Allocating the application
Every application should be allocated to one council officer who is then responsible for its processing (including compliance with time frames and coordinating specialists). They should have suitable experience to process the particular proposal with additional senior/technical support as appropriate.
Applications should ideally be allocated according to their perceived complexity, staff skills and expertise, and any previous involvement, such as pre-application meeting(s) or involvement in prior consent(s) relating to the site or locality.
When allocating a more complicated application to new staff or less experienced staff, make sure an experienced staff member provides coaching and mentoring to the processing officer and regularly checks with the person regarding how the processing of the application is going and if they have any concerns about how it should be managed or reported on. This will ensure the system runs as smoothly as possible and will provide the processing planner with greater confidence.
Circulating the application
Communication with other parts of the council about applications is highly recommended. Depending on the specific application, internal circulation can help with coordinating aspects of the applicant's overall proposal, or seeking specialist advice on an aspect of the application.
If comments are sought from another department, a work brief should be prepared that clearly specifies the nature of the advice required and the date by which it must be provided. This will help to ensure advice is provided within the required time frames. Note that circulating applications to other departments does not mean that the processing clock can be stopped. Time frames set for reporting on applications within the council must still allow the statutory time frames to be met.
It is good practice to:
- Talk to the other departments about suitable ways to streamline the process for circulating applications and seeking advice.
- Devise a standard brief cover sheet for requesting input from other staff and then add specific matters to be addressed on the sheet where necessary, including timeframes for when their response is required by.
- It may also be a good idea to have service level agreements with other teams on their level of input.
Recording and filing key information
It is important councils record all key information and milestones relating to the resource consent process.
The following should be filed in the same place as the application:
- All correspondence relating to a resource consent application
- file notes of conversations with the applicant and any consultants, whether they were over the phone or in person
- advice received from specialist advisors or file notes of any conversations with them
- notes from any pre-application meetings
- documentation of the site visit, for example, a summary of the findings and potential issues, any photographs taken and aerial photographs
- completed compliance checklist
- any requests for further information and information received
- if the consent was notified, a copy of the advertisement
- record of who the application was sent to and their addresses if notified or limited notified
- any written approvals received
- any submissions received
- records of any pre-hearing meetings or mediation
- planning reports
- minutes of hearings
- hearing evidence
- timesheets, invoices or any requests for additional fee payments.
Task for the allocated planner
To deliver better quality information about resource consents, it is important that the allocated planner takes the time to review the information about the resource consent (e.g. check the type of application, type of resource consent, application description, date lodged, class of activity etc. is accurate).
It is important that information is continuously recorded throughout the resource consents process. However, it may be beneficial to put in place an ‘audit step’ whereby the allocated planner reviews the information recorded upon allocation, and at the time the decision is approved (and prior to invoicing).
The time frame milestones
Processing an application within the time frames set by the RMA is vital. The time taken to process an application is often the biggest complaint about the resource consent process.
The onus is on councils to make sure time limits are met, which is particularly important in light of the Discount Regulations. In addition, there is also a requirement under s21 of the RMA to 'avoid unreasonable delay'.
The key time frame milestones in the RMA for processing a consent application include, but are not limited to:
- Date lodged: the date an application was lodged with the council
- Date determined as incomplete under section 88(3): if applicable, the date it was determined the application was incomplete
- Dates for deferral under section 91: if applicable the date a section 91 was issued for the applicant to apply for additional consents, and subsequently the date processing proceeded following deferral
- Dates for section 92(1) and 92(2) requests: the date further information/commissioning of report requests are made and responses received (noting that the clock can only be stopped once for a request under s92(1) when this is made before the hearing although it can be stopped a number of times for a report commissioned under s92(2))
- Date notified: the date the consent was limited or publicly notified
- Date of section 37 extension: the date that any extension under section 37 was made
- Length of section 37 extension: the number of working days of section 37 extension
- Date submissions close: if limited or publicly notified, the date the submissions closed
- Date of advice of submissions to applicant
- Date of any request to delegate the decision making to independent commissioners (s100A).
- Date that any request was made to put the consent on hold under s91A-C, the number of working days it is put on hold for, and the date it comes off
- Commencement and conclusion dates of hearing: the dates of commencement and conclusion of the hearing
- Start and end date of pre-hearing meetings
- The date for the provision of evidence before the hearing for the council, applicant and submitters
- Decision date: the date the decision was determined or the application withdrawn
- Statutory days lapsed: number of statutory days the decision was made within, as defined under the Discount Regulations 2010The date of any objections received
- The date of any objection hearing (if necessary) and the date of the decision.
