The COVID-19 Recovery (Fast-Track Consenting) Bill delivers the resource consents for six large projects in the National Land Transport Programme of Waka Kotahi/NZ Transport Agency. This 'fast-track' is similar to the rail rebuild following the Hurunui/Kaikōura earthquake. The National Land Transport Programme is an existing programme to construct and upgrade the transport network nationwide between 2018-2021 and refreshes every three years.
The Bill proffers two other 'fast-tracking' categories; enabling specific government-led projects to occur as of right, and a fast-track for public and private projects like plan changes. However, a critical reading of the cabinet paper outlining the Bill unveils these other categories will not create a meaningful difference in timescale for council and private projects.
This is because the Bill currently lacks statutory timeframes that pressure these other categories through the Ministerial assessment and sign-off, the council confirmation process, and the formation of the expert panel stages. In its current form, the gears of administration and formalities will likely stall progress through these well-meaning categories.
Therefore, the grunt of the national recovery will come through the prescribed six transport projects, so it is essential that these projects 'fast-track' the national recovery; not just transportation.
These six projects have the opportunity to fast-track the national recovery by integrating comprehensive urban planning considerations that transcend mere transportation matters. Specifically, by integrating ancillary and auxiliary economic, social, cultural, and environmental considerations that spur broader recovery outcomes across the country.
It is important to note that in the Bill, the category for public and privately-led projects requires assessment against similar ancillary and auxiliary considerations (Read the consideration here). However, the cabinet paper does not state that these will determine the six transport projects. Additionally, as the projects in the National Land Transport Programme were devised before COVID-19, it is unclear whether they are optimised for national recovery.
There is a risk that we are leaving plenty of opportunities on the table by merely fast-tracking pre-COVID transport projects.
I suggest that Hon David Parker, Minister for the Environment, and his team select the six transport projects against similar criteria as the public and privately-led projects.
Also, I recommend the projects should consider their ability to:
- Deliver private and public residential and commercial development in new or neglected places through increasing accessibility, providing infrastructure, and uplifting land values;
- Deploy project urban design and landscape installations to socially, economically, environmentally, and culturally benefit adjacent areas and communities beyond transportation outcomes;
- Employ consultants and contractors from the communities the project will traverse through so that they can support local families and businesses directly; and
- Convey the narrative that the projects are for short-term national recovery and long-term national success.
This comprehensive approach for transportation infrastructure requires a new perspective from those involved, including planners.
As an urban planner, we are indoctrinated early with the "if you build it, they will congest" anti-road mantra; fighting phantom Robert Moseses, Frank Lloyd Wrights, and Ebenezer Howards. Similarly, traditionalist infrastructure professionals see urban planning considerations as outside of their transportation scope and fluff on the edges of indifferent highways.
But these combative views are unproductive when we need to rally for the nation collectively. It is especially crucial for small and regional centres; read as 'all of those outside Auckland'; that rely on passing freight, workers, and tourists for their livelihoods.
While the COVID-19 Recovery (Fast-Track Consenting) Bill is not the all-encompassing legalisation that many hoped for, the six transport projects have the opportunity to fast-track the national recovery through a comprehensive urban planning approach.
Let's hope they (we) get it right.
David Batchelor is an urban planner and heritage advisor in Wellington.