NZ$250-$300 million each year. It takes a thousand years to generate three centimetres of topsoil – and it is running out rapidly.

“Taken together, the potential long-term costs on ecosystems and the vital services they provide need to be carefully considered before the proposed legislation comes into force.

Conflict of interest statement: Margaret Stanley has received funding for technical advice from the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry for Environment, and for research from the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment’s National Science Challenges.

Politics/policy experts

Professor Bronwyn Hayward, Political Science, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Many governments are struggling with how to deliver large scale investments in infrastructure in a timely, affordable way. I wish to highlight four highly problematic elements of the bill:

1) Introducing a political culture of clientelism, cronyism and corruption 

“First the bill establishes a separate process for approvals of large projects that would normally require consents or permissions.

Instead of applying in the usual way through an arms-length agency or approvals body, under this bill project beneficiaries are able to apply directly to Ministers. Despite stated intensions, this bill creates an incentive for private interests, organisations and investors to develop strong relationships with the government of the day (whether of right or left) and creates the opportunity for clientelism or the exchange of goods and services for political support at the expense of the general public. I am aware of new MPs inviting local constituents to contact them to register their favourite projects -this is a highly problematic situation and the bill has not even been passed.

“Ministers don’t go into politics intending to become corrupt, but confidence in their own ability to do the right thing and withstand pressure of political influence is a key weakness of this legislation and the reason that effective governments of all political colours have traditionally used political checks and balances. New Zealand’s high ranking on scales of transparency is an important business asset. But this bill creates a context where that can be quickly and easily eroded by the failure of a single high profile mega-project.”

2) Politics of patronage

“Giving Minsters power to make far reaching legislative decisions ushers in a politics of patronage, the like of which we have not seen in New Zealand in the past 100 years.

“Much research from the former Eastern Europe reminds us that the absence of institutional checks and balances in awarding contracts, where decisions are not kept at arms-length from Ministers, creates a “context of corruption”. Once this direct lobbying-and-reward style of politics becomes normalised, it’s incredibly hard to get rid of, and will be an issue for all parties, of left and right.”

3) Undermining social cohesion 

“This style of fast track legislation has been adopted in Mexico where it has been found to exacerbate inequality over time and wealthier communities with more effective lobbying power are able to attract development and avoid regulations.”

4) Poorly informed infrastructure choices

“The Prime Minister has gone on record to say that through this bill, “you’re going to see some action as we crash through the red and green tape and actually get stuff done”. However, in reality, evidence suggests that fast tracking decisions and limiting decision power to a small group of Ministers, ironically results in sub-optimal decisions that lack the nimbleness associated with slower but more open, transparent decision making.

“The European Investment Bank for example has highlighted the importance of making transparent decisions to ensure roading decisions are resilient and informed by the latest information (e.g. about decarbonisation opportunities, risks, and construction).

“The World Bank has similarly stressed the importance of infrastructure projects that are planned and contracted through “efficient, high quality competitive and transparent decision making”. A lobbying process is not a competitive, transparent process.”

Summary: Unintended consequences

“Ministers have argued that if they get these decisions wrong, they will be voted out at the next election. But elections are blunt instruments, and poorly designed development projects can have significant, far reaching and irreversible impacts.

“Moreover, once this legislation is introduced it will be used by all parties, and this is a serious risk. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

“Passing this legislation in its current form not only risks stripping our youngest citizens of their right to a sustainable future, it also erodes their right to a democratic one.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Sylvia Nissen, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Policy, Lincoln University, comments:

“In its current form the Fast-Track Approvals Bill provides scope for significant environmental harm. Across a range of measures, the condition of New Zealand’s environment is already precarious and degrading – whether biodiversity, the quality of rivers and lakes, the state of our marine areas or greenhouse gas emissions.

“This Bill enables three Ministers to override the minimal protections that exist in New Zealand legislation to protect our environment. The range of Acts covered by these powers is especially troubling, including legislation for conservation and reserves, freshwater fisheries, heritage, minerals and oceans.

“There are no provisions within the Bill to safeguard against Ministers or expert panel members having conflicts of interest with the projects they are selecting, reviewing or approving, such as financial interests, existing relationships, and conflict of roles. There is therefore a risk of corrupt conduct within the current iteration of the Bill.

“Also concerning is the lack of public consultation in all stages of the process. Over half-a-century of evidence demonstrates that top-down decisions made without opportunities for public input leads to flawed decision-making that does not stand the test of time. Simply put, public participation results in better decisions. It helps to identify and iron-out unforeseen issues, while also building legitimacy. This is particularly vital for long-term infrastructure projects of the type likely covered in the Bill; without it, this Bill sets the scene for decisions that future generations may well judge poorly.

“Finally, infrastructure of the type covered in this Bill is intergenerational and must provide assets that ensure we meet New Zealand’s climate change emission reduction targets. While details of the projects covered in the Bill have not been released, it appears likely that the projects will lock-in high carbon emissions for decades to come, for instance through mining and expansion of the road network. This is in contradiction with the Government’s stated targets under the Paris Agreement.”

No conflicts of interest.

*This Expert Reaction was updated 19 Apr to include political/policy experts.