Environment Minister Nick Smith has put eight councils on notice to speed up processing of resource consent applications - or face possible government intervention.
Dr Smith says that, in the past year, 31% of consents nationwide were not completed within the legal time frame.
He has sent written warnings to councils representing Manukau, Auckland City, Carterton, Whakatane, Waimate, the Far North, Westland and Canterbury.
Canterbury Regional Council had the worst record, processing 29% of applications on time. Dr Smith says it is a hopeless performance.
He says the council argues that issues relating to fresh water management are compromising its performance.
But Dr Smith says the performance issues are much broader than that and he will not rule out intervening under the Resource Management Act.
Several councils say they have been mis-represented by Envirnonment Ministry figures showing they failed to process resource consents on time.
Councils in Carterton, Whakatane and Manukau City say those figures are out of date, and they have already improved their performance.
Manager of planning for Carterton District Milan Hautler says there was also an unprecedented increase in applications last year.
Mr Hautler says the council has employed a second planner and the number of consents processed on time has jumped from 42% to 95%.
Canterbury Regional Council says it has already improved its processing of resource consent applications and is confident it will be able to satisfy the Government's concerns.
Council chairman Sir Kerry Burke says that, given the complexity of water use applications, the council has made good progress improving its processes.
Westland District's manager of planning, Richard Simpson, says strong economic growth in his area led to an unprecedented increase in applications at a time when the council had just one town planner.
Mr Simpson says the council has hired another planner, resulting in all applications in the past two months being processed on time.