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One of the key changes to the Resource Management Act in the 2017 reforms was to provide for a new planning tool called “National Planning Standards”. The standards are to be developed by central government and adopted by councils in preparing their RMA plans and policy statements.

The first set of draft National Planning Standards were released last week and are open for submissions until 17 August.

One of the key changes to the Resource Management Act in the 2017 reforms was to provide for a new planning tool called “National Planning Standards”.[1] The standards are to be developed by central government and adopted by councils in preparing their RMA plans and policy statements. For more background on the standards, see our previous newsflash.

The standards aim to make RMA plans and policy statements simpler to prepare for local authorities and easier for plan users to understand and comply with. Standards can include a prescribed structure for planning documents as well as mandatory or optional content (including objectives, policies, and rules).

After initial consultation with plan users, MfE has drafted the first set of standards in collaboration with pilot local authorities, user groups, and technical experts. The first set of draft standards were released by MfE on Wednesday 6 June, with public submissions on the standards due on 17 August 2018. 

What kind of standards? The first set of draft standards are made up of:

  • Structure standards (which are broken down into ‘main’ and ‘part/chapter’ structure standards);
  • Form standards (including standardised zones for planning maps); and
  • Other (content and metrics) standards (definitions and noise and vibration metrics).

While the draft standards are quite prescriptive in terms of the structure (or ‘contents page’) of planning documents, they do not require any mandatory substantive provisions (i.e. objectives, policies, or rules) to be adopted, apart from definitions and metrics.

The structure standards

The draft structure standards set a common framework for plan provisions that all local planning documents must use. ‘Main’ structure standards have been provided for regional policy statements, regional plans, district plans, and combined plans. In addition to structure, these standards generally set out the names and order of parts and chapters to be included within each plan. These standards generally have a high level of prescription at the front ‘administrative’ end of the structure, and a more flexible approach to the more substantive chapters of the plan. 

‘Part/chapter’ standards included in this first set are:

  • Introduction and general provisions;
  • Tangata whenua;
  • Strategic direction;
  • District wide matters (eg natural environment values, community values, infrastructure and energy);
  • Area specific matters (eg zones, precincts, designations); and
  • Schedules, appendices, maps. 

More specific ‘chapter’ and ‘section’ structure directions are provided within these standards. Some chapter and section directions are required in all plans, whereas others are only required if they are relevant to that district or region.

The Zones chapter structure is included within the Area specific matters standards. Here the draft planning standards provide for a set of 27 zones, grouped into residential, rural, commercial, industrial, open space/recreation, and special purpose zone ‘families’. It is likely that this standard will be a significant change for some councils’ district plans.  

The form standards

This draft set of planning standards includes the following form standards: 

  • Electronic functionality and accessibility;
  • Mapping (including colours, for example “rural production” zones must always be the same shade of green);
  • Spatial planning tools (regional and district, separately);
  • Chapter form;
  • Status of rule and other text and numbering format.

The ‘electronic functionality and accessibility’ standard requires councils to make initial changes within 12 months of the gazettal of the national planning standards. These ‘baseline requirements’ include making plans accessible within three ‘clicks’ from the council homepage (with a strong preference to ‘one click’ accessibility), making PDF plans key-word searchable, and complying with government web accessibility standards. The standard also includes ePlan[2] format requirements that plans must comply with within 5 years of gazettal of the standards (a period of 7 years applies for identified councils that have recently notified the decisions version of a plan).

The other standards

Standards for definitions and noise and vibration metrics are included in this set of draft planning standards. It standardises 109 terms, some which use definitions already given in the RMA and other legislation. The noise and vibration metrics standard requires councils to use the latest relevant acoustic NZ Standards when measuring and assessing noise and construction vibration.

Mandatory or discretionary directions?

All of the draft planning standards (with the exception of the zone framework for the Area Specific Matters Standard) contain mandatory directions. These require councils to amend their policy statements and plans to be consistent with the requirements of the planning standards (without going through an RMA Schedule 1 process[3]).

Discretionary directions provide a set of options, and councils must select at least one of the options to apply in their plans. The council must then use a formal consultation process under the RMA to decide which option or options to select and how they should be applied in the plan. Discretionary directions, for this set of planning standards, are only included in the Zone chapter structure. Councils are required to choose at least one of the specified zones to use in its plans, but can only include a ‘special purpose zone’ (rather than one of the prescribed options in the standard) if this can be justified in terms of criteria in the standard itself. 

Implementing the standards

Following the gazettal of all standards (which is required by April 2019), all standards except the electronic functionality and accessibility standard must be implemented within five years. However, local authorities that have completed a plan review within three years of the gazettal of the first set of standards are given a two year extension (a total of 7 years compliance period). Lists of local authorities proposed to be subject to this extension are included within the directions for each standard.

Next steps for the standards 

Once submissions on the first set of planning standards close, gazettal of the standards is required by 18 April 2019 at the latest. In addition to written submissions MfE is organising a number of regional public meetings to be held around the country in June and July. The draft standards, and a link to register for the regional meetings, are available at MfE’s website.

Our view

There will inevitably be a lot of work for councils in amending their plans to conform to the new requirements.  However, for the most part this should be confined to ‘cutting and pasting’ or re-arranging existing content in their planning documents.

Once this work is complete, the standards will allow councils to focus their efforts on managing the content and substantial issues, rather than the form, of plan and policy statement preparation.  The standards will also have real benefits for plan users – particularly for businesses or assets (e.g. infrastructure) that operate across multiple districts.  Having standardised definitions, plan structure, and even zoning maps will make these documents much easier to use in the future. 

MfE has also (perhaps wisely) confined the first set of standards to form rather than content (i.e. mandatory substantive provisions); if used to their full extent the planning standard tool could be very directive.  It is possible that more substantive elements will be included in later iterations of the national planning standards, or that the new Government sees these elements as more naturally sitting with the other ‘national direction’ tools (being the existing national policy statement and national environmental standard tools).

If you would like to discuss the implications of the standards for your activities or would like assistance in preparing submissions, please contact Christina Sheard, Marija Batistich or Nicky McIndoe.   

Thanks to Ezekiel Hudspith and Akane Sandom for preparing this newsflash.


[1] National Planning Standards are contained in sections 58B to 58J of the Resource Management Act 1991.

[2] An ePlan is an interactive, hyperlinked electronic plan that has an embedded GIS system.

[3]Where proposed changes go beyond what the mandatory directions need, these changes need a formal schedule 1 RMA consultation process.



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