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Not paranoid, just anxious

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Tom Belford04 May 2020

The Government has announced a new ‘fast track’ process for speeding infrastructure projects through the consenting process.

Says Environment Minister Parker: “Job-rich projects like core infrastructure, housing, and environmental restoration are crucial to the government’s plan to stimulate the economy and help us recover from the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Without question, facilitating job creation and security is a national priority. But that needs to occur within the bounds of a complementary priority … ensuring the infrastructure activities supported are environmentally sound and offer long-term resilience in the face of even more dire challenges like climate change.

Hence my nervousness about what projects might be accelerated.

The Government plan seems to have struck the necessary balance.

The two voices I would turn to first regarding the environmental ‘bona fides’ of a Government policy are the Green Party’s co-leader, James Shaw and the chairman of the highly-respected Environmental Defence Society, Gary Taylor.

Shaw — himself cautious, if not anxious — commented to NBR (subscription required):

“What we’ve done is we’ve said ‘look, there is a particular set of national circumstances right now. It is far from ideal. There may be circumstances where having a fast track like this can get projects up and running if they also meet those social and environmental objectives as well as the economic imperative’ and I think we can make that case.”

And: “If you think about the alternative, it would be possible, say, for the government to take it straight to Cabinet and for the Green Party to agree to disagree on it, but then it would be shaped by the National Party and that would be a very different piece of legislation and it wouldn’t observe any of those bottom lines for environmental outcomes or for Treaty of Waitangi obligations or the role of science and so on.”

Noting that Cabinet decision papers when released would provide reassurance regarding selection criteria, Shaw said: “I’m very confident that the Green Party will be involved in helping to choose which projects go forward but also that we’ve actually built sufficient safeguards into the process to ensure that … projects go forward that actually have [not just] an economic benefit but also social and environmental benefits.”

Shaw expects only a very few projects will be accepted for fast tracking, and the process will only be available for two years. The decision on which projects to accept is solely in the hands of Environment Minister David Parker, who in my book is no push-over when it comes to protecting the environment. If Parker is at the gate for those two years, environmentalists can be reasonably relaxed.

Adds EDS chair Taylor: “All of the environmental bottom lines that are either set out explicitly or are implicit in Part 2 of the Resource Management Act, will still apply.”

The bill is still being drafted, but is planned for June enactment.

I’ll be very eager to see what ‘environmental restoration’ projects receive this favoured treatment … wastewater and stormwater treatment projects could surely use a boost in this region (see our earlier article on region’s $314m infrastructure bid to PGF).

And meantime I’ll do my best to remain calm.

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Tom Belford04 May 2020

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