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2. Status Quo

The ‘status quo’ relates to how the national electricity transmission grid is established and managed – with specific reference to Resource Management Act documents and processes. The status quo also includes reference to documents and processes outside the RMA umbrella, where the associated issues have a link to RMA issues.

The transmission network is not ‘static’, but is subject to continual maintenance and upgrading. Transpower’s committed or proposed work over the next 10 years includes 18 ‘backbone’ grid projects and 22 regional projects. This compares with a period of no major upgrades within the recent past.

2.1 Planning documents (Resource Management Act)

Most of the transmission network was established prior to the implementation of the RMA in 1991. Therefore, the basic existence of much of the network relies on ‘existing use rights’ (section 10 of the Act). Extensions, alterations and maintenance of the network are managed through a variety of provisions including designation, resource consents, certificates of compliance and existing use rights certificates.

District (including city) councils, regional councils and Transpower (as a requiring authority) are responsible for making decisions on applications for works under the provisions referred to above. The decisions of these bodies are guided by the content of 71 district and 64 regional plans, and 16 regional policy statements – the transmission network extends into all jurisdictions.7

Within their planning documents, each local authority has its own set of objectives, polices and rules – although Transpower has sought to introduce some commonality by engaging in advocacy on plan development. For instance, there are some district councils that share the same or similar provisions relating to ‘minor works’ for maintenance or upgrading.8 Transpower also advocates network-friendly provisions in a range of other (non-RMA) documents produced by local and central government agencies.

However, Transpower’s advocacy has had uneven success, and it considers the majority of current district plans contain unacceptable provisions. Related issues are the perceived clarity of provisions, the consistency of interpretation by local authorities and the variability of provisions across local authority boundaries.

The Ministry of Economic Development has found that no district or regional plans make specific reference to the national benefits of electricity transmission.9 Conversely, a Transpower study has found that most district plans deal with the adverse effects of infrastructure on other activities.10 Therefore, a central element of the status quo is that, in most planning documents, Transpower’s activities are prima facie considered as having adverse effects – without much balancing recognition of the transmission network’s national benefits.

Transpower also seeks to protect the network from the effects of other activities. It does this in two ways. One is via the use of negotiated easements on some lines, but this only covers a small part of the network. The other way is via monitoring and responding to resource consent applications, but this is limited to situations where the consent is notified or the local authority requires the applicant to obtain Transpower’s written approval.

In summary, Transpower engages in RMA processes in three ways, as:

  • advocate – seeking network-friendly provisions in local authority planning documents that will either:

    • make the planning processes for future Transpower works easier and/or clearer; or
    • protect the network from the potential adverse effects of other activities.
  • applicant – seeking approval for proposed physical works (new, upgrading, or maintenance) via:

    • existing use certificate
    • certificate of compliance
    • resource consent
    • designation and outline plan (note: this also links to acquisition / compensation provisions under the Public Works Act 1981).
  • opponent – seeking control over the outcomes of proposed third-party activities, where those are notified or a local authority requires an applicant to gain Transpower’s written approval.

The ongoing costs of dealing with transmission network issues under RMA processes are borne by Transpower, local authorities, land owners and the general public. Much of the cost, and the key issue for Transpower, relates to the need to minimise the uncertainty of outcomes. In part, that uncertainty is a consequence of the variable approaches to policy and regulation adopted by local authority planning documents. Transpower therefore engages as an advocate to reduce variation and enhance certainty. The remaining costs relate to Transpower as an applicant, or as an opponent to third-party development. In both cases, the need for Transpower to engage in the process can be related to whether the relevant planning document has network-friendly provisions (which links back to the success of advocacy). For local authorities, land owners and the public in general, costs arise from responding to Transpower’s ongoing engagement in planning processes.

The benefits of the status quo, in relation to the sustainable management of the transmission network, appear limited. Transpower, as the authority responsible for the management of the network, has been unable to achieve network-friendly provisions in the majority of planning documents. Even where there are such provisions, there is still some uncertainty that the provisions will remain unchanged over time, or that they will be interpreted consistently over time. For local authorities and land owners, the main benefit of the status quo is that transmission network issues are addressed via local responses – providing the ability to take account of local concerns.

