Will new reforms speed up resource consent applications?
To honour the Government’s pledge to speed up council decisions, reforms to the Resource Management Amendment Act 2013 came into effect on 3 March 2015. The reforms clarify the requirements for resource consent applications and now stipulate a maximum time for the decision-making process of six months.
As an overview, here are the main reforms introduced to the Resource Management Amendment Act 2013 to accelerate the consent process.
More detailed resource consent applications
Resource consent applications will require more detail than ever before. All applications must now have an assessment of the activity against Part 2 of the RMA. They must meet the objectives, policies and rules of any relevant planning document, as well as having a more comprehensive AEE (Assessment of Environmental Effects) report.
New time frames
All fully notified or limited notified resource consent applications are now required to be processed by consent authorities within a maximum period of six months. This new time frame applies to medium and large scale consents notified by a council. Large projects have the option of the one-stop EPA process, or direct referral to the Environment Court. Many of these applications remain at council level for the first instance decision.
Consent authorities now have 10 working days to consider whether an application is complete or if it should be sent back to the applicant. Previously they had 5 working days. Given the six month decision-making time frame, councils will be incentivised to reject any incomplete applications. All incomplete applications must be returned to the applicant immediately, detailing why it was deemed to be incomplete.
Fully notified applications with a hearing now have a deadline of 130 working days. Limited notified applications with a hearing have a deadline of 100 working days. Fully or limited notified applications with no hearing have a deadline of 60 working days.
Time limits for the completion of hearings following the notification and submission periods are fixed at 75 working days for fully notified consents and 45 working days for limited notified consents.
The ability to adjourn a hearing has been removed, but applicants have the power to suspend the process for up to 130 days if they need more time to prepare. After 130 days, councils must continue processing or return the application. Applicants can object to the return of the application. If the objection is rejected and if the application is lodged again, it must be treated as a new application.
Councils can only ‘clock stop’ once for further information. This can only be before a decision is made on notification. Previously the clock could be stopped twice – once before notification and once after. Councils have 20 working days to decide whether to notify the application, previously they had 10 working days.
All evidence briefs and any section 42A council report must be pre-circulated. Council reports and evidence must be available 15 working days prior to the hearing. Applicant evidence must be available 10 working days before the hearing. Submitter’s expert evidence must be available 5 working days before the hearing.
This brings the RMA process into line with many other areas of law. The strict time frames will place additional pressures on applicants and submitters in an already tight process.
What does this mean for councils?
Councils will now have a comprehensive prescriptive threshold to check applications against. They will need to be ready to provide a detailed assessment within 10 working days. Councils now have less flexibility, but they still retain the power to extend time frames under section 37.
What does this mean for applicants?
Applications will need to be more thorough at the first step. Applicants are able to suspend the application if they need more time to prepare information. As a result, the elements of risk and accountability lie with the applicant.
What does this mean for RMA practitioners?
Full details of the reforms are too comprehensive to cover here. We recommend that RMA practitioners refer to the Act, in particular to the information requirements outlined in Schedule 4 relating to resource consent applications.