Environment minister David Parker welcomed the RMA review report as "long overdue." (Photo: RNZ/Don Thomas)

Rip up the RMA and start again, says major working group review

A comprehensive proposed shake-up of the Resource Management Act has gained support from the business community and multiple parties. Pattrick Smellie of BusinessDesk reports on what it might involve.

After 29 years of argument and increasing complexity, the Resource Management Act needs to be split in two and the overlapping patchwork of competing of regional plans operating nationally should shrink from more than 100 to just 14.

Those are two of the key recommendations of a massive new report released on RMA reform this morning by environment minister David Parker.

The report also raises for the first time an explicit mechanism for compensating landowners for losses caused by sea-level rise and other climate change impacts.

Chaired by retired Environment Court judge Tony Randerson, the 531-page report recommends splitting the law that has sought to govern both economic development and environmental protection into two separate pieces of legislation, a Natural and Built Environments Act and a Strategic Planning Act.

A third piece of legislation, a Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act, is also proposed as a vehicle for establishing “an adaptation fund to enable central and local government to support necessary steps to address climate change and would also deal with the many complex legal and technical issues involved in the process of managed retreat.”

‘Long overdue’

Parker welcomed the RMA review report as “long overdue,” saying the Randerson-led panel “has designed tomorrow’s resource management system to deliver better outcomes for the environment, people and the economy.”

“The RMA has doubled in size from its original length. It has become too costly, takes too long, and has not adequately protected the environment,” he said.

The panel itself said “perhaps the greatest single process change is our proposal for mandatory combined plans in each region. At present, there are well in excess of 100 policy statements and plans in existence throughout the country. Under our proposal for combined plans, the number of plans would reduce to just 14.”

This would lead to better quality plans, resolution of uncertainty created by overlaps that currently bedevil relationships between regional councils and local territorial authorities, and fewer resource consent applications.

Another major change would strengthen Māori interests by requiring policymakers to “give effect to” to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, a significantly stronger legal construction than the RMA’s requirement to “have regard to” those principles.

Holistic thinking

The proposals would also entrench the use of spatial planning – a holistic approach to land and resource use absent from NZ legislation – in a new Strategic Planning Act.

The proposals also suggested ditching the “no more than minor effects” threshold for resource consent applications and “an alternative process to deal with resource consents raising localised issues such as boundary issues between neighbours”.

The concept of “environmental bottom lines” that cannot be breached, which has guided the RMA, is retained but framed as “mandatory environmental limits” aimed at “bio-physical aspects of the environment, including freshwater, coastal water, air, soil and habitats for indigenous species.”

The RMA’s fundamental focus on “managing adverse effects” would be replaced with a focus on “promoting more positive outcomes,” the report recommended, with a new purpose of the Natural and Built Environments Act being proposed: “enhancing the quality of the environment to support wellbeing of present and future generations.”

This would be achieved within mandatory environmental limits with “adverse effects” on the environment being “avoided, remedied or mitigated”.

Matters to be considered in resource consent application “should be amended in various respects, including shifting the focus to identified outcomes and removing the “subject to Part 2 reference and the permitted baseline test,” the report said, in what appears to be a significant shift away from one of the primary sources of conflict in the RMA: the interpretation of resource management priorities under the fundamental principles enshrined in Part 2 of the current act.

There would still be National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards and, if anything, a greater incentive under such a regime for national direction to be given on development issues, with national direction reviewed every nine years.

Parker emphasised that the report’s recommendations would be for the next government to act upon “and whether to implement it in whole or in part”.

This article originally appeared on BusinessDesk. Their team publishes quality independent news, analysis and commentary on business, the economy and politics every day. Find out more.



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