Shovel ready secrecy risks everything

Secret projects, processes, and rapid changes of resource management law could be the very opposite of the economic transformation New Zealanders have demanded, writes Kevin Hague of Forest & Bird

Since the beginning of the lockdown thousands of voices, from high-profile individuals to ordinary citizens, have been calling for change. Change in what our government and employers prioritise, change in how we live and work, change that puts the environment and our quality of life ahead of short-term corporate interests. The opportunities are clear, and the cost of not taking them is high.

New Zealand has more species at risk of extinction than any other country on the planet. More than 95 percent of our waterways in developed areas are heavily polluted. Thirteen out of fourteen native habitat types are getting smaller at the hands of our own activity.

How did we get here? Through a deeply flawed economic model that pitted profits and growth against human and environmental health.

This year hopes for the Budget and a new economic strategy were high. A billion dollars for nature-based jobs would have been a miracle in any other year, but the $20bn of decisions still to come towers over that. Will these decisions reinforce the great work of nature-based jobs, or dwarf it in retrograde infrastructure that pays no regard to environmental issues? We don't know because every aspect of the thousands of proposals on the starting line are shrouded in secrecy.

At least 2000 projects, both public and private, have been put forward as ‘shovel ready’. The full list of proposals has been kept secret. Only some local councils have made their proposals public but there are many others New Zealanders are not allowed to know about.

How will the suitability of these projects be assessed? Again, no one knows, and despite Official Information Act requests, the Ministry of Business, Innnovation and Employment (MBIE) has outrageously refused to provide any further information.

So, in secrecy and with no public scrutiny, a small group of infrastructure and business experts will make their recommendations to Cabinet ministers Shane Jones and Phil Twyford. There will be no public participation.

We do know the three criteria being spoken of in public are: jobs, speed, and visibility - that is, PR-friendly.

Legislation is being written in haste to create an environmental fast-tracking law. This legislation is the ultimate goal for the largest of the shovel-ready projects, and also projects that don’t need funding, just environmental permission.

From what we know, the new law will heavily restrict public and legal expertise on projects that could seriously harm the environment. The Minister for the Environment will decide which projects are fast tracked with a high degree of certainty that consents will be granted, effectively making the minister both judge and jury for around $20b of potentially very environmentally destructive projects.

No one has ever claimed the Resource Management Act (RMA) is perfect, but it does give civil society the right to protect the environment from projects that sit anywhere on a continuum from ‘needs improvement’ to ‘anti-environment’.

Just last week Forest & Bird and others were awarded costs for court action defending a marine reserve from a profit-driven coastal housing proposal. As Auckland Council put it: the proposal "lacked substance and merit, sought to advance its own interests rather than the public interest and failed to address ... landscape and natural character issues".

The judge agreed the development can’t proceed until it can provide scientific assurance the marine reserve will be protected. Okura Bay was saved by the RMA, but there are similar projects being lined up that will not need to meet the same standard of care.

A housing development planned in Porirua, adjacent to the important Taupo Wetland, has been put on a fast-track all of its own, raising alarm bells over how the wetland will be protected with community and conservation expertise cut out of the process. This curtailing of environmental and civic rights forewarns us of what we stand to lose (the last specks of our native ecosystems) in the frenzy to pour $20b into development across the country.

A Waikato drainage project has been proposed as shovel ready, and aims to pump water out of a failed wetland-to-grazing conversion which is now subsiding below sea level. The best solution would be to buy out the farmers and return the land to the carbon-negative native wetland it wants to be, but that option isn’t on the table.

Under the fast track criteria being considered, a proposal for a massive haul road across the precious Denniston Plateau on the West Coast could be green-lit despite the devastation it would wreak on the home of rare native animals, while allowing more coal mining and more climate-destroying carbon to be released.

These secret projects, processes, and rapid law changes could be the very opposite of the economic transformation New Zealanders have demanded.

New Zealand can create jobs, housing, and transport options while also caring for our remaining natural places and native animals. Infrastructure in service of genuine human wellbeing can, and must, also provide for our natural world. It’s hardly a controversial position, but there is nothing to indicate the shovel-ready and fast-track processes account for both people and the planet. With $20b on offer and developers around the country lining up, Forest & Bird is very concerned.

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