Could RMA reform spark environmental joy?
The Government review of the RMA is likely to result in a drastic overhaul. One working paper suggests how to tidy up legislation and improve environmental outcomes now and in the future.
What would it look like if the Japanese tidying sensation Marie Kondo was let loose on New Zealand’s tangle of a Resource Management Act, environment acts, National Policy Statements and Regional Plans aimed at balancing development with environmental protection?
It’s likely some legislation would be thrown out, acts would be organised neatly into new boxes, and some legislation would only be kept once it had been given a good clean.
The Environmental Defence Society, a not-for-profit organisation committed to improving environmental outcomes, has released its latest working paper on how RMA legislation could be reorganised to make more sense and how climate change measures can be embedded into legislation.
It's Marie Kondo-style extreme overhaul looks beyond just the Resource Management Act and consolidates around 33 acts into 15 tidy act boxes. Some of the boxes such as a Future Generations Act and Oceans Act are new. For those keen on clearer environmental bottom lines and looking for climate change mitigation to be embedded into legislation, some of the recommendations could spark joy.
It’s likely the government-appointed Resource Management Act reform panel will be looking closely at the society’s paper as it works through how best to reform the 30-year-old 801-page document, which has simultaneously presided over a housing and environmental crisis.
“It is uncompromising. But we also think it’s realistic, and it is achievable. We remain unapologetic about the need for fundamental change that works for all.”
The RMA is not destined for the bin
Surprisingly, an idea mooted by both the society and Government of getting rid of the RMA and splitting planning and environmental legislation has been dropped.
The society’s working paper explained:
“While there would be many attractive features of having, for example, a separate ‘Planning Act’ and ‘Environment Act’, on balance we think that the risks of this would outweigh its benefits.”
Senior researcher Dr Greg Severinsen said a vastly-improved RMA should stay.
“We see an integrated RMA – with significant changes and perhaps even renamed – as remaining at the heart of a future system that protects the environment and supports wellbeing.”
Instead the society suggests rewriting the RMA to include bottom lines which are clear, rather than the ambiguous statements it now contains:
“Bottom lines need to be clearly defined in terms of the specific outcomes we are seeking, not just general statements about ‘preserving’ or ‘protecting’ (which beg the question: relative to what?).”
It thinks these bottom lines need to extend beyond maintaining the bare minimum and move towards enhancing the environment to an acceptable state.
Another important part of the rewrite would be ensuring climate change mitigation is included in the Act.
Leaving behind something for future generations
A long-term view is addressed by a suggested Future Generations Act. This would be a strategic framework sitting over the top of the RMA and would be of “constitutional importance” in outlining what New Zealanders value.
“... the purpose of the Act would be focused firmly on the future - and the interests of future generations of both people and nature - which are often not well-represented in either politics or economic transactions.”
It could be the place where nature is given rights, says the paper:
“These need not be specific legal rights; there could be a statement that the natural world as a whole has, for example, ‘the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes’.”
In the long-term, several existing acts could be bundled into the Future Generations such as the Environment Act, and Environment Reporting Act. Potentially it could include elements from the Zero Carbon Bill where the paper says it would have "legal influence over decision-making under multiple other frameworks".
A national environment plan to rule them all
Currently there are a slew of current and proposed national policy statements. These sit over the Resource Management Act as national guidelines for local authorities when creating regional plans.
The number of these and the general wording leads to confusion around how each relates to the other. The paper points out:
“At the very least, every policy proposal for a new NPS now has to go to heroic lengths to outline its relationships with a web of existing and proposed NPSs that have been created for very different reasons.”
The society proposes combining these into a single “coherent” National Environment Plan.
This plan would include how to deal with situations where there are trade-offs, for example when considering renewable energy plans against landscape or biodiversity values. It would also address climate change mitigation measures.
The society is seeking feedback on its proposal and will publish a final document in December. The Government is due to publish its own reform proposal mid-2020.
The society's 186-page document includes a call to all New Zealanders to play a role in the tidying up of legislation.
"Ultimately the enemy in a democratic county like New Zealand is not capitalism, or big business, or entrenched sectoral interests. In fact, they are core to the system. The biggest threat is the apathy of ordinary New Zealanders to demand meaningful solutions from their politicians, and the sense that all of this is beyond the control of the man or woman on the street."