RMA reform welcome and needed but

The government plans to reform the Resource Management Act:

The Government is overhauling our resource management system, focusing on the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) – the primary legislation governing the use of our land, water and air resources. 

The Government wants the RMA to support a more productive, sustainable and inclusive economy. It also wants the RMA to be easier for New Zealanders to understand and engage with. The Government is approaching this in two stages. 

It plans to start by amending the RMA.

The Government is proposing several specific changes to the RMA through an amendment bill. The aim of the bill is to make the RMA less complex, give people more certainty on RMA issues, and increase opportunities for public participation.

The bill will address issues with resource consenting, enforcement and Environment Court provisions within the RMA. It may also include some other policy proposals. 

The bill is currently being drafted and we are working to introduce it to Parliament later this year. Public submissions will be called for when the bill is referred to a select committee. . . 

Then there’s the second stage:

The Government is undertaking a comprehensive review of the resource management system. This review will examine the broader and deeper changes needed to support the transition to a more productive, sustainable and inclusive economy. 

The aim of the review is to improve environmental outcomes and enable better and timely urban development within environmental limits. . . 

Few if any will argue with the aims to support a more productive, sustainable and inclusive economy and to make the RMA easier to understand and engage with.

Media releases from right, left and centre support the proposal. Reform is welcome and needed but getting agreement on that is the easy part.

The difficulty will be getting those who support the need for reform to agree on the details of any changes that are proposed.

Federated Farmers says reform will be a huge challenge:

The organisation agrees with Environment Minister David Parker that because of frequent amendments, the RMA is now overly cumbersome, costly and complex.

“The review will be no easy task. It will need to consider wide and diverse opinions and concerns. There are few organisations which have been more intricately and routinely involved in resource management processes across the country since the Act first came into force than Federated Farmers, so we consider our active input on the review panel will be vital,” Federated Farmers resource management spokesperson Chris Allen says.

The Act is a source of much frustration for resource users across the country. It is now twice the size it was on enactment in 1991 and while it has created a booming market for planners, lawyers and other experts, this has been at the expense of resource users, ratepayers and the environment.

Federated Farmers would support amendments that made the Act, in the Minister’s words, “fit for purpose in the 21st century”, and approve of any attempt to remove unnecessary complexity, delays and costs.

“But we have a word of caution – it’s hard to make processes move faster, when regional and district councils are already under-resourced and facing increasing public pressure and inadequate central government support,” Chris says.

There is also insufficient weighting given to the economic impacts of regulation on farms, rural communities and the regions of New Zealand. Economic impacts should be considered in balance with environmental, social and cultural wellbeing, instead of just the quick skim currently given.

“The trend appears to be for central government to push national regulation onto local government, expecting them to both resource and fund processes. This isn’t a case of local government being given too much power, rather it’s a trend of central government putting out cookie-cutter national rules and regulations, and expecting local councils to ‘make them work’.

“We have real concerns over central government interfering with local processes, as many regional councils are well underway in developing plans to address water quality and quantity,” Chris says.

Some of these plans are already in place, and other regions are wrestling with tricky questions around how plans can be tailored so they are both efficient and effective. Anything that interferes with these processes, and the considerable economic and social investment already made by our communities, could be a step-backwards for water quality management in New Zealand.

There has been a massive investment in time and money into changing farm practices and infrastructure, and getting a better understanding of the implications of activities on land to the environment.

This groundswell of change has been happening across the country, from landowner level through to catchment groups and wider district efforts. These efforts do not result in improved outcomes overnight, but trends are indicating we are on the right track.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to see this timely opportunity to reform the RMA, being instead used simply to put up as many affordable houses as possible, with an overly urban focus, to the peril of fixing other key issues with the Act,” Chris says.

The previous government’s attempts at reforms were vehemently opposed by the parties in the current government and it won’t be easy to reconcile those parties’ differing views on what needs to be done and how to do it.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Parker said that no RMA reform legislation would be introduced until after the 2020 election because the working group would take nearly 10 months to make its recommendations.

Collins called this “cynical timing.” Given that the next government to consider legislation could well be a National one, she believes Labour should be consulting the Opposition. But Parker refused to consider including the Opposition in the reform process until legislation is introduced, insisting it was the “parliamentary process”.

Given this, the latest effort at fixing the RMA is unlikely to succeed, Collins believes. “You’ve got New Zealand First going around the provinces saying, ‘We’re going to sort out the RMA and stop all these impediments to development.’ You’ve got the Greens saying, ‘We’re gonna stop all these developments.’ It just must be a nightmare for Labour.”

Winston Peters didn’t disagree with her. When asked if he thought New Zealand First would be on the same page as Labour and the Greens about RMA reform, he answered simply, “No”.

“I cannot agree with their race-based approach,” he said of Green Party support for a Māori role in the resource management system. . . 

That isn’t an encouraging start to the process.

Getting consent through the RMA is process is a long and frustrating process, reforming the act won’t be any easier.

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