The most comprehensive review of New Zealand’s resource management system, since the Resource Management Act (RMA) was passed in 1991, has been released, with major recommendations that will affect how we plan and build our infrastructure.
The new report, ‘New Directions for Resource Management in New Zealand’, was commissioned by Environment Minister David Parker and prepared by an independent review panel led by retired Court of Appeal judge Tony Randerson QC after extensive consultation.
The panel received a range of submissions, engaged widely and was supported by reference groups within natural and rural, built and urban, and te ao Maori, as well as a range of working groups from within central government.
Among its recommendations is the replacement of the existing RMA by two separate pieces of legislation – a Natural and Built Environments Act and a Strategic Planning Act.
Minister for the Environment David Parker says a review of the resource management system has been long overdue. “The RMA has doubled in size from its original length. It has become too costly, takes too long, and has not adequately protected the environment,” he says.
“There are significant pressures on both the natural and built environments that need to be addressed urgently. Urban areas are struggling to keep pace with population growth and the need for affordable housing. Water quality is deteriorating, biodiversity is diminishing, and there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. The review panel has designed tomorrow’s resource management system to deliver better outcomes for the environment, people and the economy.”
Mr Parker says the Government has already made changes to the resource management system in the current three-year term to address issues that could not wait for the comprehensive review. “It is for the next Government to consider the report, and decide which aspects to adopt and decide whether to implement it in whole or in part,” he adds.
However, Mr Parker says, he expects political parties will develop their policies for the upcoming general election campaign in light of the report’s findings.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
The review panel says the proposed new Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA) will take a substantially different approach from the RMA, focusing on enhancing the quality of the environment and housing, and achieving positive outcomes to support the wellbeing of present and future generations.
The proposed Strategic Planning Act would embed integrated spatial planning across all regions of New Zealand. It would set long-term strategic goals and help integrate legislative functions across the resource management system, including the proposed NBEA, the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Management Act and the Climate Change Response Act. This will allow a broad range of matters to be reconciled to ensure better future planning, including for infrastructure and housing.
The review panel also recommends greater use of national direction by the environment minister and a more streamlined process for council plan-making and a more efficient resource consent process. It also proposes a new separate law to address issues related to climate change adaptation and the managed retreat from areas threatened with inundation.
The panel’s view is that any future resource management system should give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti and provide a clearer role for Maori in decision-making.
A FOCUS ON OUTCOMES AND VALUE
Infrastructure NZ CEO Paul Blair says planning reform is a major step forward, but if changes are not also made to local government responsibilities and rewards, then it is difficult to see how plans will be implemented or who will be accountable.
“The NBEA would strengthen the current system by not only seeking to protect the environment, but improve it, and the Strategic Planning Act would give statutory weight to strategic spatial plans and, critically, force reconciliation and alignment across central and local government to ensure implementation. Ultimately, we’ll see something closer to 14 integrated resource management and strategic plans instead of the 100-plus we currently have,” Mr Blair says.
“What is really positive about this proposal is that it will move New Zealand away from the negative and short-sighted ‘effects-based’ planning approach which has dominated the last 30 years and which has seen severe deterioration in housing affordability, infrastructure and environmental performance. We’ll again focus on outcomes and the value created from planning and investment, not just the costs,” he adds.
“However, for plans to be implemented successfully, the organisations overseeing those plans must want them to succeed. The only way to do that is to ensure local councils and other institutions receive a portion of the value they create.
“When considered in parallel with the Covid-19 response and water reform programme, the review panel’s recommendations provide the opportunity for central government to formalise its investment relationship with local government.”
HAMPERING NEW ZEALAND’S PROSPERITY
The property sector, through its professional body Property Council New Zealand, has also welcomed the review panel’s recommendations, with chief executive Leonie Freeman saying the RMA has held back the development of New Zealand cities for far too long.
“New Zealand is simply not building enough, quickly enough, and with the quality and innovation needed to service its growing and changing population. The legal framework in which the wider planning system operates is hampering New Zealand’s prosperity while not providing the right protections to the environment,” Ms Freeman says.
“Currently, the resource management system focuses on the maintenance or management of resources. As a result, this favours the status quo over the needs of the built environment. We believe the future system should aim to streamline implementation and provide clear delivery of outcomes, enabling sustainable growth and opportunities for our communities to thrive.”
While Property Council New Zealand supports the review panel’s recommendation to create the Strategic Planning Act, Ms Freeman says “the devil will be in the detail” as to how spatial plans will be integrated and implemented across the country.
“It is important we get this right in order to achieve outcomes of better integrated planning and infrastructure provision, as well as associated funding and investment. Now more than ever, public and private sector leadership is important to drive a collaborative approach to planning,” she says.
RAPID BUT BETTER URBAN DEVELOPMENT
The EMA says that, following the general election, the new Government must act quickly on the review panel’s recommendations if the country is to transform quickly after the impacts of Covid-19.
“Clearly the RMA is no longer fit for purpose and is failing to protect the environment and failing to enable fast-enough responses to cope with New Zealand’s rapid growth and infrastructure deficit,” says EMA head of advocacy and strategy, Alan McDonald. “The Randerson report has acknowledged those failings and suggests a welcome framework to address those shortcomings.
“With more decisions being made on a planning basis rather than a consents basis, this should allow more rapid but also better urban development, particularly when linked with integrated spatial planning, as recommended in the report,” says Mr McDonald.
“The focus on fewer regional plans will obviously assist with consistent implementation of both new acts, while the use of independent hearing panels, as used in the Auckland Unitary Plan process, will reduce consultation, timeframes and problematic objectors. Getting that balance right will be critical,” he adds.
“Differentiating between significant and minor effects in consenting and simplifying urban development rules will also be welcomed by our members, but just as critical will be the national environmental standards and the stronger monitoring and enforcement, as that will remove uncertainty and reinforce behaviours and standards.”
The full Randerson report is available online https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/rma/new-directions-resource-management-new-zealand