Frequently asked questions on COVID-19 for local government

Frequently asked questions to support local government fulfil Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) obligations. This is within the context of the COVID-19 response and recovery. 

These FAQs are intended to be read alongside the guidance for transitioning through alert levels prepared by the COVID-19 Local Government Response Unit. 

While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of these FAQs, they have been provided for information and guidance only, and do not constitute legal advice. Local authorities and consent authorities should seek their own legal advice to inform decision making during COVID-19.  Neither the Ministry for the Environment nor the Department of Internal Affairs will be held responsible for any action arising out of the use of these FAQs.

Further guidance for local government can be found at the:

Local government plays a critical role in responding to the pandemic. We acknowledge COVID-19 affects the level of service that is possible. Some RMA functions will not be a priority as local authorities and their staff focus on delivery of lifeline services and need to prioritise threats to life and serious harm to the environment over business as usual. The Ministry for the Environment is committed to working with local government and our partner agencies to support councils. 

You can also stay up to date via www.covid19.govt.nz.

Frequently asked questions:

What consenting and planning functions should continue during the COVID-19 alert levels?

COVID-19 Alert Level 4

During alert level 4 councils should continue all business as usual work where possible with people working remotely and following all other COVID-19 alert level restrictions. 

It is essential that consenting, plan making and compliance services continue during COVID-19 alert level 4 where they are required to:  

  • enable and/or support essential services, or  
  • address immediate health or life safety risks, or  
  • prevent serious environmental harm. 

COVID-19 Alert Level 3

RMA consenting and planning functions are core council responsibilities that play a crucial role in the response to and economic recovery from COVID-19.

After the shift from alert level 4 to alert level 3, all consenting and planning functions can be undertaken with a potential small number of limited exceptions where they cannot be undertaken safely in the current context. Many activities will need to be undertaken differently from normal, and for all activities there must be health and safety measures to ensure workers are kept safe. As describe in the guidance for transitioning through alert levels prepared by the COVID-19 Local Government Response Unit, in alert level 3, everyone should work remotely unless it is not possible.

Council offices can only open for staff if:

  • Workers cannot work from home, and
  • Workplaces are operating safely, and
  • Customers are not allowed on premises, and
  • Council staff can work without physical contact with public/customers. 

“Operating safely” means:

  • Complying with alert level 3 settings, and
  • Meeting appropriate public health requirements for their workplace, including for workers (eg, putting up physical barriers), and
  • Fulfilling all other health and safety obligations.

If these measures cannot be taken, staff must not go to work, and premises should remain closed.

What monitoring and/or mitigation activities should be undertaken during the COVID-19 alert levels?

COVID-19 Alert Level 4

In addition to defined essential activities/businesses, any work required to: address immediate health or life safety risks, or prevent serious environmental harm must continue to be carried out in alert level 4 (as specified at Current COVID-19 alert level: Essential businesses on www.covid19.govt.nz).  

This can include the maintenance of control devices on mining, forestry sites, and urban and rural earthworks such as:  

  • existing tailings dams 
  • sediment and erosion devices 
  • silt retention ponds 
  • earth bunds 
  • silt fences 
  • clean water diversions 
  • forestry skid sites and landing sites 
  • flumes, batters, and similar features.  

If the features are no longer accessible, works on the private access to those features requiring monitoring or maintenance may be undertaken.  

The provision and transport of materials to deliver essential services and maintenance is also considered part of any essential service.

Maintaining these features remains the responsibility of consent holders and operators, while appropriate monitoring and enforcement to ensure this occurs remains the responsibility of councils.

Consent holders and other operators need to liaise closely with their council to determine what works are essential. Activities, receiving environments, effects, and rules and conditions can vary significantly from site to site. Councils have the strongest knowledge of these factors and are best placed to determine whether action is required in a particular situation. 

COVID-19 Alert Level 3 

During an alert level 3, normal monitoring and/or mitigation activities should occur with staff working remotely wherever possible. Where staff must work together, they may create a work group where staff may work in pairs/teams and adopt COVID-19 risk management practices. These pairs/ teams are intended to ensure staff interact with a consistent set of their colleagues. The pairs/teams must be able to operate safely and follow from the requirements described above under planning and consenting.

