A developer’s wet dream: even with concessions, the RMA reforms are an environmental disaster

In an example of life imitating art, the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill has been resuscitated like every big screen Marvel character you thought had died (except Quicksilver. No great loss). This bill to amend the Resource Management Act has been a source of some embarrassment to the Government as it asphyxiated in the Select Committee. The National government are not used to losing, and the Opposition are not used to winning, so it was uncomfortable to everyone. But in the last ten days, the Māori Party have concluded their negotiations with the Government and agreed to vote for the bill. This will likely see it pass into law in early 2017 (though the Kaikōura Earthquake may well delay the legislative programme). It is probably worth a few minutes of your time understand what those amendments might mean.

Firstly, we need to understand the purpose of the Resource Management Act (RMA). This internationally admired piece of environmental protection legislation’s intent is the sustainable management of natural and physical resources, which means “managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety,” with the following considerations:

  • “sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
  • safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and

  • avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.”

First and foremost, the RMA was designed to protect the environment by providing guidance and safeguards to local and central government. My primary criticism is that the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, whether intentionally or consequentially, changes the purpose of the RMA. None of the concessions gained by the Māori Party will avoid this outcome. The RMA will move from legislation to protect the environment to legislation for land development. I was not exaggerating in my title to get you to click on my blog: these reforms are a disaster for Aotearoa New Zealand’s already stressed natural environment.

There are 40 proposed amendments. These amendments will lead to the following reforms:

