3 Oct 2014

Changing the Resource Management Act

8:47 am on 3 October 2014

The National-led Government is set to push on with its plan for major changes to the Resource Management Act after it failed to get enough support last term. So what was all the fuss about and why couldn't it get enough support?

What does the Government want to do?

Last term, the Government suggested amending the RMA to make it easier to use, reduce unnecessary duplication and cost and attract development "whilst continuing to protect the environment."

Amy Adams.

Environment Minister Amy Adams. Photo: RNZ

Environment Minister Amy Adams said: "The money spent on having to fight to get ahead or to defend your position is money that our households and businesses are missing out on."

The changes proposed included streamlining councils' planning rules and better guidance for them over national priorities such as housing affordability and natural hazards, fewer RMA plans and 10-day time limits for processing simple consents.

But that wasn't the controversial bit. Opponents were worried about fundamental changes to the Act being proposed, saying they would undermine the RMA's purpose - to protect the environment - and give too much weight to economic development.

What are they?

Warning: They're technical - but important as they form the basis of legal decision-making. They include amending the Purpose and Principles of the Act - Sections 6 and 7 in the Act, - which would be combined to become the Principles.

Changes to Section 6 - which requires anyone who makes decisions about the Act to recognise and provide for a range of matters of national importance including:

  • The preservation of the natural character of the coastal environment
  • The protection of outstanding natural features and landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, use and development
  • The protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation
  • The maintenance and enhancement of public access to along coastal marine area, lakes and rivers
  • The protection of historic heritage from inappropriate subdivision, use and development.

The Government wants to change aspects of Section 6 so that any outstanding natural features or significant indigenous vegetation would have to "specified".

And the protection of historic heritage would be changed so those implementing the Act provide and recognise "the importance and value of historic heritage", rather than protect it.

What else would change?

Section 7 of the Act lists other matters that need to be regarded when implementing the Act; The Government proposed that some of those matters would go altogether.

These include removing the requirement for regard to be given to:

  • The maintenance and enhancement of amenity values ( that's how attractive or nice a place is)
  • The intrinsic values of ecosystems
  • Maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment
  • Any finite characteristics of natural and physical resources

Protection of trout and salmon habitat would also be changed so only areas of significant aquatic habitats, would have to be given regard.

What did opponents to the proposed changes say?

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, said the plan would weaken environmental protections and undermine the role of the Resource Management Act.

Jan Wright.

Commissioner Jan Wright. Photo: SUPPLIED

She highlighted the consultation document saying that the "predominance of environmental matters ... may result in an under-weighting of the positive effects ... of certain economic and social activities".

In her submission, Dr Wright said the protection of the environment is the primary role of the Act and a balance where environmental and economic concerns are given equal weight, does not belong in the RMA. "It is not and should not become, an economic development act".

Forest and Bird said the changes to the Act's core "will politicize the RMA for decades, which won't deliver business or the community the certainty it wants and needs".

The Green Party was also firmly opposed, saying the changes would enable development at the expense of the environment.

So would the changes reduce costs?

Eugenie Sage.

The Greens' Eugenie Sage. Photo: GREEN PARTY

Feasibly the changes around getting consents - making national objectives easier for councils to interpret and apply, having simpler consent processes and tight timeframes for them to be dealt with - would help so people can get on with their developments.

But some say the changes to the purposes and principles will undermine all other case law, creating a gold mine for lawyers and a lot more delays.

The Greens' environment spokesperson, Eugenie Sage, says the proposals will "create a lot more cost, we'll have cases taken to the Environment Court, longer decision making times, It's better to leave the purposes and principles as they are".

Why stopped the Government getting the changes through last term?

They didn't have the numbers; they were one vote short as the only support party keen on the proposals was Act. It couldn't get Maori Party support, nor that of United Future's Peter Dunne, because of the changes to Sections 6 and 7.

So legislation was never drawn up and the plan was shelved, but with the promise from National it would push ahead with it, if it got to lead the Government again.

So with a one-vote majority in the House now, all the changes could be passed into law easily?

John Key.

Prime Minister John Key. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Yes. But Prime Minister John Key does say that for this law change - as well as others - he would prefer to build a bigger majority.

"In the end, we'll always reserve the right to pass things 61-60, if we have to. We've done that in the past, passed things by a bare majority but my preference would be to build a bigger consensus with other parties."

The Government has yet to signal what - if any - changes it will make to what it proposed in the last term.

Mr Key says the Government continues to work with environment groups who have concerns, but see favour with other aspects of the proposal.

"As I said on election night, we're going to do our best to govern with the best interests of New Zealanders, accepting that sometimes you can't always meet that test but let's wait and see. I'm feeling reasonably confident about where we're going."

How soon might it happen?

No one from the Government is saying yet, but John Key says reforming the RMA is a priority, just what that legislation will look like, he says, is for another day.

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