How should noise control functions continue during the various COVID-19 alert levels?

COVID-19 Alert Level 4

In alert level 4, councils should accept and triage noise complaints via their call centre or other normal means that are operating remotely. Information should be made publicly available on council websites to enable people to direct queries relating to noise control to the council in the first instance.  

Where possible, councils should aim to resolve noise complaints remotely. Noise officers should only attend sites where this is already part of the service level being provided under alert level 4, for example where security firms are already supporting and are taking all of the following measures:  

  • minimise, or eliminate if possible, physical interactions among staff and with and between the public  
  • ensure appropriate health, hygiene and safety measures are in place  
  • restrict activity to only what is ‘essential’ during the Alert Level 4 period.  

Council officers should contact police for assistance where justified following triaging. Police can issue Excessive Noise Directions where they are attending a complaint at the request of a noise officer (s327(1) and s328(3) of the RMA). Councils should provide remote support for these assessments and any notices to be issued. 

COVID-19 Alert Level 3

At alert level 3 and below, any councils which suspended noise control services during alert level 4 should resume them. The service level should be close to that provided during business as usual, though attempts should be made to resolve noise issues remotely before attending a site (for example, via a phone call if contact information is available), or there may be a modified threshold for deciding to undertake a site attendance.  

Police will not attend noise calls unless there is a breach of an Excessive Noise Direction, an escalated incident (such as threatening behaviour), or the noise is associated with a suspected breach of requirements relating to gatherings of people. 

At all alert levels, Councils are reminded of their duties toward employees and contractors as Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, and their broader duty of care to the public. Health and safety plans which take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce or eliminate COVID-19 transmission risks are essential in order to protect noise control officers and the members of the public with whom they interact.

Health and safety plans must incorporate protocols for, at a minimum:

  • Physical distancing – minimise, or eliminate where practical, physical interactions among staff and with the public
  • One officer per vehicle
  • If officers work in teams or pairs, these should be kept consistent (a ‘work group’) 
  • Appropriate PPE (if required).

Should councils process resource consents during the COVID-19 alert levels?  

Processing of resource consents is a core local government function and is critical to both Aotearoa/New Zealand’s response to and economic recovery from COVID-19. Consents should continue to be processed remotely, wherever possible.   

As described in the guidance for transitioning through alert levels prepared by the COVID-19 Local Government Response Unit, during alert levels 4 and 3, consenting services should be continued by staff working remotely at home wherever possible. During an alert level 3 in the limited instances where staff must work together physically, they may create a work group where staff may work in pairs/ teams with COVID-19 risk management practices. These pairs/ teams are intended to ensure staff interact with a consistent set of their colleagues. The pairs/ teams must be able to operate safely and are not exempt from the above requirements. At alert levels 2 and 1, consent processing should be operating in a manner similar to business as usual, as modified by individual workplace health and safety precautions.

Consent authorities should take a pragmatic approach to processing timeframes during the COVID-19 alert levels, particularly during alert levels 3 and 4. Councils have broad discretion under sections 37 and 37A of the RMA to extend timeframes, and to waive procedural requirements relating to time, method for serving documents and information requirements. These sections give consent authorities the discretion to double the RMA statutory timeframes when special circumstances such as COVID-19 apply, and once other considerations are taken into account, such as the interests of directly affected parties.  Timeframes can be increased further with the agreement of applicants.  

The Ministry for the Environment encourages consent authorities to make use of these provisions, where appropriate, and communicate openly with applicants about the timeframes. Priority should be given to consent applications relating to essential services. Councils should prioritise applications that will assist with the economic recovery.  

The Resource Management (Discount on Administrative Charges) Regulations 2010 sets out that certain working days may be excluded from a discount calculation. Regulation 3 and the interpretation of ‘excluded days’ is of particular relevance. Working days where consents are not processed due to “a reason in any other enactment” may be excluded from discount calculations. The time period during alert levels 3 and 4 can therefore be excluded from that calculation where these restrictions meant councils were unable to process consents. However, at alert level 2, we anticipate that there would be few situations where councils are unable to process consents due to the alert level restrictions. If some consents cannot be processed due to the need to comply the alert level requirements, or other requirements of the Epidemic Preparedness Notice, State of Emergency, or associated transition period, then those councils may continue to use the excluded days provisions of the regulations on a case-by-case basis. In doing so, councils must be able to demonstrate that they have been unable to process the consent for these reasons. Further information is available in this guidance document [PDF, 859 KB] on the Ministry for the Environment website.