- The date of any appeals lodged with the Environment Court
- The date the resource consent commences.
It is also useful to record information on any appeals that may be made. For example consider recording:
- date appeal period closes
- were appeals received? (yes/no)
- Environment Court hearing date
- consent granted by Environment Court? (yes/no).
Where direct referral has been requested, there are a number of other important milestones. These include:
- The date any request for direct referral is received.
- The date when council makes a decision on direct referral.
- If direct referral declined:
- the date which the council advises the applicant and provides reasons
- the date for any objection to the council decision to decline the request for direct referral and the outcome of the objection
- if the objection is upheld and the application is processed by council, the dates in the process (hearing etc.
- If direct referral granted:
- the date which the council advises the applicant and provides reasons
- the date the council report is provided to the applicant and all submitters the date the council provides the Court with all information relating to the application (application, report, submissions etc.)
- the date of the decision on whether to be a party to the Environment Court proceedings the date of the Environment Court decision on the consent
Using sections 37-37A to extend the time frames
Sections 37 and 37A of the RMA allow a council to extend the time limits specified in the RMA. Extensions of time only apply to applications for resource consent, changes or cancellations of conditions or reviews of consents (s37A).
Under s37A(4), a council can extend a time limit for up to double the maximum period specified in the RMA when:
- special circumstances apply (including special circumstances existing by the scale and complexity of the matter); or
- the applicant agrees to the extension.
The council must also take into account the matters in s37A(1), which include:
- the interests of any person who may be directly affected by the extension or waiver; and
- the interests of the community in achieving an adequate assessment of effects;
- the duty under s21 to avoid unreasonable delay.
The council must also ensure every person who it considers is directly affected by the extension of the time limit is notified of the extension.
Under s37A(5), a council may extend the time to exceed twice the maximum time period specified in the RMA only if the applicant agrees to the extension and the matters in s37A(1) have been taken into account.
Close communication with the applicant is required when proposing the use of s37A. Applicants need to be contacted as early as possible if there may be a need to extend time frames and given reasons why. Applicants are likely to be more agreeable to an extension of time frames when they understand the reasons why.
When the applicant does not agree to an extension of time, s37 can then only be used where there are special circumstances. Where the applicant's agreement has not been obtained, the use of s37-37A should be supported by clear reasons why special circumstances are considered to exist which require an extension of time. This should only be when the delay is outside the control of the council and may include the scale or complexity of the application. It should not relate to when there is a high workload at the time or other internal resourcing issues.
Time extensions may be appropriate in the following situations:
- to undertake further consultation where there is significant complexity or uncertainty about effects
- to gain agreement on consent conditions if the applicant wishes to discuss these prior to the decision
- for a hearings committee or commissioner to make and compile a decision on an application of large scale or complexity
- to review a complex assessment of environmental effects associated with a large scale proposal.
Determining whether special circumstances exist will need to be done on a case by case base for individual projects. Special circumstances in the context of notification have been defined as circumstances that are unusual or exceptional, but may be less than extraordinary or unique. Refer to the To Notify or Not to Notify guidance note for more information on special circumstances in the context of notification decisions.
When a section 37 extension is made, the reasons for the extension and each timeframe extended need to be recorded. There is no barrier under the RMA to extending all timeframes for a consent application at once, provided all section 37A criteria are met for each extended timeframe.
Where ss37 and 37A have been used to extend time periods, applications should be recorded as having been processed within time, provided the limits set for processing through the use of ss37 and 37A have not been exceeded.
Meeting the milestones
Processing a consent application within the statutory time frames is the responsibility of the planner allocated the consent.
In addition to processing sheets, councils use a range of other effective mechanisms to help them meet the statutory time frames for consent processing. The extent of the system required will depend on the number of consents processed and the number of officers involved in processing them. Some councils use the following methods to ensure milestones are met:
- tracking consents on a whiteboard or wall chart (located in a visible position)
- computer generated reminders
- weekly print-outs of when reports/decisions are due and status of consent applications
- regular team or one-on-one manager/staff meetings to discuss progress on consent applications and workloads.