Proposed Resource Management Act changes- experts respond

Dr Nick Smith
Dr Nick Smith

The Government has revealed it plans for a long-anticipated overhaul of the Resource Management Act, touting changes that will lead to more affordable housing and a better managed environment.

A number of proposed reforms to the Resource Management Act (RMA) were last night outlined by Environment Minister Dr Smith.

A Government-commissioned research paper on the RMA issues completed by MOTU Economic and Public Policy Research and a National Party summary of the proposed reforms are available here.

Dr Smith outlined ten major changes the Government would be including in its second phase of reforms in 2015:

  • Add natural hazards
  • Recognise urban planning
  • Prioritise housing affordability
  • Acknowledge importance of infrastructure
  • Greater weight to property rights
  • Speed up plan-making
  • Encouraging collaborative resolution
  • Strengthening national tools
  • Internet for simplicity and speed
  • National planning templates

“These reforms will be pragmatic and moderate,” Dr Smith states in the summary. “We want to reduce the mountain of plans and rules that make the RMA a barrier to new housing and jobs, but retain the core environmental controls that ensure we keep New Zealand special and such a great place to live.”

The SMC collected the following expert commentary on the proposed reforms.

Morten Gjerde, FNZIA, Senior Lecturer in Urban Design, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:   

“There is no question that the RMA could be modified and it may be relevant to overhaul it, as noted by Dr Smith. But the basis on which the Government proposes to make change is flawed. The Minister and his Government colleagues seem to be pursuing change exclusively from the perspective of economic development and their information sources appear to be developers’ only.

“I haven’t read too many reports commissioned by government departments that look at impacts of the RMA on social or environmental development; probably because these outcomes are fine. While I recognise the need for the Government to balance the impacts and outcomes of development activity, the only catalyst for these changes seems to be economic.

“The summary of ‘additional’ costs incurred by developers for meeting local council requirements is interesting. How can the cost of private balconies or building within height limits be extra over costs to a developer? The first is there to provide a minimal level of amenity for future residents of a housing project and the second to ensure that our streets remain enjoyable for all to walk along. In my experience as urban design consultant to several local councils I’ve come to learn that there are developers who are in it for the long haul and who appreciate the feedback they receive through the consenting process. Then there are those who can’t see past their financial calculations.

“Nevertheless, I see merit in looking to change the Act in several of the areas listed by Dr Smith. There is no question that urban planning and design should be recognised more than they are currently. Also, because the RMA is interpreted by local councils in so many different ways and because many have limited resources I see the need to provide national planning templates and other tools. There is also a need to acknowledge the importance of public infrastructure, but in saying that there also needs to be robust debate around the most appropriate type of infrastructure to provide.

“There are changes that shouldn’t be contemplated. I can’t see how the Act can be revised to prioritise housing affordability. Despite the efforts of the authors of the Motu Report, housing affordability remains an enigma. New Zealand is not the only country struggling to provide affordable housing and I’m aware of other national and local Governments doing much more to directly influence housing affordability. The cost of housing is affected by so many areas outside the sphere of resource management and I’m afraid that trying to solve this current problem with the RMA could lead to compromises in several other areas. What we have to keep in mind is the objective of balancing current needs with those of future generations and of the environment. I’m a little worried that the full extent of proposed changes may lose sight of this goal.

Associate Professor Caroline Miller, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University, comments:

“The RMA is probably the most amended act in New Zealand with each amendment accompanied by a promise that the latest modification will secure a better, faster, more efficient and cheaper system. The problem is that whatever change the amendment brings about is found wanting by the next party in power. Equally, we know from past attempts that legislative change does not in itself secure better planning practice. That is the danger with the latest reform, that it will raise expectations of change that will not be achieved. That is even more likely given the mixed goals the latest reforms are seeking.

“Affordable housing will not be achieved solely through RMA reform as it is a product of a complex range of factors including the cost and availability of finance, the cost of building materials, and the availability of adequately trained builders. Changing the RMA will change none of those factors. If planning is to be side-lined to force affordable housing developments through then that will be at the cost of community involvement in decision-making, something that has always been at the heart of RMA processes. If these rights are curtailed they will effectively limited people’s private property rights, something the Minister says the reforms will protect. It is hard to see how that incompatibility will be overcome.

“The Minster has also made much of the reforms being based on the independent Motu Research et al. report. A quick scan of that report reveals that it is only based on an assessment of development in Auckland where planning has always been difficult due to the speed of growth and doubly difficult as the city still has to plan with a patchwork of legacy plans. Their assessment also includes building consent costs and issues which fall outside the purview of the RMA, bring into question the reliability of the oft quoted cost figures and the impact of RMA changes.

“The report also acknowledges the $15,000 and $30,000 figures are not the product of a cost benefit study and may be justified through the benefits they achieve. Communities are very protective of residential areas and have clear ideas and expectations of what they will accept in those areas. Consultation processes, a central aspect of the RMA, ensure those views get incorporated into plans. So you can change the RMA but unless you reverse some 40 years of planning processes and exclude these voices, then plans will not change. Plans are the reflection of each communities’ wants and needs and finding a universal ‘right’ model is like finding a unicorn.

“Most importantly if the reforms are being based on research focused solely on Auckland, does that not carry the danger that any new legislation will primarily address Auckland’s issues? The RMA is national legislation and what suits Auckland and maybe Christchurch and Wellington is unlikely to suit the rest of the country. If Auckland has such well-defined problems, has the time come for metropolitan based legislation which applies only to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and in time Hamilton and Tauranga? That would provide those large urban areas with the legislation they need without imposing inappropriate legislation on the rest of the country.”