National Planning Framework provides guidance on proposed environmental outcomes  

The focus of the new Natural and Built Environment Bill (NBE Bill) and the Spatial Planning Bill (together, Bills) introduced to Parliament in November 2022 is on achieving specified environmental outcomes. The National Planning Framework (NPF) provides high level guidance on how these outcomes are to be achieved at a national level and therefore provides the starting point from which subsequent planning documents will follow.

The NPF is proposed to incorporate the existing national policy statements, national environmental standards, national planning standards and regulations into a single system, as well as incorporating new content on matters such as infrastructure and natural hazards.  Importantly, conflicts between different aspects of national direction, which have been the subject of some litigation to date, are intended to be identified and resolved within the NPF rather than at the consenting stage.  This will assist in providing greater certainty for applicants in terms of how the national direction is to be applied.

As currently drafted, a mandatory role of the NPF is to provide for both limits and targets in relation to environmental matters.  These are to apply to specified geographical areas referred to as management units.

Limits are to provide for either:

  • a minimum biophysical state for a management unit; or
  • a maximum amount of harm or stress to the natural environment that may be permitted in a management unit.

Under the NBE Bill, environmental limits are mandatory in relation to air, indigenous biodiversity, coastal water, estuaries, freshwater and soil, but may also be set for any other aspect of the natural environment. Environmental limits have become more common in planning documents under the RMA.

Where these limits cannot be met, a narrow exemption has been provided, whereby activities which provide public benefits that justify the loss of ecological integrity can be directed by the Minister, in response to a request from a planning committee.  Projects which are not supported by the Minister will need to ensure that they can meet the specified bottom lines by applying the effects management framework.

In addition to limits, targets will be introduced as a measurable goal to assist in achieving an outcome.  The NBE Bill requires these to be expressed as a series of steps, each with a time limit, designed to achieve progressive improvement over time.  Targets are mandatory in relation to those same aspects of the natural environment for which limits are required.

The extent of contribution towards targets required by any individual resource consent applicant will be a matter of debate under the new regime with decision-makers being required to consider whether and the extent to which an activity contributes to any limits or targets.

Overall, the introduction of limits and targets will move New Zealand firmly into an environmental bottom line approach, with national direction playing a key role in setting those standards.  The level at which these standards are set will be key in determining whether the objectives of the reforms are achieved in practice.

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