Hive News Wednesday: Govt may counter Unitary Plan appeals; Smith sidelined on Kermadecs; Goldsmith reviews card charges

The USB stick containing the Auckland Unitary Plan. Photo provided by Auckland Council.

Nick Smith flagged yesterday that the Government is considering taking legal action to counter any delays forced on Auckland's Unitary Plan by the more-than-100 appeals lodged against the plan in the Environment and High Courts by residents' groups, developers and corporates.

Over 100 appeals were lodged by the close of business on Friday and Auckland Council said that some could affect the way the plan operates. It was supposed to go live from the weekend and hopes for a surge in housing supply over the next 30 years rest on the plan being operable, given changes in the rules for building "out" and "up" are forecast to allow the building of up to 422,000 houses over the next 30 years under the plan.

Many of the appeals were from heavy hitters with significant legal budgets and years of experience in challenging planning legislation through the Environment and High Courts, including from Federated Farmers, Forest and Bird, Auckland 2040 and the Independent Maori Statutory Board.

Smith told me he was yet to receive a report from his officials or from Auckland Council on the extent of any delays, but that the Government was prepared to "become a party" to any of the appeals to contest them, or to apply for court orders to implement the plan.

Government may take legal action

"The more worrying appeals are those that are city wide and act as a constraint on the new Unitary Plan coming into effect," Smith said.

"The detail of that depends on the nature of those appeals, and that's why I'm awaiting that report I'm expecting by the end of the week, which will give me a better appreciation of the way in which those appeals impact on the new Unitary Plan becoming operative," he said.

"Sometimes there can be appeals where there is a limited application of the new Unitary Plan, and again it's a matter of detail and sometimes it is possible to apply for court orders to make plain the implementation of parts of the plan. They're all options that I'll consider when I get that report. The Government does have the option to apply to become a party to the proceedings and that's one of the options that we're exploring. Our objective around the UP is bringing on as much new housing supply as quickly as possible and if as a consequence of being a party to that, we'll consider that."

Smith denied the appeals could downgrade the likely increase in housing supply in Auckland that the Government is relying on to combat the region's housing affordability issues.

He said most of the new houses coming on-stream over the next 18 months were from Special Housing Areas that effectively brought forward the Unitary Plan's provisions on those sites.

"By the time you go from the design, the resource consenting and the building consenting and infrastructure construction, my expectation over the next year to year and a half is that most of the new homes coming on stream are going to come from the mechanisms put in place for SHAs," he said.

Smith sidelined on Kermadecs

The fallout continued yesterday over the near-death experience last week of the Government's supply and confidence agreement with the Maori Party.

Smith said Bill English had taken over the negotiations with the Maori Party and Te Ohu Kaimoana (TOKM), given the issue had now become one directly related to the supply and confidence agreement.

Asked before National's caucus meeting if he had been sidelined, he said: "I think it's quite appropriate when the Maori Party has raised issues of confidence and supply that the Deputy Prime Minister be involved in the process."

English reaffirmed John Key's focus on retaining Maori Party support for the Government.

Asked about how representative Maori was of Maori opinion, English told reporters: "It does represent some votes that are pretty important to the Government ... and as the Prime Minister has said, we would want to ensure there is no ongoing concern about the stability of that relationship."

Goldsmith reviewing card charges

Elsewhere, Paul Goldsmith revealed the Government is investigating retailer concerns that consumers and shop owners are being overcharged by banks and Visa and Mastercard for using their credit and debit cards. He left open the option of capping credit card interchange fees, but was cautious and it's clear his instincts are against regulation.

Goldsmith told reporters in Parliament he had asked officials to report back to him after Retail NZ produced a report in November last year saying that consumers and retailers were paying NZ$380 million a year in undisclosed fees for credit cards and contactless cards in particular.

“After considering the study, and following a meeting in February, Finance Minister English and I asked officials to look into the issues it raised,” Goldsmith said.

He said officials had provided a report on the issue in July and the Government was now considering it. He said the Government was likely to publish an issues paper for consultation “in the coming weeks.”

“The report focuses on interchange fees charged to businesses, but does look at surcharging to consumers as part of a wider discussion,” he said.

“The report also considers how New Zealand’s retail payment systems are performing, the level and transparency of fees and the current state of innovation in the system.”

A shift in use from EFTPOS bank cards (which are free for retailers and consumers to use) to Visa and Mastercard cards (often contactless) has fueled retailer and consumer concerns about interchange fees by banks and card scheme providers.

Retail NZ’s research found New Zealand retailers were paying 70c per transaction for a NZ$50 payment through a credit card transaction, while retailers in Britain and Australia were paying 50c and 42c respectively.

Unlike in Australia, where credit card fees are regulated by the Reserve Bank of Australia, New Zealand’s credit card fees for consumers and merchants are not regulated and disclosure is not standardised. There are no caps on interchange fees. Retail NZ cited research it commissioned forecasting these fees would rise to NZ$711 million per year by 2025.

Retail NZ called at the time for a regulation of credit card and debit card fees being charged by Mastercard, Visa and banks, saying there needed to be more oversight and transparency.

"It looks like New Zealanders are probably paying too much, particularly when costs are compared internationally, and we want to see greater transparency and oversight,” Retail NZ’s Public Affairs Manager Greg Harford said at the time.

Goldsmith also focused in his comments on the shift from free EFTPOS to contactless cards without fees being disclosed.

“Currently, for example, consumers have access to EFTPOS which has zero fees. However, if the use of EFTPOS declines, the public could face more fees on alternative transaction models,” he said.

“As Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister I am focused on ensuring New Zealanders get a fair deal on transaction fees while at the same time encouraging innovation.”

He was cautious about capping fees when talking to reporters.

"That's one thing we could consider, but my initial impression is to be cautious about leaping in with regulation, because it's an area like I say, of rapid technological change and innovation," he said.

Treasury eyes capping fees too

Retail NZ said its second annual survey of fees charged to retailers found Visa and Mastercard merchant service fees rose to 1.7 per cent from 1.4 per cent between 2015 and 2016.

Papers provided by Treasury under the Official Information Act showed Treasury advised Bill English it was concerned about market efficiency in the retail payments sector and agreed an investigation into regulation was required.

“Our overarching concern is that 'excessive' interchange fees could unduly increase costs for business, particularly smaller businesses, and get passed onto consumers through marginally higher prices,” Treasury advised in February's paper.

“This in turn could result in a deadweight cost to the economy, potentially in the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars per annum,” it said.

A Treasury paper in May suggested four options for reform, including promoting surcharging to consumers, reducing barriers to consumers, reinvesting in EFTPOS and regulating interchange fees.

An unnamed official preferred a “light touch” in the short term that encouraged more competition, although direct regulation of interchange fees could not be ruled out in the long term.

“There is clearly an issue with the efficiency of the retail payments sector,” the official said.

“This issues arises largely from the ineffectiveness of competition in moderating interchange fees. The issue is likely to deteriorate over time as the competitive tension provided by EFTPOS declines. This suggests a growing need to consider government intervention in the sector,” the official concluded.

In other economic and financial news...

Surprisingly, wholemilk powder prices fell 0.2% in Globaldairytrade's auction overnight. Analysts had expected an 8-10% rise.

Tweets of the day:

Guyon Espiner on Phil Goff's billboard with the colour red in it

He's going to have to release his own internal billboards isn't he?

Have a great day