There may be a light at the end of the RMA tunnel — but it’s still a long way away

Mike Fox

EasyBuild director and Building Today columnist Mike Fox says the Resource Management Act is well overdue its ongoing potential shake-up, and that the naysayers and hand-wringers will be gagging on their dried oats as they read about the current version’s terminal prognosis.

In what’s being touted as the biggest potential Resource Management Act (RMA) shake-up in a generation, the Government has released a 500-page report which recommends scrapping the RMA and replacing it with two new Acts that separate planning from environmental issues.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has applied for a resource consent that the RMA has made development slow and costly, and has failed to protect the environment, which was its founding principle.

The RMA lacks strategic big-picture focus, and tends to pander towards minimising physical impacts on neighbouring residents, activities and the immediate environment.

Accordingly, the RMA staunchly entrenches the status quo by making it difficult to develop land no matter how worthy the project, and places an unbalanced amount of power in neighbours’ and detractors’ hands.

One could also be forgiven for thinking that councils were using it as a revenue stream, with more and more consents being demanded for the most ridiculously small residential practices.

It’s become so bad you almost need a consent just to dig your potato patch.

The naysayers and hand-wringers will be gagging on their dried oats as they read about the RMA’s terminal prognosis.

But it would only take them one personal experience of trying to get a resource consent to have a miraculous change of opinion.

I suspect they will remain blissfully philosophically true to the naive RMA cause until they have to walk in the shoes of an applicant.

New Zealand is out of step with other similar nations by having planning and environmental requirements lumped together in one act.

One political commentator recently accurately described the RMA as a legislative cockroach.

For more than a decade there has been widespread condemnation and political consensus that urgent change was needed, but it remains stubbornly in the way of so much progress.

It has been tinkered with, meaningful changes blocked by minor parties, and used as a political football to the point that it is now more than 800 pages long, and stifling the life out of affordable housing and progress.

In short, it’s a dog.

So now that all except the most diehard supporters accept the RMA has to go, how will its replacement avoid the pitfalls that the RMA morphed into?

The aim of the review was to improve environmental outcomes and better enable urban and other developments within environmental limits.

The following categories were identified as key areas:

New Zealand’s natural environment, including land and water, is under significant pressure.

Urban areas are struggling to keep pace with population growth, and we are not building enough homes at the pace or price to affordably house our people.

The need to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.

Opportunities for effective Iwi oversight, engagement and shared management of the environment, consistent with Treaty commitments.

The urgent need to improve system efficiency and effectiveness.

Two new laws proposed

To achieve the above, the report proposes two new laws that will work in tandem to replace the RMA.

The first of these, to be named the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA), will ask Governments to set national environmental standards for what they want to achieve.

The Government would specify outcomes in areas such as quality of the natural built environments, rural areas, Maori interests, historic heritage, natural hazards and climate change.

The aim is to create a system that doesn’t just preserve the status quo through layers of expensive and inefficient bureaucracy, but a system that identifies clear achievable goals.

Matters such as intensifying urban areas or protecting certain environments would be clear, and then Territorial Authorities, designers, builders and developers would be encouraged to achieve those goals.

But would it mean fewer consents?

A major change under the NBEA, and one that I feel if done correctly will be extremely positive, is not only simplifying the process, but also removing the number of consents required.

The report recommends reducing the current hodge podge of more than 100 RMA policy statements used by Territorial Authorities, and consolidating them into 14 combined regional plans.

It’s proposed that the plans will be put together by Independent Hearing Panels who consult with a joint committee of delegates from the affected Local Authorities, Department of Conservation and Local Iwi.

It sounds good in theory but the devil is in the detail, and this will be one to watch closely.

The report recommends doing away with having to give consent notice for minor environmental effects, which will be music to many an ear.

Ideally, this means much less consenting and a much easier consent process.

The Report Chair Tony Randerson QC said, “There will be fewer types of consents and many more consents being dealt with under the ‘controlled activity status’ which would limit the number of publicly notified consents.” Let’s hope he is right.

How would the laws work together?

The second law the report recommends to work in tandem with the NBEA is to be called the Strategic Planning Act (SPA).

This is where it starts to get confusing because, as the name says, it’s about planning — but, indeed, different planning to the consolidation of the 14 plans under the NBEA.

The SPA is about setting a strategic direction for land use over the next 30 years, which makes sense given our country’s poor record of short-term planning and infrastructure.

To achieve this strategic utopia, the SPA would need to amalgamate planning work done by several already existing laws, namely the proposed NBEA, the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Act and the Climate Change Response Act.

It’s enough to give you a headache just thinking about the complexity of doing that.

Will this solve the RMA’s problems?

Separating environmental risks from planning does not come without risks.

One of the stronger objectives of the RMA was that it intended to deal with matters in a combined and integrated way.

Having two laws might just end up with duplication and two processes to complete, which will be neither efficient nor affordable. It will need careful crafting for this to be avoided.

It is hoped that improving the quality of the national plans and streamlining consenting will mean the positive aspects of the RMA are preserved, while doing away with many of the complexities and nonsense that have hobbled it for years.

But it must be remembered that, for now, this report is just that — a report. The new Government will be charged with considering whether to progress with its recommendations or leave it on the shelf, along with all the other reports to date.

If the politicians do decide to progress, it will be followed by a period of open public consultation and engagement with stakeholders before any meaningful changes would be enacted.

All previous rational attempts to revamp the RMA were politically scuttled by blindly ideologically-driven politicians.

Expect more of the same, unless the election delivers us a Government that has sufficient numbers to move this forward.

To put that into perspective, don’t anticipate any changes to the RMA for some years to come. And we’ll need to be very wary that the replacement legislation is, in fact, not worse than the incumbent.

• This article contains the author’s opinion only, and is not necessarily the opinion of the Registered Master Builders Association, its chief executive or staff.