How should councils receive consents during the COVID-19 response? 

The RMA enables resource consent applications to be lodged electronically, as reflected in Form 9 of the Resource Management (Forms, Fees, and Procedure) Regulations 2003. Councils able to receive resource consent applications electronically, while still meeting the requirements of Form 9, should continue to do so. Councils that are not already actively encouraging electronic submission should do so and should update their website and social media to clearly communicate these changes with potential applicants. We recognise that some consents are being received via post, and councils are exploring ways to access these.  

What is the protocol for site visits for resource consent processing under COVID-19 alert levels?

COVID-19 Alert Level 4

No site visits are to occur at alert level 4 unless they are essential to address immediate human health or life safety risk, or to prevent serious environmental harm. 

COVID-19 Alert Level 3

Councils should prepare a COVID-19 site visit protocol for staff, applicants and consultants working on their behalf (eg, arborists, surveyors, engineers) to ensure they are operating safely. Where possible they should deliver BAU services remotely and minimise interactions with the public and between staff. We also recommend taking a risk based approach when determining whether a physical site visit is necessary, noting the RMA does not specifically require a site visit. 

Matters that this protocol may include are: 
1. Process for determining whether a site visit is necessary for the resource consent application

a.    while a site visit is an important part of the assessment process, it may be possible to use: 

i.    recent satellite imagery; 
ii.    photos that have been submitted as part of the application; or 
iii.    a video call with the applicant walking over the site (where the applicant resides at the proposed development site only).     

2. When determined a site visit is required consider: 

a.    how to minimise the necessity for the processing planner and specialist staff undertaking a site visit   
b.    how to minimise interactions with other staff and specialists, eg visit the site separately whenever possible
c.    how to check the site is safe to visit eg, check if the applicant/land owner (or anyone on the site) travelled internationally in the last 14 days or has returned a positive test) 
d.    how to manage the health and safety of your staff and applicants during site visits: The New Zealand COVID-19 Construction Protocols provides some relevant guidance on health and safety, and risk management practices.

Additional information for councils on building and construction related activities is available at www.building.govt.nz/covid-19.

Some councils have provided us with their health and safety protocols and we are now looking to share best practice examples. If you would like more assistance with health and safety protocols for site visits, get in touch with us at RMQueries@mfe.govt.nz.

    What are the emergency provisions in the Resource Management Act and how can they be used? 

    There are provisions for ‘emergency works’ under sections 330 and 330B of the RMA. Councils (their agents and employees), persons with responsibility for public works, network utility operators and lifeline utilities may elect to exercise these provisions under s330 during the COVID-19 response. There are also special provisions under section 330B which apply when there is a declared state of emergency under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 (CDEMA) and during any notified transition period. During a state of emergency or transition period, councils, businesses and others may be directed by the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management or others to carry out certain works or actions. When acting under s330 and s330B, where the effects of any works will have an ongoing effect, retrospective resource consent will be required. An example would be where a discharge continues after remedial works.

    How should prosecution and enforcement action be considered during the COVID-19 response?  

    The overriding consideration, in relation to prosecution and enforcement, must be the health and safety of the public. Councils are aware the justice system has responded with a number of measures to respond to the COVID 19 alert level 4 restrictions. This has included limiting physical appearances at court hearings and the prioritisation of matters. The Solicitor-General has also asked central prosecuting agencies to also consider taking steps to alleviate the pressure on the criminal justice system where appropriate. 

    While individual decisions to prosecute or take other enforcement action under various statues, such as the RMA or the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, sit with councils, consideration of the declaration of an epidemic and a national state of emergency are likely to be relevant considerations in how you exercise any prosecutorial discretion. 

