Economic Recovery

Back to the future on national development

Fast-tracking major projects under Muldoon didn't work out well for the economy and this Government needs to learn the lessons of history, writes Dr Caroline Miller

As a mature former planner and researcher on the history of planning in New Zealand, the announcement by the Economic Development Minister of new and accelerated Resource Management Act processes raises some immediate questions.

I'm old enough to remember the National Development Act (NDA) which was brought in to facilitate economic growth in a period of economic stagnation, albeit not as bad as our present situation. The NDA was used to consent the Muldoon Government’s Think Big Projects, by offering an accelerated and truncated planning processes for selected projects. Some Think Big Projects such as the electrification of the main trunk rail line were worthy but others were less successful in producing the much-vaunted growth in jobs. That demonstrates the potential pitfalls of picking winners in an attempt to shore up an economy.

It was the failure of this economic strategy which plunged New Zealand into the neo-liberal reforms and restructuring of the Rogernomics period, reforms that inevitably destroyed more jobs than Think Big ever created. Rogernomics also, almost bizarrely, created the RMA to address the planning and consenting issues the NDA was designed to overcome. Given the legion of RMA critics and its’ almost constant amendment that was another less than successful project.

So, what can we learn from this history to help us decide on the likely success of these new proposals? Well, first, it is clear we are very poor at predicting the future with any accuracy. While many of the ‘shovel ready’ projects may yield environmental and community benefits, many, particularly roading projects, will just cement in old thinking and old approaches.

Perhaps the issue is summed up in the use of ‘shovel ready’ to describe the projects. Surely a 19th Century metaphor which is unsuited to a 21st Century New Zealand. Logically we would be better focused on projects addressing the impacts of climate change. Building more roads to address traffic congestion seems an attractive solution but does little to address our carbon emission from transport.

Matching new work opportunities to where those who are seeking work are located may be more challenging than it might first appear. I have some difficult in seeing how displaced workers from the tourism and service sectors can be transferred seamlessly to these new projects given the inevitable skills’ disjuncture.

Equally, enthusiasm for these reforms as a solution to the RMA seems to involve several leaps of faith. We do not know who will be part of the elite expert panel. Will panelists be drawn only from experts who have been part of the RMA decision-making processes through the commissioner system? Few local authorities rely exclusively on councillors as RMA decision makers, so if the critics are right, then the commissioners/potential panelists are already part of the RMA’s problems. If delays stem from the level of information required, then surely that will remain unchanged if the projects are to be speedily assessed? A comprehensive knowledge of a project is even more essential in such a decision making process.

The most sustained criticism of the RMA comes from its consultation and submission provisions. Those participating are usually portrayed as vexatious or displaying NIMBYist tendencies in trying to delay worthy projects. The effective removal of these voices leaves the expert panel with the challenging role of not only assessing the impact of the proposal on the natural and physical environment but also determining community impact. Most submissions come from affected residents, residents who have to live the rest of their lives with the changes brought about by the proposal.

We are also being invited to believe the environment itself will be safeguarded in this process. The environment is always the silent party in any hearing and depends on the community and those assessing any proposal to have its voice heard. There has been the suggestion that environmental organisations will be allowed to submit, presumably to provide that environmental voice. Who will be selected remains a very important issue. For instance the Environmental Defence Society, on the surface a broadly based environmental organisation, has an immediate conflict of interest given the advice on RMA reform that it has been contracted to supply to the Ministry for the Environment.  Equally, is one environmental organisation able to provide useful advice on all issues or is there room for regionally based groups?

One of the central features of New Zealand’s planning system has been an equitable and open process. Given the minister has said there will be a high level of certainty that the resource consent will be granted, there seems real doubt this will be equitable. Rather, it suggests it will be a process tipped in favour of the development, subject only to a speedy and very basic assessment process. That could encourage development proponents to see it as the proverbial rubber-stamping process, rather than a way of improving their proposal. Submitters' views can and do improve proposals, just as a planners and other experts’ assessment may highlight areas where the predicted outcomes are unlikely or where adverse effects have been overlooked.

Having the expert panel as effective judge and jury with limited appeals only on matters of law further cements in place the legalisation of the planning system, a hallmark of the RMA. I’d suggest it is this emphasis on legal issues that has help to ramp-up the cost associated with the RMA. When I started work as a planner in the early 1980s, planning (later RMA) lawyers, were a rarity and only sighted when an issue got to appeal. Now they are an integral part of the process from first lodgement to final appeal, and yet we still have complaints about RMA outcomes. This perhaps signals a time to stop demonising planners as the central problem with the RMA and instead start to look in more detail at the monolith that is now the RMA system. If we cannot identify all the causes of the problem then we are unlikely to find any useful solutions.

The questions are never-ending and we are in the early stages of developing this fast track legislation. All I am suggesting is that before we pick winners, something which has never been successful in the past, we learn a little from history. Most importantly we confront the contradiction at the heart of the RMA —how to create a speedy responsive development orientated consent system which also achieves environmentally focused sustainable management of natural and physical resources. If that conundrum is solved, then we may really be onto an RMA winner.

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