In June 2018 the Ministry for the Environment released the first set of Draft National Planning Standards (“Planning Standards”) for public consultation. The aim of the Planning Standards is to improve consistency in plan and policy statement structure, format, and content – to make RMA plans “simpler to prepare, and easier for plan users to understand, compare, and comply with”.
The Planning Standards will require major changes to RMA plans in most cases, and will have significant impacts for councils and all plan users. We comment briefly on several aspects of the Standards and their implementation:
- The planning standards approach represents a major shift in the way councils make their plans – until now, within the wider framework provided by the RMA, councils have largely been left to their own devices. In this respect, the Standards represent a significant tightening of the reins in terms of the government’s devolution of authority to local authorities associated with the enactment of the RMA in 1991 (such devolution was a key plank of the RMA).
- The concept of increasing – to some degree – consistency across plans is almost universally supported; but there will be significant implementation costs associated with the Standards. Whether such costs will be outweighed by long-term efficiencies resulting from more efficient and effective RMA plans remains to be seen.
- Important questions remain about issues like the appropriate level of standardisation, the scope of the Standards (what is covered and what is not), and the actual content of their directions (e.g. are the 27 zones proposed for district plans appropriate)?
- While many of the directions appear at first glance to be very prescriptive and detailed (and are in fact so, in lots of cases), in some instances councils retain the ability to determine the fine-grained content of their plans (for example populating the prescribed headings of the Planning Standards or the rules within each of the set zones). The ability of the Standards to continue to facilitate effective local plan making will be a key litmus test.
- Conversely, even some relatively confined elements set out in the Standards, for example the prescribed definitions, will likely trigger numerous consequential changes to plans, necessitating the updating of a considerable suite of affected plan provisions. Such consequential changes are a potential minefield (in a legal/planning sense) that will need to be carefully navigated, particularly given that mandatory directions are implemented without a public consultation process under Schedule 1.
- While the only standards in the Draft Planning Standards classified as strictly “content-based” are definitions (CM-1) and noise and vibration metrics (CM-2), future planning standards may be more content-heavy (for example the following standards have been mooted: a standard chapter for utilities; standard provisions supporting consistent application of certain National Policy Statements; or standard methods for identifying outstanding natural features/landscapes or similar). Given that planning standards can prescribe the full range of elements relating to the structure, format and content of RMA planning documents – including: objectives, policies, methods (including rules), and other provisions – the potential for planning standards to influence local plans is almost unlimited in scope.
- In the case of Auckland, where the Unitary Plan hearings process has recently been completed, the prospect of another mandatory “re-write” of the planning framework will be seen as an unwelcome and unnecessary burden in many circles (even in light of the more liberal seven year timeframe proposed in the Planning Standards).
What is the rationale behind the Standards?
National planning standards as a concept was introduced as part of the 2017 amendments to the RMA to address the concern that plans are often inconsistent with each other, costly to prepare, and complex to navigate (because councils generally develop plans independently and without a common structure and format). National planning standards were also conceived to address a concern that wide variation in the structure and format of planning documents has resulted in national-level planning documents like national policy statements being interpreted and implemented inconsistently, reducing their effectiveness.
The Standards are therefore proposed as “an opportunity to standardise basic elements of RMA plans and policy statements”, focussing on the following key outcomes:
- Less time and fewer resources to prepare and use plans
- Plan content that is easier to access, and relevant content easier to find
- More consistent incorporation of national direction in plans
- Focussing resources on plan content that influences important local issues
- Consistent application of good practice planning
The Ministry states that once implemented, the Planning Standards will have a range of benefits for councils, resource management professionals, and plan users.
What do the Standards require?
As required by the RMA, the first set of Planning Standards includes:
- a standard structure and form for plans
- standard definitions
- requirements for electronic functionality and accessibility of plans
In addition, the Planning Standards also include standardised:
- spatial planning tools
- zone frameworks
The Planning Standards will apply throughout the country. Examples of the types of directions in the Planning Standards include the following:
- The structure standards (S-) set a common framework for plan provisions that all plans must use. The mandatory structure is made up of parts, then chapters, then sections. The structure of district plans is standardised to a greater extent than regional plans.
- The area specific matters standard (S-ASM) provides (among other things) a set of 27 district plan zones, which councils must select from (subject to limited exceptions). Each zone has a set purpose statement and a set colour for use on maps.
- The spatial planning tools standard for district plans (F-4) limits district plans to the following spatial planning tools:
- specific control
- development area
- heritage order
- The spatial planning tools standard for regional plans (F-3) prescribes the following spatial planning tools and how they must be used (other tools may also be used):
- specific control
- freshwater management unit
- The mapping standard (F-2) sets consistent colours and symbols for district plan zones and some common overlays, for example notable trees, heritage features and hazard areas.
- The definitions standard (CM-1) standardises 109 terms with set definitions.
- The chapter form standard (F-5) directs how provisions are shown in plans. Objectives and policies will need to be combined in the same topic chapter as the rules; and rules and rule requirements are required to be presented in table format.
- The status of rule and other text and numbering format standard (F-6) prescribes a standard plan provision identification system. Plan provisions are required to be in alpha-numeric format with an acronym for the provision location (e.g. “RES – 1.2” means Residential Zone Rule 1.2).
- The noise and vibration metrics standard (CM-2) references the latest relevant acoustic NZ Standards and requires councils to use them when measuring and assessing noise and construction vibration. The Standards do not set noise limits, however this is something the Ministry is seeking public feedback on. The Ministry has advised that the noise and vibration metrics standard was pursued as a content-based standard because it is the “lowest hanging fruit” (i.e. the easiest/least controversial content-based standard to develop).
The vast majority of the directions in the Planning Standards are mandatory for councils, meaning councils must implement the directions in their plans with no consultation process. The only direction that is discretionary (meaning several options are provided, and councils must select at least one option through a formal consultative process under the RMA) relates to the standard for zone chapter structure.
Additional information about the Planning Standards is available here.
Opportunity for feedback, and next steps
Submissions on the Planning Standards are due by 5pm on 17 August 2018. Following public consultations and an analysis/refinement phase, the final Standards are set to be released in April 2019. In general, most councils will be given five years to re-draft their planning documents to bring them into line with the Standards (or seven years, where councils have recently concluded major planning processes).
Feel free to contact ChanceryGreen if you would like to discuss how the Planning Standards may affect you or your business.