    While guidance from the Solicitor-General only directly applies to public and Crown prosecutions, the following guidelines provide a useful framework for considering any prosecution or enforcement decision (for further information on how this guidance can assist to inform and provide a framework for enforcement decisions under the RMA, refer to the Ministry’s Best Practice Guide for Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement under the Resource Management Act 1991 [PDF, 4.1 MB].   

    Prosecution or enforcement decisions should follow a two stage test that considers the: 

    1. sufficiency of the evidence to support the charge – can credible evidence be brought so that there is a reasonable prospect of success, and 
    2. public interest in taking a prosecution/enforcement action – the list of factors that may be relevant is not exhaustive but can include such things as the seriousness of the offence, whether serious harm was created, the defendant’s mental or physical harm and whether there are appropriate alternatives to prosecution. 

    The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be a relevant public interest factor to be taken into account with other factors as part of any public interest consideration. For instance, this may mean that a prosecuting agency may need to consider: 

    1. delaying taking any enforcement or prosecution action (subject to any limitation considerations).
    2. whether the matter may be resolved with alternative solutions or even whether any enforcement action is appropriate in light of current circumstances. At a minimum, the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic means there is likely to be delays in the courts processing matters of a more minor nature and this may limit the effect of taking any enforcement action in the first place.  

    Should council compliance and monitoring services, including inspections and state of the environment monitoring, continue during the COVID-19 alert levels?    

    Consent authorities will be exercising their discretion wisely in relation to non-compliance and continued operation of essential services. For example, supermarkets or other essential services may need to operate outside their normal consented hours of operation or other resource consent conditions.  

    We understand that some actions normally required to comply with consent conditions or plan rules may not be possible during COVID-19 alert levels. Consent holders unable to fulfil requirements, and essential service providers needing to alter their operations or undertake new activities, should notify the relevant local authority to discuss their situation. 

    However, normal enforcement tools, up to and including prosecution, remain available to councils if the circumstances warrant their use.

    Councils should: 

    • ensure all decisions factor in the circumstances individuals in communities are facing during the COVID-19 alert levels – be reasonable 
    • prioritise issues of public health and life safety 
    • promote the use of lower-level enforcement, for example issuing warning letters that do not require a site visit wherever suitable in accordance with council policy 
    • consider asking consent holders or contractors to supply site photos as an alternative to inspecting where appropriate. 

    COVID-19 Alert Level 4

    During alert level 4 only environmental monitoring related to essential services, immediate health or life safety risks, or serious environmental harm should continue. These must be undertaken while complying with applicable COVID-19 requirements and without compromising health and safety. For example, compliance monitoring programmes for high risk activities as they relate to human, aquatic and animal health, should continue during an alert level 4. This may also include sampling and analysing water quality for safe human activities including drinking water. We encourage councils to have staff contact the Ministry for the Environment to advise what tasks will continue, and what you intend to suspend during an alert level 4 by emailing RMQueries@mfe.govt.nz. 

    COVID-19 Alert Level 3

    During an alert level 3, normal operation should occur with staff working remotely, where possible. Where staff must work together physically, they may create a work group where staff may work in pairs/ teams with COVID-19 risk management practices. These pairs/ teams are intended to ensure staff interact with a consistent set of their colleagues. The pairs/ teams must be able to operate safely and are not exempt from the above requirements. The New Zealand COVID-19 Construction Protocols provides additional relevant guidance on health and safety, and risk management practices. 

    Where compliance inspections are still being undertaken during various COVID-19 alert levels, the requirements of section 332 of the RMA continue to apply. This means that inspectors must still present their warrant of appointment and written authorisation upon entry of private property, inspections must be at a reasonable time (having regard to the nature and purpose of the inspection), and written notice of the inspection must be left in a prominent place if no-one was there.  

    There must be health and safety measures to ensure workers are kept safe as outlined in the COVID-19 alert level guidance, such as physical distancing requirements. We strongly encourage councils to phone ahead where possible to ensure that contactless inspections can be carried out. For example, you may need to present your warrant by showing it to an occupant through a closed window. Councils with access to drones or other similar technology may wish to consider using these to reduce contact and manage health and safety risk. Drone use must comply with applicable civil aviation requirements and the Privacy Act.  

