Resource management reforms – lost in translation already?

The proposed changes to our resource management systems are too complex, are going to take far too long to enact to free up land, and won’t make any meaningful change to our complex planning rules.

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) is currently New Zealand’s principal law that governs how people interact with natural resources such as our air, soil, fresh water and the coastal marine environment. The RMA also regulates land use and the provision of infrastructure.

Minister for the Environment David Parker says the RMA has passed its use-by date and hasn’t really achieved its purpose, which was to protect the environment and enable development. There appears to be unilateral agreement on this point across all parties within Parliament.

National’s spokesperson for the environment, Scott Simpson, says the RMA has ceased to be effective and that it no longer fulfils its original grand objective. “The sad reality is that … a document that originally was made up of about 300 pages now runs to something like 900 pages and has, I think, been amended substantially 18 or 19 times.”

One of the key criticisms of the RMA is that it is a handbrake on housing development, particularly supply, affordability and choice, and the corresponding supporting infrastructure. Land development takes too long, the consenting process is too complex and costly, and the positive outcomes simply haven’t been attained, such as protecting the quality of the water in our rivers and harbours and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

In February 2021, the Government announced it would replace the RMA with three pieces of legislation:

  • The Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) – the primary replacement for the RMA
  • The Strategic Planning Act (SPA) which will require the development of long-term regional spatial strategies by regional authorities
  • The Climate Adaptation Act (CAA) which will address how local government and communities adapt to the effects of climate change.

The Government is adopting a ‘softly, softly, catchee monkey’ approach to overhauling our resource management legislation, firstly releasing an ‘exposure’ document at the end of June that forms the basis for an inquiry into the draft NBA by the Environment Select Committee.

The purpose of the inquiry is to provide feedback to the Government on the extent to which the provisions in the draft NBA will support resource management reforms. It is expected the Natural and Built Environments Bill will be put before Parliament next year.

Public submissions on the draft document closed in early August.

One of the obstacles to land development for councils and developers is infrastructure. Under the proposed NBA, authorities will have to include more detailed provisions for infrastructure in future plans, and zoning rules will have to be more consistent.

Plans will be guided by a National Planning Framework overseen by the Government, which will bring together all the different rules around urban form, natural landscapes, hazards and climate change issues.

Minister Parker says the new legislation will include “positive prescriptions” that will “require positive outcomes for infrastructure development and housing”, and that, in combination with the proposed SPA, will provide “high-level strategic planning by region, reducing the current number of unitary authority plans from around 100 to about 14”.

This would require a significant change within local government, with the roles and responsibilities of town planners removed from city and district councils and transferred to regional councils, who will have oversight of these new regional spatial plans.

This is a revolutionary change, and mirrored by the recent three waters reforms announced by the Government, that will see local councils handing over control of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services to four new regional entities.

Add to that the news that our district health boards are to be scrapped in favour of one overarching governing body, and the already-established revamp of how our tertiary institutions are controlled, and you begin to get the picture. This is a Government set on a course of centralisation and control. Which is not always a good thing.

The irony of the proposed changes to our resource management systems are that they are too complex, are going to take far too long to enact to free up land, and won’t make any meaningful change to our complex planning rules. The whole point – being to make the RMA simpler and easier to deal with – has been lost in translation.

It is very likely that we will end up with legislation that is more costly, complicated and cumbersome than what we already have, managed by centralised government agencies that fail to understand people and communities at a local level.

The hard truth is that we simply cannot wait years for the RMA to be replaced. We need urgent legislation enacted now to free up land for housing and its associated infrastructure.