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RMA reforms revealed – Expert Reaction

The Government has introduced two bills meant to replace and simplify the Resource Management Act, one of the most complex pieces of law in New Zealand.

The Natural and Built Environment Bill and the Spatial Planning Bill aim to speed up the resource consenting process, reduce costs, and increase environmental protections. Both bills will now go through a full select committee process, and the Government aims to pass them into law before the next election. The third piece of the reform, the Climate Adaptation Act, will be introduced later.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the announcement.

Associate Professor Linda Te Aho (Ngaati Koroki Kahukura, Ngaati Mahuta, Waikato), University of Waikato, comments:

“There is much to celebrate but continued engagement is required with Iwi and hapuu as the two main pieces of legislation that will replace the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) – the Spatial Planning Bill and Natural and Built Environment Bill – are introduced to Parliament today.

“These bills are the result of an intensive work programme over the past three years, and it is fair to say that there has been opportunity for input from Iwi and hapuu and other Maaori organisations along the way. It is said that the new systems will provide opportunities to plan for positive outcomes rather than simply managing adverse effects.

“From a Maaori perspective, the sheer magnitude of change will require further and deeper analysis now that more detail is available for review. In terms of Maaori advocacy for better environmental outcomes, there are certainly some promising signs. Gone is the lodestar provision for sustainable management, a world-leading inclusion in its time. Now the primary purpose of the legislation is to recognise and uphold Te Oranga o te Taiao. Also strengthened is the requirement to give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, where the current RMA requirement for decision makers was merely to ‘take into account’ the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. There is more provision for hapuu to be included. Other highlights include the move to a new model for water allocation that promises to be more equitable and efficient. The introduction of a polluter pays regime requires further analysis.

“Whilst there is a lot to celebrate in the proposed legislation, an ongoing concern is the complex issue as to how the Crown will honour its commitment not to undermine the intent of Treaty settlement provisions and mechanisms that are explicitly and intrinsically linked to the RMA. Iwi leaders have publicly raised concerns that the regional, collaborative approaches proposed for more effective planning and delivery may not equate in strength to present arrangements. There will need to be more engagement on these particular points.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Linda is an executive board member of Waikato-Tainui and a trustee of Ngaati Koroki Kahukura. This comment is offered in my role as an academic who teaches Tikanga, Maaori Land Law and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights.”

Professor John Tookey, Professor of Construction, Built Environment Engineering, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“In short, if the changes to the RMA deliver what is claimed, then the changes are to be welcomed. There has always been a plethora of consents that have had to be sought that in turn slow down new development activities. Hopefully the fast track consent will help the process of urban development. That said, there is a matching need to develop the infrastructure around the built environment necessary to encourage construction more generally. The devil will be in the detail in terms of housing supply. How the revised legislation is applied will be a challenge to get consistent across the various consenting authorities. Similarly the willingness (or otherwise) of consenting authorities to open up new land for development or support development with water and roading infrastructure will make or break the provision of housing more broadly. Almost inevitably there will be an ongoing need for government to put ‘the thumb on the scale’ in order to get the outcomes desired.”

No conflicts of interest

Professor Iain White, Environmental Planning Programme, University of Waikato, comments:

“I think it is fantastic to see the long-awaited replacement to the RMA finally taking shape. It’s been a huge undertaking and credit goes to the government that sought to move beyond the easy critique of the RMA, to the much harder task of providing a new national planning framework.

“In particular, I am happy to see the government recognise the value of spatial planning, which should increase the ability to integrate different planning aspirations and provide coherence over city-regions and longer timeframes. This new scale of planning will also provide more certainty over infrastructure investment, and so holds potential in increasing our ability to build homes, transition transport practices, or adapt to climate change.

“I am more sceptical as to whether it will provide the three stated goals of being ‘faster, cheaper, and better’, which tends to be the claim of every planning reform process that has ever occurred. While one or two of these may be attainable, I suspect realising all three may prove much more elusive. These efficiencies seem achievable if you understand planning as a technical exercise, but while it is good to see the language of outcomes used, I do wonder if the government underestimate the politics associated with outcomes, from the (re)allocation of space or resources, or the consequent (re)distribution of environmental goods or bads for existing communities. For example, one of the ways that the new legislation seeks to minimise friction is via an increased role for consensus in spatial plans, but there is a 40-year+ history of the problems of consensus seeking in planning, such as how it can gravitate decisions to the mainstream, or privilege those with most power. The selected processes will be one to watch.

“The reality is you can try to streamline planning, but you can never depoliticise the outcomes; views on urban and environmental futures are contested. So overall, yes, it’s an important and welcome milestone – and there was also much in the RMA that could be improved upon – but monitoring how implementation occurs in practice at the regional and local levels will be very important.”

No conflicts of interest

Dr Jenny Webster-Brown, Director, Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, and Vice President, New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, comments:

“While I do not dispute that the application of the RMA has lead to complex and expensive processes for managing our natural resources, it is worth recalling that in 1991 the RMA was itself considered to be a badly needed streamlining and simplification of the existing complex and disparate legislation for managing our natural environment. The philosophy behind the RMA was clear and widely supported, the purpose and principles of the Act were readily understood and the processes and conditions were (largely) well enough described to deliver improved environmental management. However, the devil has proved to be in the detail of its use and application.

“In the most recent version of the RMA, issued in September 2022, the legislation had doubled in length, compared to the original, to accommodate over 150 amendments and other special conditions and exceptions. The complexity of the current Act is not the fault of the Act itself, but because we have allowed detail and case specific interests to overwhelm the original philosophy of the Act. The new Act(s) may well provide a cheaper, faster, more standardised approach to balancing the needs of our natural environment and our built environment (I hope so), but what is to stop it too becoming an increasingly complicated impediment to action over the next 20-30 years?

“Unless we can all commit to adhere to the spirit and intent of environmental legislation, rather than seeking out loopholes that can be exploited for personal or commercial gain and which then need amendments to be made or exceptions to be granted, then we are destined to make the same mistakes all over again.”

No conflicts of interest