Community input into RMA fast-tracking

Accelerated construction and shovel-ready projects require a speedier process than we currently have. Moves to fast-track the RMA will stimulate the economy, but at what cost to the environment and communities? Carole Smith, WSP Director Environment discusses. 

A truly sustainable society needs to achieve balance between economy, environment and people.  When one or other of these elements gets out of equilibrium with the others, there is typically some form of a negative impact.  

We’re all living this sustainability imbalance in 2020.  The year started with impact from the Australian bushfires and, while COVID 19 has dominated the last three months, we’re emerging into water restrictions as the drought continues in many regions.

The reality of our need to change is staring us in the face.

As we emerge from COVID 19 into what is being described as the “new normal” we need to remember what our priorities are, particularly as we look at ways to jumpstart the economy.

While recovery should be our priority we shouldn’t lose sight of why so many councils declared climate change emergencies in 2019, and the driver for the ambitious Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019.  

To stimulate the economy, the government has looked at a number of ways to supercharge infrastructure projects and boost employment, particularly in the construction industry. To get these shovel ready projects underway requires speeding up processes and one of the key means to achieve this is to fast-track the RMA process.

As a result, consideration is being given to removal of the need to notify applications which progress through this consenting route.

Is this a good thing? 

There are examples around the country of infrastructure decisions made in a different environment, particularly those that went ahead without consensus from the communities impacted.


In 1956 a decision was made to divert the flow of the Kaituna River from its natural outlet via Te Awa o Ngātoroirangi / Maketu Estuary so that the surrounding areas could be drained and farmed. However, the new farmland came at a significant price, costing the estuary 90% of its wetland.

Maketu Estuary is of high cultural significance and had sustained the people since the landing of Te Arawa canoe at Maketu.  The cut was described by local Maori as a wound that never healed due to the impact it had on traditional food sources. 

The demise of the estuary led to public outcry and demand for the river to be rediverted back into the estuary.  In 2018 the Bay of Plenty Regional Council announced the start of a $16m enhancement project to make Te Awa o Ngātoroirangi/Maketu Estuary healthier for people to swim and fish in.

This is a prime example of the importance of careful selection of infrastructure projects and building community consensus around these projects prior to succeeding. 


So how do we align the good intentions of shovel ready projects with our long-term sustainability goals?

There are some things we can do

All infrastructure projects supported through the Government’s $12 billion New Zealand Upgrade Programme and existing Provincial Growth Fund infrastructure investments should be reviewed in the context of carbon reduction and what it will achieve once built to change climate risk. 

Procurement of projects should include benchmarking of sustainability performance during the lifetime of the project.  Experience has shown us that major infrastructure projects benefit hugely in relation to cost of delivery if sustainability targets and benchmarking is introduced at the earliest possible time. 

Comprehensive supporting technical reports will continue to be required by the independent hearings panel to support applications.  Applicants who try to shortcut this step with poor quality and lightweight assessment risk their applications being declined. 

Although the notification process may be removed through the fast track process our experience of major infrastructure rebuilds in Canterbury and Kaikōura shows the need for regular engagement with affected parties is actually amplified where the notification process is removed. 




Fast-track projects by their very nature challenge us to do many things differently, but we cannot afford to compromise our unique flora and fauna by side-stepping important steps in the project planning phase.  

As such, early engagement with our communities is crucial to identifying environmental risks. This will help us adjust permitting strategies and construction programmes to enable environmental survey – such as ecology and archaeology - to be conducted at appropriate times, and mitigation or design adjustments made in a seamless way. . 



Kaituna River Rediversion

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Building within the Biosphere

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AC: the new normal in 2020

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About the Author



Carole Smith, Director Environment

Carole Smith provides strategic leadership for the Environment sector, building technical expertise and collaborating in delivery of services across WSP’s global network.


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