Environment minister David Parker (Radio NZ, Dom Thomas)

The RMA is dead. Long live the three new RMA-like laws

The Resource Management Act is set to be repealed and replaced by three new bits of legislation. Alex Braae explains what has been announced this morning. 

What’s all this then?

The Resource Management Act is on the way out. New Zealand’s primary bit of planning legislation was born 30 years ago and has aged rapidly to the point where it is no longer considered to be fit for purpose. As such, environment minister David Parker today announced the shape of what the country’s new planning legislation will be. 

Is this big?

It’s massive. This is a critical aspect of the government’s attempts to solve the long-running housing crisis. Successive governments have tried and failed on this. 

Help me out here – what do you mean by planning legislation?

Basically, the laws that govern how to balance competing interests around development of land, and protection of the natural environment. For example, if you wanted to pour concrete over a native wetland to build a mega-mall on it, you’d have to work out whether it was legal under the RMA (it probably wouldn’t get through the process).

What are the problems with the existing laws?

It depends who you ask, but there are a few themes that tend to emerge. Some argue that the RMA doesn’t allow for the rapid development of new housing, and is overly restrictive on economic activity. Others argue that it doesn’t actually do enough to protect the environment. Sometimes the point is made that it doesn’t really take climate change into account – given it was first enacted in the early ’90s that’s not surprising – but since climate change is today the most pressing environmental issue that’s not good enough. 

Couldn’t the legislation just have been tinkered with?

Plenty of people have tried, and plenty have found that just adding new stuff on top of the existing legislation turns it into even more of a dog’s breakfast. There’s a political consensus in place now that it’d be better to just throw it out and start again. 

So how will the legislation change?

The most overarching change is in the philosophy underpinning the legislation. As Parker’s release put it, “forward planning is difficult because the RMA’s focus is on managing negative/adverse effects of resource use rather than providing positive direction about what our goals are for the environment.” It’s a subtle difference, but it’ll be more like you can do X, provided you account for Y, rather than you can’t do X, unless you account for Y

And what will the new law be called?

New laws, plural. There will be three in total. There will be the National and Built Environments Act which will govern local planning, the Strategic Planning Act which will require the development of long-term, big picture strategies, and the Climate Change Adaptation Act, which will focus on addressing the effects of climate change. 

That last one sounds like a big change.

It will be. At some stage the government is going to be forced to grapple with questions like liability and compensation for coastal homeowners who need to retreat due to rising sea levels. This law is the first serious attempt at doing that. 

How long will this all take to put through? 

Under the current timetable, the government expects to get these three new laws through parliament by the end of 2022. Because of the complexity, expect it to dominate their programme of work over that time. 

Who’s going to be in charge of it all?

The environment ministry will be the lead agency on it all, so David Parker as the minister will be heavily involved. Climate change minister James Shaw will steer the Climate Adaptation Act. And there will also be a ministerial oversight panel which “will be delegated decision making authority to work through the policy details needed to progress the exposure draft of the Natural and Built Environment Bill. It will also have decision-making authority on  associated matters for the other bills.” That’ll be chaired by the finance minister, who is currently (and likely in the future too) Grant Robertson. 

Will we get a chance to have a say on it all?

Yes, there will be rounds of consultation with the public, as well as standard select committee processes. An “exposure draft” of the National and Built Environments law will be presented in May, and cabinet will spend the rest of the year considering various policy decisions around it. 

Interestingly, “details such as consenting processes, designations, proposals of national significance, Environment Court workings, water conservation, allocation methods, compliance,  monitoring and enforcement and transitional arrangements will continue to be developed in  parallel to the select committee inquiry.” In other words, some of the really contentious bits may not be in the draft that gets presented, but will be part of the final legislation. 

So by 2022, the RMA will finally be gone forever?

Um, no. There will have to be a transition period to allow the new legislation to be implemented. The release ominously suggested that will take “a number of years”.




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