Streamlining RMA

The RMA discussion document released by Environment Minister Amy Adams last week proposes some much-needed initiatives to streamline the RMA process.

The reforms within the package are divided into six core objectives:

  • Greater national consistency and guidance
  • Fewer, better resource management plans
  • An effective and efficient consenting system
  • Better natural hazard management
  • Effective and meaningful Māori participation; and
  • Working with councils to improve their RMA service performance

Improvements to the RMA are one of the planks in the Government’s business growth agenda.

Speaking at the launch the Minister said:

We see effective resource management as critically important to New Zealand’s economic, environmental and social well-being.

Resource management decisions need to ensure that our natural and built resources are used and protected in a way that meet our needs now and for many generations to come.

But the Government continues to hear concerns that resource management processes are cumbersome, costly and time-consuming, and that the system is uncertain, difficult to predict and highly litigious.

Repeatedly, resource management matters rank the lowest of all public services in the Kiwis Count report into customer satisfaction.

The system is difficult for many to understand and use, and in many cases, is actively discouraging investment and innovation.

Frustration with RMA processes is rife and time and time again I hear that they are failing to meet New Zealanders’ expectations.

To put it bluntly, there are too many occasions where the view of one well-funded party manages to derail the decision of a community.

There are too many times when planning happens almost by default as decisions are fought over on a consent-by-consent basis, and too many occasions where inconsistency between multiple plans eats up resources as councils battle between themselves.

In most cases, the issue is not about the decision ultimately reached, it is about the wastage of time and money to get to that decision.

And let’s not kid ourselves that that does not come with real costs – delays and uncertainties means potential new jobs are not being created, houses are more expensive and communities have no idea what to expect in their neighbourhoods.

The money spent on having to fight to get ahead or to defend your position is money that our households and businesses are missing out on.

We see the same arguments being had time and again, with the same lawyers, the same experts and in front of the same judges.

Across the country we have required each of our 78 councils to build their own planning systems from the ground up.

There are a number of underlying efficiency and effectiveness-related problems apparent with the resource management system that have led to this state of affairs.

These problems are by their very nature interlinked and it is their combined, rather than individual impact, that is of most concern.

To me the core issues include:

  • Too many planning documents with wide ranging inconsistency between them
  • Inefficient duplication of effort in developing plans
  • A lack of responsive national guidance on matters of national importance or where the value of consistency outweighs the need for local variation
  • Insufficient attention paid to meeting future needs as opposed to mitigating negative impacts in plans
  • An over-reliance on consents and Environment Court appeals; and
  • High and disproportionate costs of securing and complying with decisions

She then gave a couple of examples of the costs and frustrations with existing legislation:

Many of you here this morning will remember Project Hayes – Meridian Energy’s wind farm proposal. I am not focusing on whether it was a good proposal or not. I want to look just at the process.

It was a $2 billion project, and by the time it was eventually refused by the Environment Court after three years, nearly $9 million had been spent to get to that point.

And that $9 million estimate was just the applicant’s costs. No doubt, there would have been many hundreds of thousands of dollars in community and submitter costs.

The Environment Court made a point in its judgment of criticising the fact that if it were not for the inconsistent and unclear nature of the local plans, much of that cost could have been avoided.

To give an example at the other end of the scale, I am aware of a homeowner who merely wanted to add 4sqm to an existing deck and found that the consenting costs would be $7000.

It is also clear that we have drifted into much over-regulation in RMA planning documents.

For example, I have had reports of rules that stipulate lounge rooms in houses must face the street, heritage zone provisions that apply to a 14 year old Lockwood house, and streetscape rules applied to houses on rear lots, not visible from the street.

And just this week, I was made aware of a council that wanted to dictate the size of the front windows of new houses.

Is this really what sustainable management of our resources is about?

We cannot continue with this approach. We can and must do better.

The RMA has its good points but it needs a tune-up to ensure a fair balance between environmental, social and economic considerations, lower costs, improved consistency and faster processing.

3 Responses to Streamlining RMA

  1. Cadwallader says:

    This “streamlining” approach may be laudable but I question whether it will strike to the heart of problems being dished up by local authorities. For it to be effective the Local Government Act 2002 needs to be repealed and thus remove the need for consultation on ephemeral matters and the extortive development levies.


  2. Richard says:

    Excellent point Cadwallander


  3. TraceyS says:

    Council planners should have experience in the ‘real world’, preferably having personally been a consent applicant before. Then they might have some appreciation of what it’s like.

    Under Section 103A, councils can adjourn a hearing with no obliged timeframe within which to reconvene. So once a hearing is adjourned (and as long as this is before the applicant’s right of reply) there is an island upon which the council can sit – presumably indefinitely. Some planners think this is OK, but it is very unfair to applicants, especially businesses who are responding to either threat or opportunity where timing can be critical. Try entering a process where the longer it takes the more money you bleed, with no indication of when it might end. Horrible!

    The Resource Management Reform Bill corrects this problem. But the real problem is planners looking for loopholes in legislation to their advantage and not acting in the spirit of the RMA by avoiding their statutory duty to avoid “unreasonable delay”.


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