Infrastructure

RMA reform launched into sea of political icebergs

David Parker has launched a "comprehensive overhaul" of the 798 page Resource Management Act, but any reform may yet be sunk in Parliament again because New Zealand First won't agree with the Greens and Labour won't work with National. Marc Daalder reports.

Environment Minister David Parker has announced his long-awaited Resource Management Act (RMA) reform plan: another working group.

But within five hours, his own government partner had effectively scuttled his hopes of significant reform - at least under the current composition of this coalition - by refusing to agree to allow greater Māori decision-making or Green Party suggestions, and Parker himself rebuffed any National Party hopes of a grand coalition on RMA reform.

In a Cabinet paper, Parker said the RMA was “under-performing in the management of key environmental issues such as freshwater, and in delivering affordable housing and well-designed urban communities”.

The solution is a comprehensive review of the legislation with limited scope. Of three options - focusing solely on freshwater and climate change concerns; reviewing the RMA and all associated legislation; or a middle path targeting just the RMA and its links to laws like the Local Government Act - the Government has picked the middle ground.

The Productivity Commission has previously recommended a broader review to overhaul the entire system, but Parker said such an effort would be akin to "trying to boil the ocean". The Government has also shunned an offer from National Party RMA spokesperson Judith Collins to team up on fixing the Act.

Terms of reference for the working group show that a new urban development law to accompany the RMA is under consideration. The panel will also entertain moving Part 2 of the Act, which defines the purposes and principles of resource management and has been subject to considerable judicial review and interpretation, into a separate piece of legislation.

Some issues, however, are unable to wait until the May 2020 due date for the working group's report, Parker said. These will be addressed in a previously-announced bill which will roll back changes made by National in 2017, increase the fees for those who infringe on the act, and create a new planning process for protecting freshwater resources.

RMA reform sorely needed

In explaining the reasoning for reviewing widespread changes, Parker blamed the RMA for contributing to the housing crisis. “While not the sole cause of the housing crisis, planning rules are partly to blame,” he said.

“It is unacceptable for this cornerstone law to be under-performing in a country that values protection of the environment while properly housing its people. Our aim is to produce a revamped law fit for purpose in the 21st century that will cut complexity and cost while better protecting our environment.”

Parker added that “there are doubts that the RMA can respond effectively to future challenges such as climate change”.

Although the Government is framing its announcement as a “comprehensive overhaul of the RMA,” the only concrete action it has taken is to release terms of reference for the review panel, which has yet to be named. The last National-led Government launched attempts at comprehensive reform twice while in power from 2009 to 2017, but only managed relatively minor tweaks, some of which are set to be reversed later this year by the current Labour-led Government.

The RMA has been amended 18 times since its passage in 1991 and the result of the working group will make it 20, after accounting for the interim bill repealing National’s 2017 amendment. The Act is now 798 pages, nearly double its original length. Parker said he hopes to halve the legislation, returning it to a 400-page text. 

The review will focus on the RMA and its interactions with three key pieces of legislation: the Local Government Act; the Land Transport Management Act; and the Zero Carbon Bill.

The working group will be tasked with submitting its final report in May 2020 - timing which will place the introduction of legislation after next year's election, something which may be no mistake given the divergent views on the RMA within the current coalition.

While the panel won’t be expected to turn in a complete rewrite of the RMA, its report will be put towards that end by the Government, according to the terms of reference.

Former Appeal Court Judge Tony Randerson, who chaired an advisory panel that modified the RMA for National after it won power in 1990, will chair the group. The original RMA was created by Labour Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, who was in the audience for the unveiling of Parker's plan to reform the Act. The National minister in charge of passing the amended Act in 1991 is Simon Upton, who is now the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Parties won't work together

At a press conference on Wednesday, Parker said that no RMA reform legislation would be introduced until after the 2020 election because the working group would take nearly 10 months to make its recommendations.

Collins called this "cynical timing." Given that the next government to consider legislation could well be a National one, she believes Labour should be consulting the Opposition. But Parker refused to consider including the Opposition in the reform process until legislation is introduced, insisting it was the "parliamentary process".

Given this, the latest effort at fixing the RMA is unlikely to succeed, Collins believes. "You've got New Zealand First going around the provinces saying, 'We're going to sort out the RMA and stop all these impediments to development.' You've got the Greens saying, 'We're gonna stop all these developments.' It just must be a nightmare for Labour."

Winston Peters didn't disagree with her. When asked if he thought New Zealand First would be on the same page as Labour and the Greens about RMA reform, he answered simply, "No".

"I cannot agree with their race-based approach," he said of Green Party support for a Māori role in the resource management system.

'Take it out the back and shoot it'

In the meantime, Collins said she wouldn't wait for the Government to ring her up and that she was drafting her own RMA reform bill to submit to the members' bills ballot.

In a statement, she added "the last thing New Zealanders want or need is yet another working group that kicks an important issue to touch until after the next election.

“My concern is that by waiting so long to undertake this piece of work, the Government has left it too late in the electoral cycle to act on it. This suggests they aren’t confident of getting NZ First and the Greens on the same page," she said.

“The RMA is no longer fit for purpose and is too easily gamed. One problem is businesses being able to stymie nearby business developments because they are anti-competitive.

“Another is developers trying to stop someone else's housing development from going ahead because they want to get their houses sold first, to get maximum value."

Collins minced her words even less when speaking with reporters about the RMA on Tuesday.

"I think we need to take it out the back and shoot it," she said. "Actually, that would be quite fun."

Stakeholders support review

Environmental groups, civil society organisations, and economic development lobbies are broadly supportive of the proposed review panel.

In a statement, Environmental Defense Society CEO Gary Taylor said, "We are looking forward to participating in the Government’s review to ensure that any future system will achieve improved environmental and urban outcomes. This is an opportunity to create a world-class resource management system for our country."

Forest & Bird focused on the RMA's exclusion of climate change considerations. "This has meant irresponsible activities such as coal mining and coal-powered milk drying furnaces have been permitted despite the disastrous effect burning the coal has on our environment. We look forward to helping correct this deliberate and immoral decision," said manager Jen Miller.

Sector groups like Infrastructure New Zealand and the Employers and Manufacturers Association also praised the reform efforts. "Environment Minister David Parker has made a significant step in recognising ... issues and making the decision to bring in strong independent oversight to the review," said EMA chief executive Brett O'Riley.

Collins wasn't the only person calling for more cooperation between Government and Opposition.

In a statement, Taxpayer's Union spokesperson Louis Houlbrooke said: "National and Labour should work together on RMA reform, not risking it with a working group which could get in the way of seeing more homes built. We must stop fringe environmental and cultural agendas from interfering with efforts to end the housing crisis."

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