Review: Repeal and replace RMA

Those tasked with reviewing the Resource Management Act have recommended ditching the law and replacing it with fresh legislation. Laura Walters reports

An extensive review of the Resource Management Act has resulted in a recommendation to repeal and replace the contentious and complex piece of legislation.

This morning, an independent review panel released its report into a comprehensive review of the law, which governs land use and planning, while taking into account the environment, sustainability and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The group, led by Tony Randerson QC, recommended after extensive consultation the law be replaced by two different pieces of legislation: the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA) and a Strategic Planning Act.

Last year, Environment Minister David Parker commissioned the review, expectating a significant overhaul to be recommended - something various political parties have long called for.

At the time, Parker said it was “unacceptable” such an important law had been “underperforming”.

As part of the review, Parker instructed the panel to identify flaws in the law,and find ways to address these shortcomings, while also considering the act’s relationship with the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Act, and the Climate Change Response Act.

In its 530-page report, the panel said after nearly 30 years of changes, the legislation was twice as long, and “an unduly complex patchwork of provisions”. 

Inefficient processes led to unnecessary expense and delay, and the current provisions in the RMA tended to favour the status quo, which made it hard for the system to respond to change.

Wholesale changes, in order to better serve housing and development needs within environmental limits, were long overdue.

The panel said while some of the core principles of the original 1991 legislation should be retained, including sustainability and wellbeing, the act was no longer fit for purpose.

“Our land and resource use patterns need to change to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change."

New and evolving challenges meant the country needed a new way to plan in a way that didn’t just manage adverse effects, but promoted positive outcomes.

New Zealand’s natural environments were under significant pressure, leading to a decline in coastal and marine environments, biodiversity, and freshwater quality.

And urban areas were struggling to keep pace with population growth, which meant a lack of affordable housing, traffic congestion, pollution, reduced productivity, and stressed infrastructure.

The new laws needed to allow for planning and development that better addressed these issues, while also focusing on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, the panel said.

“Our land and resource use patterns need to change to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change."

The review said the proposed changes would also better serve Māori, by mandating that the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi be given effect through the functions and powers exercised under the new National and Built Environments Act (NBEA). Currently, the RMA included a provision that these principles just need to be considered.

To provide clarity, the panel suggested the Minister for the Environment should give national direction on how this would be achieved.

Beyond Te Tiriti, it also recommended a wider use of this type of ‘national direction’ from the minister, in order to clarify priority areas, and specific environmental features that needed protection.

The overall aim of the NBEA would be to “establish more enduring solutions and bring to an end the series of ad hoc interventions that have been an undesirable feature of legislative change to date”.

If successful, the new legislation would enable the use and development of resources, so long as that could happen sustainably and within prescribed minimum limits to protect natural resources such as water, air, soils and natural habitats.

The proposed legislation would also require the setting of targets to achieve ongoing improvement of the quality of both the natural and built environments.

“We expect the changes we propose in the NBEA will provide a greater level of protection for features of the natural environment which we know are highly valued by New Zealanders and, over time, for the restoration of resources such as our waterways which have become degraded.”

Meanwhile, the proposed Strategic Planning Act was aimed at creating better integration to ensure more successful future planning, including for infrastructure and housing.   

It would set long-term strategic goals and help integrate legislative functions across the entire resource management system, including the proposed NBEA, the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Management Act and the Climate Change Response Act.

And as a final, “discrete” piece of legislation, the panel proposed the creation of the Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act, to establish an adaptation fund to enable central and local government to support necessary steps to address the complex legal and technical issues of managed retreat.

Parker welcomed the review.

“The panel has designed tomorrow’s resource management system to deliver better outcomes for the environment, people and the economy."

“We’ve got to rebuild our resource management system from the ground up.”

Parker expected political parties would develop their policies for the upcoming general election campaign in light of the report’s findings.

But the broader plan to repeal and replace the RMA already had support across the political spectrum.

All parties agreed something needed to be done to speed up the cumbersome consenting process, while also protecting the environment.

Last year, now-National leader Judith Collins also proposed repealing and replacing the RMA with two separate pieces of legislation.

She said political parties in the past, including National, had tried to update and reform the law, but the “quagmire” was past saving.

ACT has also been vocal on the urgent need to reform the RMA, with leader David Seymour saying “the 900-page RMA is the single biggest obstacle to housing affordability”.

He pointed out amending the act had not worked to date, with 18 attempts since 1991 resulting in a longer and “more Byzantine” piece of legislation.

And on Monday, the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) released its own report on RMA system reform, with a focus on urban environments.

Like others, EDS called for repealing the RMA and creating a new law. Its recommendations was for a single law, called the Environmental Stewardship and Planning Act.

Integrated management was important - the new regulations should not be split into separate statutes for planning and the environment, EDS senior researcher Greg Severinsen said.

"In previous work we’ve explored a number of fundamental changes that are needed but concluded that the basic framework could remain,” he said.

“On reflection, though, it’s become increasingly obvious that the extent of the change required really means this should be seen as something new, not just a deep round of amendments.

“We’ve got to rebuild our resource management system from the ground up.”

Parker said the Government would now consider the report, and decide which aspects to adopt and decide whether to implement it in whole or in part.

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