From our Chair: A bit about consents

Consents and the consenting process may not seem the most riveting of subjects at first, but it’s worth knowing a little bit about them, particularly as they affect how we manage the environment.

Jenny Hughey, Chair, Environment Canterbury

Jenny Hughey, Chair, Environment Canterbury

Consents in context

When most people hear ‘consents’ they probably think about building consents, but for Environment Canterbury it includes things such as releasing contaminants, taking or diverting water (such as from rivers), storing effluent, or disturbing the foreshore or seabed.

Consenting provides an important service to the community, but the process is not without its share of complexity. The overarching piece of legislation that guides and decides how applications are handled is the Resource Management Act (RMA).

Notifying the public

When we receive a consent application, we assess the effect that the activity would have on people and the environment. This in turn helps us to determine if we need to notify the public.

Public notification means the community can have a say on a consent application before a decision is made. It’s usually done if the proposed activity would have a more than minor impact on the people living in the area, other users of a resource, or the environment.

There are instances where public notification is not an option, even if the impact on the environment is deemed significant.

In such instances, no matter how much we might want to involve the public, our hands are tied by the RMA. This is one aspect that is often misunderstood by the community.

Handing the decision over

Sometimes a consent application outcome needs to be determined by an independent commissioner or a panel of commissioners. This can occur if there are submitters who wish to be heard on a proposal or there are complex factors requiring technical input.

Once again, in such cases, the decision is out of the hands of the regional council.

Consent conditions

When a consent is granted, it comes with conditions that the consent holder must comply with. An individual consent may have many of these – even up to a hundred. In fact, over the years we have seen increasingly complex consents issued.

No matter who grants a consent, Environment Canterbury is ultimately responsible for checking that consent holders are acting sustainably and within the conditions set.

There are around 24,000 resource consents on Environment Canterbury’s books. Every year we check around 50% of them. Usually around 80 per cent will be compliant, with the remainder requiring some form of intervention by us.

The way forward

The RMA is currently being overhauled by the Government and will be replaced with new resource management laws.

The expectation is that these reforms will work better for the environment, give proper recognition of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and help us mitigate the effects of climate change; all the while ensuring that local participation remains a key aspect.

This is welcome, but, no matter the legislation, consenting will remain as important as ever and will always have a degree of complexity as it seeks to balance the interests of the environment and the expectations of the wider community.