Covid-19

Should councils speed up consents - or re-think?

Planners and politicians say councils should speed up consents, but a post-Covid environment may force the country to go beyond its focus on cutting red tape

With most of the construction sector returning to work next week, planners and politicians are asking councils to push consents through quickly to allow large-scale construction projects to take-off once lockdown levels lift.

Environment Minister David Parker sent a letter to every council during the first two weeks of lockdown and pre-emptively asked them to clear a backlog of resource consents to help stimulate an economic recovery.

“Control over planning and consenting functions rests almost entirely with councils. These functions have essential service status because of the crucial role they play in the operation of the economy,” Parker wrote.

“I urge you to address any consenting backlogs you have, so projects that employ people are not unnecessarily delayed once the Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed," he said.

Last week, it was the turn of Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones. He slammed the country's resource consenting processes during a business webinar and said he wanted to give Crown agencies like the NZTA the ability to self-consent smaller projects.

"One of the first things I approved [when I was elected]...was a $9m roundabout 500 metres from my whare," Jones said.

"Of course I got blasted for looking after myself. Well I can assure you nothing has happened," he said.

"If we can't get a $9m roundabout built in two and a half years then I'm deeply concerned for the prospects of the infrastructure sector."

University of Waikato Professor of Environmental Planning Iain White has a different take. He thinks the country will emerge into a depressed economic environment post-Covid19 where the priorities of planners will have to be different.

"If I asked you what the most pressing planning problems in New Zealand are today, would you say consents?" White said.

"We've spent the last few years in New Zealand talking about speed, efficiency, red tape and consents," he said.

"We need to have a new conversation that's about economic recovery and using planning as part of a positive recovery for places."

Backlogs 

New Zealand Planning Institute Chief Executive David Curtis said IT systems separated the councils who consented projects under lockdown from the ones that didn't. 

He said some council computer systems were better able to cope with a large number of employees working from home than others.

Building Officials Institute of New Zealand Chief Executive Nick Hill said the ability of councils to use technology had also been a critical factor in their ability to process building consents under lockdown.

Building inspectors hadn't been able to conduct on-site inspections under lockdown, but some councils used a new piece of software called 'Artisan' which allowed for virtual inspections.

Curtis said another factor was the willingness of councils to move towards a "trust model" for some parts of the consenting process under lockdown.

He said pre-lockdown Auckland Council processed 64 percent of its incoming resource consents on time. During lockdown that figure rose to 68 percent, but that was still short of the council's processing target of 80 percent.

Curtis said that processing figure could have been higher under lockdown if the council had continued to lean on external agencies to help with its consenting workload.

For their part, local councils have urged people applying for consents to respond quickly to requests for information under lockdown. 

Local Government New Zealand President Dave Cull said council consenting services had been affected by the lockdown, but many had been working to clear planning and building consent applications "so that when the opportunity arises, projects around the country can get going". 

Planning when we're not growing

White said for many years the country's planning priorities had the assumption of growth built-in, but it would now have to deal with a nationwide economic depression.

"In New Zealand it's always about red tape and consents and speed. It's not anymore," White said.

He said the economy would have to grapple with recessionary issues like "regeneration". That would be less about removing red tape and more about using planning to regenerate economically depressed towns and cities.

"We've never had to plan for recession or regeneration in New Zealand," White said "whereas in the UK a lot of what planning is is regeneration. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from abroad about regenerating local areas," he said.

And some consent applications filed before lockdown probably wouldn't be needed anymore, he said.

"Do we need more office space if we're going to have a lot of businesses closing down?" .

Planners would have to think much more broadly about how to restore the economic confidence of people in different regions and cities so that people were willing to spend and invest again.

Curtis accepted some projects in the consenting queue would no longer be viable in a post-Covid world. He said those would naturally fall off as people decided not to go ahead.

"I'm very interested to see to what degree we've been through a paradigm shift with lockdown," Curtis said.

Significant societal shifts had taken place. People were more comfortable with technology and had gone a month without a commute.

Some might never return to commuting and choose to work from home instead. Having more things available in the local neighbourhood might then become more important, he said.

"We've seen how empty the motorways are when everyone is working from home," Curtis said.

"Obviously that will change, but does it need to go back to the congestion it was?" he said.

"Or can we take advantage of some of the benefits technology offers to reduce that load on infrastructure?"

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