There is significant public interest in the exercise of control over future development of the transmission network. To some degree, communities have been ‘sensitised’ by the publicity surrounding proposed major grid projects and by Transpower’s day-to-day interaction with land owners over general access and maintenance issues. The economic consequence is that transmission work is likely to be costly, without necessarily any commensurate benefit, as processes in a ‘sensitised’ setting are likely to be subject to a degree of ‘scope creep’ and incur increased transaction costs in their resolution.

2.1.1 Ministerial ‘call-in’ option

An option open under the RMA is a Ministerial ‘call-in’. In a recent example, the Minister for the Environment used his discretionary power to issue a call-in for the notices of requirement and applications for resource consent, involved in the proposal by Transpower to develop a new national grid electricity transmission line from Whakamaru to Otahuhu and Pakuranga.11

A call-in allows a board of inquiry, or the Environment Court, to examine resource consents required for a particular project. It ensures consistency in decision-making and matters considered in the RMA process across district boundaries, although it does not provide a policy framework within which decisions on the transmission network can be made.

2.2 Network mandate (Electricity Act 1992 and 2001)

The Electricity Act 1992 provides the mandate for the construction and operation of a national transmission network. Most of the network was constructed pre-1988, and the Act maintains the right to occupy private land without the need for land owner agreements. Lines built from 1988 onwards require negotiated agreements with land owners. The 2001 amendment to the Act established the role of the Electricity Commission. Transpower must submit grid investment proposals to the Commission, and can recover the costs of the investment from customers if the Commission approves the investment.

There is limited interaction between RMA processes (planning documents, resource consents and so on) and activities under the direction of the Electricity Act 1992. The links between the two include:

  • the nature of restrictions on Transpower / land owner activities via negotiated agreements will differ from restrictions imposed by district and regional plans, even though both may seek to control the same activity

  • the Electricity Commission considers the cost of complying with the RMA as part of its grid investment test.

There is therefore potential for confusion in the community where agreement restrictions differ from district / regional plan provisions. In the absence of knowledge about land owner agreements, local authorities may issue certificates of compliance / existing use certificates that are inconsistent with land owner agreements, but this does not affect land owners’ ability to enforce such agreements.

Existing district / regional plan objectives and policies on infrastructure or transmission will have some effect on the ease or difficulty of establishing new grid investment. To the extent that the status quo lacks clarity and recognition of the national benefits of transmission, RMA processes will be relatively costly. The Electricity Act 1992 (via the Commission) allows Transpower to pass those costs onto its customers. The status quo may therefore impose an unnecessary level of costs on Transpower customers.

Transpower is required to negotiate easements with land owners where its actions would cause ‘injurious affection’. At the same time, existing district / regional plan objectives and policies often seek to control adverse effects arising from transmission infrastructure. Under the status quo, there is therefore an issue of consistency between RMA plan provisions and Electricity Act easement requirements, but there is also an associated question of whether the inconsistencies have any material effect.

2.3 Other regulations and guidelines

A number of other regulations and guidelines influence the physical environment of the transmission network. Those provisions include: NZECP 34;12 Trees regulations; Building Act 2004; RMA regulations; ICNIRP13 guidelines.

These provisions relate to a level of detail that is generally not addressed by objectives and policies in planning documents. To the extent that they are not addressed by existing district / regional plan objectives and policies, the status quo represents a lack of integration of transmission-related matters.

7  With the exception of the Chatham Islands.

8  Transpower has sought a consistent definition of minor upgrading in district plans since 1997, so some of the variability in plans is due to earlier versions of the definition that it advocated.

9  Stocktake and Analysis of Regional and District Plans and Policy Statement, by Beca for the Ministry of Economic Development, June 2005.

10  District Plan Stocktake Report, for Transpower by Burton Consultants, May 2006.

11 This is in accordance with sections 140 to 150 of the RMA.

12  New Zealand Electrical Code of Practice for Electrical Safe Distance.

13  International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.