Q & A - Independent Commissioner Melean Absolum
Melean Absolum is a consultant landscape architect in private practice. She has a post-graduate diploma in Landscape Architecture from Manchester Polytechnic in England. She’s also a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects (NZILA). With over 30 years experience, her expertise is often sought by local authorities as an independent commissioner.
LAA: Explain the role of an independent commissioner?
MA: Section 34 of the RMA allows a council to delegate its powers, duties and functions under the Act to independent hearings commissioners. Since September 2014 all members of a hearing panel have been required to be accredited through the Making Good Decisions programme. Hearings panels may hear and make either decisions or recommendations on resource consent applications, notices of requirement, and plan changes. It is paramount that all parties participating in a hearing feel and understand that they are given a fair hearing, the fundamental basis of natural justice. As such, the independent hearings commissioners need to ensure that everyone participating in a hearing is heard, is able to hear what all other parties are saying and feels no sense of bias from any of those making the decisions. An effective hearings panel will be able to run an effective hearing that gives all participants a fair hearing, ask the right questions, process a great deal of information and opinion, and make decisions that uphold the principles of sustainable management of the RMA.
LAA: What sort of projects do councils/local authorities seek your input on?
MA: Generally speaking I am asked to participate in hearings where there is a landscape component to the issues to be considered. This can range from consideration of consents to remove scheduled trees, through development proposals where landscape and visual impacts are at issue, to plan changes that will see land use change on a landscape scale.
LAA: Why is it important to have landscape architects as independent commissioners?
MA: Most independent hearings commissioners come from either planning or legal backgrounds, with smaller numbers representing the specialist professions such as ecology, traffic management, geotechnical and acoustic engineering etc. With most hearing panels comprising three, and occasionally four panel members, it is not feasible to have representatives of all relevant professions at hearings on more complex applications. Nevertheless, local authorities try to ensure that where landscape matters are an important consideration in a hearing, someone who understands the subject is able to test the information provided by all parties and to make informed decisions. Having landscape architects as independent hearing commissioners also broadens the role of our profession, enabling us to be seen to be fully participating in all aspects of sustainable management under the RMA. I think it provides added kudos to the profession as whole.
LAA: What perspective are you bringing that wouldn't otherwise be considered?
MA: I think one of the most important skills a landscape architect can bring to any hearing is the ability to conceptualise development outcomes in three dimensions and over time as well. This enables us to formulate questions that explore the suitability of the particular design under consideration and ensure all environmental effects have been appropriately weighed. We must, however, be alert to the temptation of looking for better design solutions. That is not our role as commissioners. Most landscape architects are also experienced in multi professional negotiations and these skills can be effectively used in deliberating with fellow commissioners when determining a decision.
LAA: What advice would you give landscape architects who are presenting evidence at a hearing?
MA: It's important for landscape architects to be aware that they are presenting evidence as an expert witness. This requires the landscape architect to be objective, credible and demonstrate integrity. Although not as formal as an Environment Court hearing, witnesses must nevertheless explain the grounds on which their opinions are based including ensuring facts are correct and assumptions are valid. Importantly, this applies equally to landscape architects advising councils, as it does to witnesses for either the applicant or submitters.
LAA: When one of your peers is presenting expert evidence before you do you feel any extra pressure or awkwardness?
MA: Certainly I am aware of the importance of treating landscape witnesses in the same way as any other expert witness. I try to ensure that I am neither particularly tough in my questioning of them, nor 'letting them off lightly'.