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IPW: fast-tracking New Zealand infrastructure projects, and managing UK surface flooding risk

28 March 2024

In this Infrastructure Policy Watch, New Zealand considers a fast-track planning system, while the UK responds to a flooding study.

IPW: fast-tracking New Zealand infrastructure projects, and managing UK surface flooding risk
The UK government hasn’t fully accepted all of the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendations on reducing surface water flooding risk. Image credit: Shutterstock

New Zealand considers a new, faster approach to infrastructure planning

New Zealand’s Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishop recently gave a speech to the New Zealand Planning Institute on the government's planned reform programme for project consents.

The first stage of reforms has already been completed with the repeal of the Natural and Built Environment Act (2023) and the Spatial Planning Act (2023).

These had been introduced by the previous government to replace the Resource Management Act (1991).

The second stage involves a new Fast-Track Approval Bill.

How the proposed bill would work

Under the proposed bill, projects will be eligible for fast track either through a joint referral by the three ministers of infrastructure, regional development and transport, or by being listed as a project in Schedule 2A of the bill.

Once a project has been referred into the fast-track process, it will be considered by an expert panel who have up to six months to make their recommendations, though ministers are also able to request a shorter timeframe.

The project will then be sent back to the ministers to either approve the project, approve with conditions or decline the project.

Under the current process, the final decision for projects lies with officials and not ministers.

This new process would be broadly similar to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) process in the UK, but with a compressed timeline.

Notably, environmental groups in New Zealand have been outspoken on the potential consequences of the proposed bill on biodiversity and carbon emissions.

The third stage of reforms hasn’t yet been outlined in detail. It's expected to introduce new policies and legislation to permanently replace the current Resource Management Act (1991) for projects not included under the Fast-Track Approval Bill.

The ICE’s view

There’s an urgent need to reduce delays and uncertainty across key infrastructure systems.

Fast-track consenting systems are a tool available to governments. New Zealand isn’t alone in this as the UK government confirmed last year that it would pilot a new fast-track system.

However, it’s vital that planning reforms are responsive to the biodiversity and climate crises.

They must also be consistent with evidence-based decision-making, as set out in the ICE-convened Enabling Better Infrastructure programme.

It’s also crucial for decisions to be transparent to help maintain a clear link between governments’ long-term strategic objectives and day-to-day infrastructure decision-making.

Looking ahead, countries’ planning regimes will need to continue to navigate global challenges such as climate change and rapid technological shifts.

It’s important that planning processes respond to these challenges and are able to play their full role in driving progress towards net zero and national objectives.

UK government responds to recommendations on surface water flooding in England

The UK National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) conducted a study in late 2022 on effective approaches to the management of surface water flooding in England.

The study provided a robust assessment, based on evidence and economic impact, of how responsible bodies can better manage and mitigate surface water flooding.

The UK government replied to the NIC earlier this month and has accepted some of the recommendations, with other recommendations only partially accepted.

The NIC recommended that long-term flood reduction targets are set, an approach that has been endorsed by the Climate Change Committee and National Audit Office.

The government has agreed to consider the merits of adopting targets, while continuing work on developing a national set of indicators to monitor trends.

The government has also accepted the benefits of closer working between relevant local agencies.

However, it doesn’t accept the case for devolving capital funding directly to local authorities to implement joint local flood risk management plans.

Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act

The NIC encouraged the government to implement Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act by the end of 2023.

This ensures new developments adopt sustainable drainage systems and lose the automatic right to connect to the existing wastewater system.

The government’s response confirms it’s still consulting on the implementation of this existing legislation, with the “aim to have finalised the implementation pathway by the end of 2024”.

The government has also committed to undertake a wider review of how policy changes could slow the spread of impermeable surfaces, particularly in urban areas, which it aims to publish by the end of 2024.

The NIC has expressed disappointment that the government isn’t acting with greater urgency and has not yet adopted risk reduction targets.

The ICE’s view

The NIC’s study is based on evidence and insight from flooding experts.

Politicians should use the NIC’s recommendations to keep making progress. When they do, results are visible, and people benefit.

Last year, the ICE was among a group of organisations encouraging the UK government to take action on sustainable drainage, including implementing Schedule 3 to address the impact of new developments on surface water flooding.

The ICE also published an insight paper on combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Among other areas, the paper looked at how reducing rainwater flows in sewers – for example, through sustainable drainage – will contribute to reducing the risk of CSO spills in waterways.

However, more guidance is needed if the water sector is to successfully implement blue-green infrastructure, such as sustainable drainage solutions (SuDS), and separate surface water from foul flows on a large scale.

Interested in learning more about SuDS? Read this ICE blog on how engineers can use nature to protect people from flooding.

In case you missed it

  • Hannah Judd, policy manager at ICE