More RMA changes

The Resource Management Act is making history – as New Zealand’s most amended piece of legislation. The latest amendments are being made possible by a deal between the National and Maori parties. The changes don’t go as far as National had originally intended – they do not have the numbers in Parliament to change the principles of the Act, so it remains primarily an environmental protection document.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the changes being proposed:

Requiring councils to follow national planning templates. This is a welcomed change that will put an end to local council staff interpreting the vague notions of the RMA in a manner that suits their own thinking. It’s astounding that this form of guidance was not part of the original Act. The government says the changes, “will improve the consistency and reduce the complexity of plans. This will substantially reduce the volume of planning documents across the country because most provisions will be standardised”. They quote the absurd situation of there being 50 different definitions of ‘building height’. There are actually hundreds of equally absurd examples – some have more serious consequence, like the criteria by which a “significant landscape” is assessed. At the moment those criteria are nebulous expressions like the “colour of the night sky” dreamt up, no doubt, by distinguished landscape consultants.

A faster consents process. They say, “The Bill provides three different tracks by which a council can produce a plan: the existing track that now has tighter timelines, a new collaborative track, and a streamlined track”. The collaborative track is where various stakeholders agree on planning changes before the formal process kicks in. That sounds very much like the existing mediation process that happens prior to matters going to the Environment Court, which have become a field day for lawyers, planners and vested interest groups.

Reduced requirements for consents. They say, “The Bill eliminates the need for thousands of minor consents by giving councils discretion to not require them, by introducing a new 10-day fast-track for simple consents and by removing requirements for consents where they are already required under other Acts.” Having resource consent exemptions for low level work is sensible, but passing that discretion onto local authorities is not. The same degree of discretion is already given to local authorities for building consents – as specified in clause 2 of Schedule 1 of the Building Act. Each consenting authority is supposed to have developed guidelines so Fred Dagg member of the public knows what’s what or not, when it comes to needing a building consent. It’s an admirable theory, but does not translate into great practice. In 2011 the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment found many councils were not using their exemption powers and they were of the view that people were being required to obtain building consents when they should have been exempted from doing so. Some councils, the Whangarei District Council for example, do not even have a guideline policy for the public. That’s very convenient for council staff because it means they can treat every matter that comes before them on a case by case basis, as they alone see fit.

I see no reason why resource management exemptions will be any less slanted in the way they are drafted to suit council staff. If so, they will have no practical effect in reducing uncertainty for those who are required to live by their rules.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes to the Act is one that gets the least attention in the documents supporting the Bill. The Environment Minister says, “The Bill is a compromise with the Maori Party and they have strongly advocated for better processes for iwi to be involved in council plan making. Councils will need to engage with local iwi on how they will involve them in their resource management processes. The objective is to ensure iwi are consulted on issues that are important to them…”

As it happens, the requirement to consult with iwi is already embedded into the RMA as they are already assumed to be affected parties when it comes to having status in resource consent applications. One can only assume those rights will be extended to include matters such as representation on local authority decision making committees and presumed rights to natural resources, like fresh water.

All in all most of the proposed changes are rhetoric rather than substance. The vast number of changes made to the RMA since it was first introduced shows how fundamentally flawed the Act was at the time – and is today. In practice the proposed changes are more likely to be a step backwards rather than forwards, as is being promised.

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