First stab at replacing the RMA announced – Expert Reaction

The Government has released the first draft of one of the proposed laws meant to replace the 30-year-old Resource Management Act.

The “exposure draft” of the Natural and Built Environments Bill discusses mandatory environmental limits for a “minimum acceptable state” or a “maximum amount of harm” that can be caused to the environment. It will also set out outcomes meant to protect the environment. In a unique process, the exposure draft will be put out for public feedback before it is introduced to the House.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Dr Nicholas Kirk, Environmental Social Researcher, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, comments:

“The Resource Management Act (RMA) struggled to resolve the tension between resource use for economic growth and environmental conservation. The RMA’s proposed solution was to measure and manage the effects of activities on the environment. This worked well when effects were easy to measure and resolve. However, the RMA struggled when effects of activities were dispersed and accumulated over long time periods, such as nitrogen leaching from intensive farms into groundwater.

“In the exposure draft of the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), central government recognises the unresolved tension between economic growth and conservation and offer some potential solutions. Rather than solely focus on effects of activities, the NBA adds that natural resource use must occur within environmental limits, and that outcomes that benefit the environment must be promoted. This shift is commendable and ought to rebalance New Zealand’s resource management towards conservation. However, in implementation this could slow down decisions regarding activities that have the potential to impact the environment.

“The RMA’s implementation challenges and the impact of these on environmental quality is recognised in the exposure draft NBA. The proposed solution is a nested hierarchy of plans, with the National Planning Framework undertaken by central government, Regional Spatial Strategies integrating plans across regions and territories, and NBA plans written by individual councils and territories. At all stages, central and local government will have to give effect to the principles of te Tiriti.

“The exposure draft of the NBA ought to be congratulated for emphasising greater partnership with iwi and hapū over natural resource decision making. Upholding Te Oranga o te Taiao is proposed as the overarching purpose of the NBA, and mana whenua are expected to play a greater role in planning during the development of Regional Spatial Strategies. However, iwi and hapū often struggle with their current resource management responsibilities, as they are often small organisations that experience consultation fatigue when asked to participate and contribute to all resource decisions. If greater responsibility is placed on mana whenua, I suggest they will need to be provided with more support to enable them to most effectively participate.”

No conflict of interest

Associate Professor Caroline Miller, Resource & Environmental Planning Programme, School of People, Environment & Planning, Massey University, comments:

“The government, as promised, has produced an early exposure draft of the Natural and Built Environments Bill (NBEB), which reveals the direction of the legislation that will replace the RMA. While detail is missing in some places, it is immediately clear that what is being proposed is revolutionary rather than evolutionary change. This is not a review and rewrite of the RMA but a whole new direction in the management of New Zealand’s natural and built resources. The discussion paper that accompanies the draft bill highlights the presumptions that underlie the reform. Here, there is a stated objective of linking environmental outcomes and planning with achieving better outcomes with regard to housing supply, affordability and choice. While linking planning and housing provision is common overseas, this is the first time it will have been attempted in legislation in New Zealand.

“The NBEB very much reflects the recommendations of the Randerson Report and sets up a structure where a National Planning framework will in effect set the direction for the regionally based Natural and Built Environment Plans. The National Planning Framework as with earlier legislation will deal with matter of national significance but will also provide integrated direction for ‘matters for which national consistency is desirable’. That will achieve the nationally consistent approaches to planning regulations that the business and development sector has long seen as essential. If that is achievable or desirable remains to be seen as it assumes a ‘one size fits all’ approach is possible and practical. It is certainly more difficult to achieve than it might seem given the variety of situations it will apply to.

“The National Planning Framework will be required to address nine specific topics, which include the usual issues such as outstanding natural landscapes, but which will, also, sensibly include a variety of natural hazard and climate change issues plus housing supply and infrastructure services. This will make the National Planning Framework a truly comprehensive document, but as ever, the devil will be in the detail of writing such a plan, given central government has little experience in doing this work. Clearly the Ministry for the Environment will grow substantially. The environmental bottom lines of the RMA have become the environmental limits that will also be set in the National Planning Framework, which may again prove more challenging than the reforms assume. A new feature is the Implementation Principles, which will introduce an extended and more comprehensive approach to recognising and achieving a Te Ao Māori approach to planning and fully recognising Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“Creating the regionally-based National and Built Environment Plans will be undertaken by new Planning Committees, which will also determine the environmental limits for that region. The appointment of these Planning Committees will be central to the maintenance of local democracy given, as the Randerson Report signalled, decision making will be via independent hearings panels. The content of these National and Built Environment Plans will be similar to existing district and regional plans, though presumably again in areas with high growth in particular, they will be bulky and complex documents.

“What is also clear is like the RMA, the NBEB will require changes in the structure of local government, to reassign planning roles and responsibilities largely away from our city and district councils to regional councils which will create and presumably administer the new spatial plans. It will also be required because there is a clear signal that this legislation will also be linked to a variety of other government reforms including the ‘three waters reforms, freshwater allocation including addressing Māori rights and interests, climate change, biodiversity, housing and social infrastructure’, which must surely add to the complexities of trying to fashion effective new legislation.

“Given the revolutionary changes to the planning and resource management system that this proposal represents, connecting it to such a variety of different issues will significantly increase the challenges and time it will take to get the new system working. That may mean that promises of producing a more effective system that will deliver improved environmental outcomes and housing affordability will take longer than predicted. It was promises of this sort that dogged the RMA and helped to ensure that it soon came under pressure to produce outcomes that were never realistic or achievable. It is vital that those mistakes are not repeated with these potentially complex reforms.”

No conflicts of interest declared.