RMA changes proposed

In 1991 the Resource Management Act (RMA) was heralded as a visionary piece of legislation; one that would allow communities to enhance their future well-being while protecting what we have for future generations. Its political architects, Geoffrey Palmer and Simon Upton, were considered enlightened forward thinkers. It was also at the forefront of what would be a number of effect-based acts. In simple terms, the RMA replaced a bunch of Acts that prescribed what you could do, with one that said a landowner could do petty much anything on their property, provided the effects on the environment were no more than minor or could be avoided, remedied, or mitigated.

Time has shown those enabling visionary ideals to be fanciful and foolish hopes. The RMA has become disabling and a monstrous gravy train for the planning industry that has grown up around it. Even worse, the RMA has handed radical activist organisations (like the Environmental Defence Society and the government’s own Department of Conservation) an effective weapon which they have cleverly utilised to advance their own anti-private property rights agendas.

Virtually everyone, except planners, now accepts Auckland’s housing shortage is largely due to supply shortages brought about by planing rules designed to concentrate people within urban limits – to force them to live like battery hens in multi-level housing blocks. Even an NCEA economics student knows that reducing the supply of housing without any change in demand will increase house prices.

The inflationary effects of the RMA and the impact upon home affordability are now so obvious that politicians in Wellington can no longer do nothing. Some 20 or so amendments to the RMA over as many years has failed to address the Act’s fundamental problems. The National government says it will do so in legislation to be introduced this year.

The big question is how far the changes will go. At this stage the extent of the reforms are simply contained in a speech by Environment Minister, Nick Smith (speech to Nelson Rotary, 21 January 2015):

“…let me equally be plain that tinkering with the RMA won’t do. The Act has some fundamental design flaws that require substantial overhaul. The purposes and principles are out-dated and ill matched with the reality of the issues it manages like housing development. The plan making process is too cumbersome and slow. The Act needs re-engineering away from litigation towards collaboration. Property owners need stronger protection from unnecessary bureaucratic meddling. We need stronger national consistency and direction. We need to redesign the paper based planning and consultation systems for today’s age of the internet.”

“The plan-making process is too cumbersome and slow…economic growth, jobs and exports need recognition…The idea that the only consideration in resource consenting is protection of nature is naive. This is not the National Parks Act.”

“The most contentious of the planned reforms will be to the purpose and principles of the Act in Part 2. The significance of these provisions is that every plan, every rule, and every consent is tested against these provisions. We are not proposing changes to the over-riding purpose of sustainable management in Section 5, but we are proposing significant changes to Sections 6 and 7.” [Section 6 deals with matters of national importance – things like the coastal environment, the protection of outstanding natural features and landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, protection of significant indigenous vegetation,  and so on. Section 7 deals with a whole lot of Other Matters including kaitiakitanga and global warming.]

“I am also of the view that economic growth, jobs and exports need recognition. The idea that the only consideration in resource consenting is protection of nature is naïve. This is not the National Parks Act. When consideration is being given to allow a new factory, a new road, a new marine farm, a mine or a new tourism attraction, we need to carefully weigh up the effects on the environment alongside the benefits of economic growth and jobs. We are a Bluegreen Government that is quite upfront about wanting to utilise our natural resources to create jobs and increase incomes but we want to do so in a responsible way that avoids unnecessary harm to the environment.”

The Minister is mouthing the right words but whether those words will translate into meaningful reform remains to be seen. I will be pleasantly surprised if National has the fortitude to confront the vested interest groups that will rally in opposition and make the necessary changes to bring real change. Unfortunately, all to often politicians are more concerned with wanting to be seen to be addressing an issues and do little to  actually address it.

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