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RMA Reform Is Back On The Table

Madeleine de Young – December 14, 2015

It may have taken seven years but Resource Management Act (RMA) reform is back on the table and this time the house means business.

On the 3rd of December the RMA Reform Bill passed it’s first reading by 92 votes to 14. The government failed to get the backing of its support partners but notably was able to progress the law changes with votes from the Māori Party and Labour.

Previous attempts to enact RMA reform had stalled over proposed changes to section(s) six and seven of the Act. These sections outline the principles of the Act and it was feared that changes to these would equate to the introduction of competition within the Act between commercial and environmental concerns.

In late November after some negotiation, the Māori Party agreed to back proposed changes to the RMA if the significant changes to sections six and seven were removed from the proposed bill.

Dr Nick Smith, Environment Minister acknowledges that the bill is a compromise.

“And they [the Maori Party] felt very strongly about the provisions that National had proposed in section six and seven.

“There were eight changes that were in the proposals that were put up in 2013 that were not in the bill as a consequence of their advocacy.”

The Māori Party were also able to secure the introduction of ‘iwi participation plans’. These require that when councils initiate the planning process they are required to sit down with iwi and come to an agreement about the way in which iwi will be included.

The Māori Party said iwi were not looking to introduce more barriers to development or planning, but rather wanted to be involved from the outset so as to prevent problems further down the track.

The Labour Party also supported reforms at the first reading. Labour’s new environment spokesman, ‘David Parker said,

“We have always said we would support sensible process improvements to the RMA. We are pleased National lost the battle to undermine the core environmental protections in the Act. These process changes are modest and will do little to fix the causes of the housing crisis. But they will have some positive impacts around the margins.”

National support partners, the ACT Party and United Future did not vote in support of RMA reform. ACT Party leader David Seymour objected to ‘tinkering’ by the Māori Party. United Future leader, Peter Dunne has long opposed RMA reform in it’s current shape and said that while there were ‘worthwhile’ measures in the bill, it remains incoherent.

At the Environmental Compliance Conference in November, RMA architect, Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC lamented the constant tinkering with the Act that had seen it grow from 382 pages in 1991 when it was passed to 682 pages in September 2015. The Act as it currently stands is unwieldy and weighed down with amendment after amendment.

“There is much about the RMA that needs to be fixed. But the fixes lie in better plans and better processes, not in altering the environmental bottom lines. The legislative history of the Act since 1991 demonstrates a picture of confusion and inadequate law-making processes that have failed to address important problems. The machinery of government seems not to have been been up to the task. Failure to make policy statements and environmental standards handicapped the legislation and left local authorities wandering in the wilderness. It is important to rectify these weaknesses. Many of the political reactions that led to amending acts for the RMA over the years have made the legislation worse not better. Constant fiddling debilitates both the Act and its administration…

My great hope is that the task of integration is done once, done right and not hurried. Much time has already been wasted. The dawning realisation that New Zealand has become a complex place has been some time in arriving. The pressures that greater population exerts on the environment, coupled with the development of much larger cities, brings new challenges. The ingrained New Zealand pattern of quick legislative cut and fill needs to be abandoned and some enduring legislative designs engaged with. This will involve sorting out the confused pattern of local government and the legal controls over it,” Sir Geoffrey Palmer, speaking at the Environmental Compliance Conference 2015 in Auckland.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s full speech, ‘Ruminations on the problems with the Resource Management Act’ is available to read in full online. 

The RMA Reform Bill now goes to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee for consideration. There is an opportunity for the public to give input during the select committee process. The select committee will be receiving submissions until 14 March 2016.

For more information on the submissions process, visit the Ministry for the Environment website. 

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