  1. Fees: there will be a fixed schedule of fees for consents so that you know what you are likely to pay, and there will be less duplication between financial and development contributions expected by councils. This is great, as the latter are often just revenue gathering exercises with no obvious benefit to the people applying for consent.
    Rating: “go you good thing!”
  2. National Planning template: currently, local councils are in the driver’s seat in developing council plans for their local district. The proposed template will guide council plans by providing an expected structure, format and standard content for all plans. The intention is to reduce variation in interpretation. Reducing variation sounds sensible, but moving authority from local to central government also means that local democracy and local context are trumped by the national policy statements and national environmental standards. Potentially this could be positive or negative, depending on the standards of the government in power, but what is worrying and is a theme of all the reforms, is the strong commitment to “reduce the time” around the process. The Māori Party have negotiated scaling back the ministerial powers over council plans, which hopefully brings more equilibrium to that relationship.
    Rating: “sure, fine, whatever.”
  3.  Transforming the decision-making process: currently, there is one process for resource consents. It is criticised as very long, expensive, and murky. It doesn’t provide any real scaling of the process of granting consents, so a relatively simple consent, for example building closer to your boundary, goes through essentially the same process as draining and digging out a swamp to build a marina. Yes, the former is likely to attract less interested parties and less public scrutiny than the latter, but the process is not substantially different and if your neighbours hate you (be honest, you probably deserve it), they can make your life a consenting hell. So the proposal is to create the streamlined planning process and the collaborative planning process.
    The streamlining planning process will mean that local councils can ask the Minister for the Environment for a plan-making process that suits their local circumstances. The examples used of this are the consenting processes in Christchurch post-earthquake and Auckland around Special Housing Zones. Both of those examples provide an insight into what streamlining is for: allowing more land development more quickly. It has entered the Government’s head that a local council may ask for a streamlining planning process to make it easier to deny certain types of land development in protection of the environment. Again, this is about reducing time for land development.
    The collaborative planning process is to bring groups together to develop a combined view to advise local government before things end in the Environment Court. Tellingly, the example they’ve used are the fresh water forums, an example that has been a demonstrable failure as there has been no agreement on the status and ownership of fresh water. All the forums did was give the Government an illusion of consultation whilst excluding their harshest critics. If this is a model for a collaborative planning process, then expect to see groups like Forest and Bird marginalised and caricatured as unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate. The Māori Party has gained an important concession with the mandatory appointment of Environment Court judge to oversee the process; at least there will be one ostensibly objective player.
    The other important concession the Māori Party gained is the Iwi Participation Agreements, and particularly the concession that consultation for iwi is increased from six to 18 months. I sit on a iwi board, and it can often take at least six months to figure out what the implications of a proposed consent are with our own advice and talking to our own beneficiaries before we formulate a position and desired mitigation. People warbling on about separatism need to spend a bit of time understanding the post-settlement environment; Māori are Treaty partners, not an ethnic minority or a concerned party, and need be treated as a partner by the Crown locally and nationally.
    Rating: “You keep using that word, collaboration. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
  4. Speeding up consents: the amendments propose “proportionality” in issuing resource consents, and this is the area I have the most problem with. This will fundamentally change the purpose of the Act. The proposal is that there is a 10 day time limit for “simple, fast track” applications where the effects are “minor.” In addition, councils can waive the need for a consent in some instance, and set limits on who can be an interested party and who can appeal a consent decision. Whilst the Māori Party gained a concession that restored some rights of appeal, this is at odds with the purpose of the current RMA as it prioritises land development over the natural environment. It is particularly galling that the amendments open up restrictions on subdividing land by allowing subdivision unless specifically restricted, the complete opposite of the status quo, and offsetting environmental effects will only occur if volunteered by the applicant. In English: in most instances you can subdivide land if you want to, no matter what those around you think, and you will probably only have to mitigate the impacts if you want to.
    Rating: “shit just got real.”
My sincere concern is the loss of an important tool for environmental protection with the proposed amendments in the decision making processes and speeding up consents. The Government clearly deciding that they want to reduce the time it takes to get consents so that people can develop land more quickly. They operate on the presumption that the natural environment is just one resource to be used for economic growth and development, rather than a public good and a living entity that begs our protection more than our exploitation. There is no surprise there, but I am always surprised at their ability to ride out any criticism of the management of our natural environment in Aotearoa New Zealand. I suspect it is because the Government actually represents the views of the majority of voters: the environment is not as important as being able to afford more toys. In aid of that, the Government wants to reduce the avenues for us to delay their economic programme, which is to say they want to reduce democracy. The removal of democratically appointed councilors to Environment Canterbury is a testament to the belief that even our democracy serves the economy, and we will see more of the same in the future.
I can understand the satisfaction of the Māori Party with the concessions they have gained, and as I noted above, some of them are important checks on otherwise problematic amendments. As iwi are now increasingly sizeable corporate players, their support of the Māori Party position is also par for the course; they will benefit from a process that reduces the time and restrictions on the development of their land. But it is a step to far to say that these concessions will benefit all New Zealanders. The RMA will not be a tool for environmental protection once the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill is enacted. And our grandchildren will all suffer the consequences of our disregard and exploitation of Papatūānuku; I doubt they will think kindly of us for our actions today.
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2 thoughts on “A developer’s wet dream: even with concessions, the RMA reforms are an environmental disaster

  1. Kia ora Graham – My understanding is the Māori Party in their efforts to assert ‘Iwi’ rights have overlooked the rights of the everyday Māori to participate into the planning process either via whanau trusts / hapu trusts or even just as an individual? Have these been negotiated out? In the previous legislation is was explicit that Iwi (as determined by an Iwi Authority ..ie..Crown construct) AND MĀORI could participate. That it was my treaty right.

    So effectively if this is the case, you have the Crown talking with itself being Crown established Iwi authorities and not withstanding this ….. why should my whanau need to convince my Iwi of the merits of opposing a resource consent to enter the process OR heavens forbid, I/my whanau have a different view-point from the commercially minded / fence-sitting / waiting in the wings to see if King Salmon get their consent for sea farms in Marl Sounds Iwi…..

    1. Kia ora, thanks for your substantial contribution. This is a great insight,and reflects an iwi bias in our national leadership at the expense of our whānau and hapū.

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