On 3 May 2019 the Government introduced the first set of national planning standards to make council plans and policy statements easier to prepare, understand and comply with.
This first set contains 17 standards that provide for national consistency in Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) plans and policy statement structure, form, definitions, and noise and vibrations metric standard and electronic accessibility. The national planning standards set out requirements for structure and format to reduce unnecessary variation in Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) planning documents. You can find information on the standards here.
The way in which a plan is structured, and the content within it organised is critical in assisting the understanding and effectiveness of that plan. Good structure and organisation can help ensure important plan provisions are not overlooked, enable better integration between provisions, and improve understanding as to the origin and intent of provisions (particularly rules). However, where the intent and origins of plan provisions are unclear, or not well integrated, then those provisions could become prone to legal challenge and be less defensible.
The Resource Management Act (RMA) contains provisions relating to the overall content of plans but little guidance has been available as to the structure and organisation of plans. The philosophy that local authorities should decide for themselves has, consequently, seen the structure and organisation of plans vary markedly between, and sometimes within councils.
A degree of commonality and consistency in plan structure and organisation is important to:
- assist those who use the plans of many councils (such as consultants and the Environment Court) to quickly find the information they need without having to first work out the structure and organisation of each plan and internal linkages
- better enable business and the public to understand the role and structure of RMA plans through adopting a structure that is familiar to them regardless of which plan they are looking at
- allow similarities and differences between plans to be quickly identified and evaluated by those preparing, using or monitoring plans
- make it easier for central government to prepare national policy statements and national environmental standards that align with how plans are structured, organised and written
- allow staff transferring from one council to another to quickly adapt to using the plan of their new employer (thereby creating less down time and greater efficiencies in administration).
This guidance note suggests an example structure to assist in achieving a degree of commonality and consistency between plans; is it not intended to remove the ability of local authorities to structure plans in a way they consider best meets local circumstances.
Who the plan is for?
The purpose of regional or district plans under the RMA is to assist a regional council or territorial authority to "carry out [any of] its functions in order to achieve the purpose of this Act" (ss63 and 72). This implies that the intended primary users are local authorities.
The reality is that district and regional plans are also regularly used by others including the general public and businesses (who may be considering applying for a resource consent for the first time), developers, consultants, surveyors, architects, lawyers, judges, commissioners, various environmental or business interest groups. The level of knowledge and regularity of use by each of these parties varies widely but catering to their need for quick and easy access to the information they need from a plan will benefit all.