Rod Oram: Doing right by the economy and environment

The latest review of the Resource Management Act - and previous work by a collaboration of environmentalists and business groups - give hope for a profound change in planning in the next few years.

We can achieve a better economy and a healthier environment. The way to do so is laid out in the report of the Resource Management Review Panel released this week. Its key insight is the co-dependency of the economy and the environment. Enhancing one enhances the other; devaluing one devalues the other.

We’ve tried to get that balance right through the Resource Management Act, which is 30 years old next July. It was widely admired here and abroad as one of the first attempts to guide sustainable economic development. For all its flaws, it is still one of the better regulatory regimes around.

But from the outset we've inadequately implemented the RMA, such as a lack of national direction from government and competence building in councils. Even with eight amendment bills plus other changes over the years the RMA hasn’t coped with the pressures we’ve heaped on it. Our population has grown by 43 percent to five million, our car fleet has doubled to almost three million, our dairy herd has more than doubled to five million and our economy has tripled in value with some help from inflation.

Yet, we have failed to achieve our economic potential in some respects – the bulk of our exports are commodities and our housing is very expensive, for example. And we’ve degraded our land, water, air, seas and biodiversity in urban and rural areas, as our environmental reporting shows starkly. 

The report from the panel, led by Tony Randerson, a retired Court of Appeal Judge, explains in depth why the RMA has failed to live up to our hopes for it. Their 23-page summary of what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it is well worth reading. Their full 531-page report delivers extensive evidence and analysis for their conclusions and proposals.

The RMA’s key failures are: “a lack of clear environmental protections; a lack of recognition of the benefits of urban development; a focus on managing the effects of resource use rather than on planning to achieve outcomes; a bias towards the status quo; lack of adequate national direction; insufficient recognition of Te Tiriti and lack of support for Māori participation; weak and slow policy and planning; weak compliance, monitoring and enforcement; capability and capacity challenges in central and local government; and weak accountability for outcomes and lack of effective monitoring and oversight.”

The panel says the solution is not more reform of the RMA but to replace it with a new twin-Act approach. The Natural and Built Environments Act would retain some of the key RMA principles, but it would recognise the concept of Te Mana o te Taiao -- the importance of maintaining the health of our natural resources, such as air, water and soil, and their capacity to sustain life.

Stronger national direction and a significant overhaul of processes and plans would reduce complexity and deliver specified outcomes, targets and limits for both natural and built environments.

The Strategic Planning Act would set long term goals for the country and help to integrate the NBEA with existing legislation in allied areas such as climate, land transport and local government. In addition, the panel is calling for a new and separate Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act. This Newsroom report gives more details on the overall proposals and this one on the new climate act.

“We expect our recommendations to result in better quality outcomes for both the natural and built environments and a more responsive system to meet the challenges we face as a nation. These include the need to respond to urban development pressures in our towns and cities, to reverse the deterioration of water quality in our streams and rivers, to address diminishing biodiversity and to deal effectively with the looming threat posed by climate change,” the panel said.

The panel’s report drew strong support from a collaboration of environmental and business groups which have developed their own deeply researched proposals for resource management reform over the past few years. Its members are the Environmental Defence Society, Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern), Property Council of New Zealand and Infrastructure New Zealand. All their reports, including their latest out this week on urban issues, are available here.

The EDS-led collaboration, though, is bolder in some areas than the panel. It argues for example, for a major reorganisation of local government into far fewer, much larger and more capable entities. These would deliver, say, 14 regional spatial plans rather than some 100 less comprehensive, lower quality plans in place now. The panel’s report said this subject was beyond its remit but it noted the weakness in the current system and recommended the government investigate solutions to it.

The collaboration has also proposed an independent Futures Commission to help guide us through the vastly complex inter-generational ecological, economic, social and cultural challenges involved in our sustainable development. This would be an excellent element to include in the Strategic Planning Act proposed by the panel.

Achieving such comprehensive reform within the next three-year term of government is critical, given the mess we’re in now. It’s also very do-able, given the extensive work completed by the panel, the environmental/business collaboration and others.

The election is still seven weeks away. That gives every party plenty of time to make substantial commitments to such reforms and to be very explicit about where they would argue for different proposals.

And plenty of time for us voters to call all parties to account.

National’s leader Judith Collins seems particularly confused. She said the Randerson proposals to replace the RMA with two new acts was exactly what National had been proposing for three years. If elected to lead the next government, it would complete the work in its first term.

But National is proposing something completely different, which Collins developed as its RMA reform spokesperson from March 12, 2018 until May 25 this year: to separate out environmental bottom lines into one act and urban planning and development into another. That, though, would severely compromise and complicate both activities. Thus, the Randerson reforms keep them in one act while making them easier to progress by overlaying the second, strategic act.

Delivering these reforms quickly and effectively is also important for another reason. They will set a better structure but not the ultimate one. Over the next 15 years, we will have to massively evolve our resource use and economic activity, and the regulatory systems that guide them, to make sure that everything we do works with nature, not against it.

That’s the only way we will regenerate our economy and ecosystems so we’re truly on the way to being a net zero, climate compatible and deeply sustainable society by 2050.

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