    Some tasks which would normally include a site visit may have to be carried out in other ways. For example, via desk review using satellite images. 

    How should councils continue to engage with tangata whenua?

    Councils are expected to continue to engage with tangata whenua in accordance with Schedule 1 clause 1A, clause 2(2), and clause 3B. Councils are also required to honour settlement obligations and Treaty partner relationships, as well as any other agreements. 

    Councils will be aware that iwi authorities have differing levels of capacity and availability during this time. Therefore, in some instances there may be delays as tangata whenua respond to COVID-19 requirements.  

    Consequently, we suggest councils discuss and agree with iwi authorities on an engagement and consultation process for the lockdown period and further into the COVID-19 recovery. At this time kanohi ki te kanohi interaction should be replaced with audio-visual link (AVL) technology and electronic documents where possible. 

    Can RMA hearings take place? 

    On 15 May 2020, the RMA was amended by the COVID-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Act 2020 to insert new section 39AA. 

    This amendment was made to remove potential legal doubt that hearings under section 39 of the RMA are able to be held solely using remote access facilities, including audio-visual links (AVL). The amendment provides for the authority responsible to issue a declaration that the hearing will be undertaken using remote access facilities, if the authority considers appropriate and fair to do so, and is satisfied that the necessary facilities are available.

    The amendment requires hearings that are run using remote access facilities to be either livestreamed, or have a transcript or recording uploaded to the Internet as soon as practicable, in keeping with the principle that RMA hearings must be held in public. 

    If a council is considering using AVL for a hearing, the council should consider: 

    • the availability and quality of the technology to enable any member of the public to watch and listen to the hearing;  
    • the potential impact of the use of technology on the parties (including the ability to assess the credibility of witnesses and the reliability of evidence presented, and the level of contact or interaction that may be needed between participants); and  
    • any other relevant matters, for example whether the applicant and submitters still wish to be heard if it is a remote hearing using AVL technology, and what support can be provided by the Council to help parties attend/participate in the hearing. 

    The amendment applies retrospectively from 25 March 2020, and validates any RMA hearings that have been held using AVL technology before this date.

    The amendment is due to be repealed on 31 October 2021, as the COVID-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Act was not able to make permanent legislative amendments. However, we are considering options for including this in the Act on a permanent basis.

    Section 39AA(6)(a) provides that these procedures do not need to be followed when hearings are held physically, but some parties use remote access facilities (for example, when one or more submitters dial in to present at an otherwise physical hearing), as those hearings are already held in public. However councils may choose to livestream or upload recordings of these types of hearings if they wish, to provide broader public access to proceedings.

    We will work with organisations to produce more detailed guidance to support use of remote access facilities in RMA hearings under section 39.

    How can a council provide the public access to RMA documents during Alert Level restrictions?

    On 15 May 2020, the RMA was amended by the COVID-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Act 2020 to insert new section 2AC of the RMA.

    This amendment provides that any documents that are required to be made available to members of the public under the RMA physically, for example at council offices or libraries, can instead be made available electronically, free of charge on an Internet site. In doing so, the council must provide advice about how the document can be accessed or obtained by members of the public. 

    The amendment applies retrospectively from 25 March 2020. The amendment is due to be repealed on 31 October 2021, as the COVID-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Act was not able to make permanent legislative amendments. However, we are considering options for including this in the Act on a permanent basis.

    How will you be dealing with RM Queries during the COVID-19 response?

    Emails to RMQueries@mfe.govt.nz are being monitored and logged for response. Where appropriate, we will direct local authorities to these and subsequent FAQs in lieu of an individually tailored response. We believe that this will provide local authorities with the most expedient and transparent response, while enabling us to focus our capacity and capability on questions that require a tailored response.    

    I still have questions or issues in relation to COVID-19 and the environment. How do I find out more? 

    The Ministry for the Environment will continue to produce guidance throughout the COVID-19 response. This guidance will be provided on our website and you can contact us via email at RMQueries@mfe.govt.nz or contact your relationship manager if you have further questions. 

    Reviewed:
    27/05/20