RMA changes tilt the balance

9:15 pm on 22 January 2015

Two years after the Government abandoned plans to overhaul the Resource Management Act it is now set to make sweeping changes to tilt the balance more towards development.

Its approach was announced by Environment Minister Nick Smith in a speech to the Nelson Rotary Club this week.

In 2013 the then Environment Minister, Amy Adams, had to drop plans to change the RMA when she failed to gain the support of the Maori Party and United Future.

While ACT supported the proposal, the Government did not have the numbers in Parliament to pass its proposed legislation.

Today it is a different story. Together National and ACT now have a one-seat majority in Parliament so can proceed with whatever changes they like.

Nick Smith says he wants to build a broader consensus for the new legislation by winning the support of the Maori Party and United Future.

But neither minor party has any leverage when it comes to negotiations over the final details of what will replace the RMA.

Dr Smith has made it clear the Government will proceed with its plan with or without the support of the Maori Party and United Future.

When the RMA was last up for review the two minor parties, plus opposition parties, opposed the Government's plan to change the principles of the Act.

Those principles in sections 6 and 7 of Part 2 of the existing law set out the approach that should govern the consideration of planning applications.

In the Government's view, those principles weigh too heavily in favour of the environment and too much against developers.

In his speech Dr Smith put it this way:

"The idea that the only consideration in resource consenting is protection of nature is naive. This is not the National Parks Act. When consideration is being given to allow a new factory, a new road, a new marine farm, a mine or a new tourism attraction, we need to carefully weigh up the effects on the environment alongside the benefits of economic growth and jobs."

The Government is particularly keen that changes it proposes to make will help speed up housing developments and take pressure off property prices.

Dr Smith released research commissioned by the Treasury which calculated that the requirements of the RMA added $30,000 to the cost of an apartment and $15,000 to a section. He believes by relaxing the rules land will become available more quickly and reduce the cost of new housing.

Other political parties are not opposed to making changes to the RMA. They support proposals to streamline the rules to make it easier and quicker for projects to be considered. But they do not support loosening environmental standards.

The United Future leader, Peter Dunne, is particularly worried by Dr Smith's announcement.

Mr Dunne had been reassured by comments the Prime Minister, John Key, made after the formation of his third term government. Last November Mr Key spoke about "moderate and pragmatic" changes to the law.

But Mr Dunne says that seems to have all changed.

"National's blunderbuss attempts to obliterate the RMA, egged on by ACT which fears National is not going far enough, are obscuring the vast areas of agreement for change across the political spectrum, upon which a responsible package of change could be developed," he says.

It is likely that National has been emboldened by last year's election result. While Mr Dunne and the Maori Party had influence in 2013 this year they effectively have none as National need only rely on ACT to vote for its pro-development changes.

The Government still has to work through the detail of its proposed changes to the RMA. Just what Bill finally gets introduced to Parliament this year will signal how pragmatic and moderate Mr Key is prepared to be this term.

It will also signal to United Future and the Maori Party just what influence they might hope to have on the Government over the next three years.

Meanwhile, Dr Smith remains confident the proposed changes will help rein in property prices and make housing, particularly for first home buyers, more affordable.

If he is right it would boost National's chance of winning a fourth term in 2017. But if he is wrong?

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