Improving our resource management system

  • Amy Adams

Good morning.

Firstly, let me thank you all for joining us this morning and in particular thank John Hassan and Chapman Tripp for hosting us here today.

This morning, I want to give you an overview of the Government’s rationale behind our Resource Management Act work programme, canvas some of our reforms to date, and announce the next phase of reform.

Can I say at the outset that today’s announcements do not include our water reform proposals. These proposals will be separately released in the next few weeks.

I would like to begin by giving you some broader context to where resource management reform sits within the Government’s wider ambitions for New Zealand.

We see effective resource management as critically important to New Zealand’s economic, environmental and social well-being.

Resource management decisions need to ensure that our natural and built resources are used and protected in a way that meet our needs now and for many generations to come.

But the Government continues to hear concerns that resource management processes are cumbersome, costly and time-consuming, and that the system is uncertain, difficult to predict and highly litigious.

Repeatedly, resource management matters rank the lowest of all public services in the Kiwis Count report into customer satisfaction.

The system is difficult for many to understand and use, and in many cases, is actively discouraging investment and innovation.

Frustration with RMA processes is rife and time and time again I hear that they are failing to meet New Zealanders’ expectations.

To put it bluntly, there are too many occasions where the view of one well-funded party manages to derail the decision of a community.

There are too many times when planning happens almost by default as decisions are fought over on a consent-by-consent basis, and too many occasions where inconsistency between multiple plans eats up resources as councils battle between themselves.

In most cases, the issue is not about the decision ultimately reached, it is about the wastage of time and money to get to that decision.

And let’s not kid ourselves that that does not come with real costs – delays and uncertainties means potential new jobs are not being created, houses are more expensive and communities have no idea what to expect in their neighbourhoods.

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.

We see the same arguments being had time and again, with the same lawyers, the same experts and in front of the same judges.

Across the country we have required each of our 78 councils to build their own planning systems from the ground up.

There are a number of underlying efficiency and effectiveness-related problems apparent with the resource management system that have led to this state of affairs.

These problems are by their very nature interlinked and it is their combined, rather than individual impact, that is of most concern.

To me the core issues include:

  • Too many planning documents with wide ranging inconsistency between them
  • Inefficient duplication of effort in developing plans
  • A lack of responsive national guidance on matters of national importance or where the value of consistency outweighs the need for local variation
  • Insufficient attention paid to meeting future needs as opposed to mitigating negative impacts in plans
  • An over-reliance on consents and Environment Court appeals; and
  • High and disproportionate costs of securing and complying with decisions

Let me give you some examples of the frustration that these problems have created across this country.

Many of you here this morning will remember Project Hayes - Meridian Energy’s wind farm proposal. I am not focusing on whether it was a good proposal or not. I want to look just at the process.

It was a $2 billion project, and by the time it was eventually refused by the Environment Court after three years, nearly $9 million had been spent to get to that point.

And that $9 million estimate was just the applicant’s costs. No doubt, there would have been many hundreds of thousands of dollars in community and submitter costs.

The Environment Court made a point in its judgment of criticising the fact that if it were not for the inconsistent and unclear nature of the local plans, much of that cost could have been avoided.

To give an example at the other end of the scale, I am aware of a homeowner who merely wanted to add 4sqm to an existing deck and found that the consenting costs would be $7000.

It is also clear that we have drifted into much over-regulation in RMA planning documents.

For example, I have had reports of rules that stipulate lounge rooms in houses must face the street, heritage zone provisions that apply to a 14 year old Lockwood house, and streetscape rules applied to houses on rear lots, not visible from the street.

And just this week, I was made aware of a council that wanted to dictate the size of the front windows of new houses.

Is this really what sustainable management of our resources is about?

We cannot continue with this approach. We can and must do better.

The Government has already delivered significant improvements to the resource management system.

Our first stage of reform involved 150 amendments to simplify and streamline the RMA.

We reduced late consents from 31% in 2008 to just 5% by 2011, with the number of late consents reduced by about 10,000 a year.

We ended the ‘supermarket wars’, with restrictions on using the RMA for trade competition reasons.

We created the Environmental Protection Authority which enables the efficient processing of major projects of national significance.

The Government is now focussed on tackling more complex challenges, some of which are addressed in the 2012 Resource Management Reform Bill currently before Parliament.

However, to address the core issues with New Zealand’s resource management system, a more systemic review and programme of reform is needed.

So, today, the Government is releasing a discussion document that contains a comprehensive package of resource management reforms that aim to address the problems I have just outlined.

Fundamentally, the reforms are about providing greater confidence for businesses to grow and create jobs, greater certainty for communities to plan for their area’s needs, and stronger environmental outcomes as our communities grow and change.

The reforms within the package are divided into six core objectives:

  • Greater national consistency and guidance
  • Fewer, better resource management plans
  • An effective and efficient consenting system
  • Better natural hazard management
  • Effective and meaningful Māori participation; and
  • Working with councils to improve their RMA service performance

Taken together, the proposals will improve decision-making at every level.

The proposals are a fundamental shift towards more proactive planning for what we need, and away from reactive decisions through consents and court appeals.

The proposals are about ensuring fewer consents are needed and those that are needed are processed in accordance with the scale of their environmental impact.

This will free-up time and resources to devote the most attention to the decisions of greatest impact.

We need better national consistency and guidance.

In New Zealand we have one of the most devolved systems of planning amongst the countries we currently compare ourselves with.

Local government has effectively been left to interpret for themselves what national priorities are, and how they are expected to reflect them.

In our view, there is a place for far greater national leadership and guidance.

Starting at the core of the Act, the principle and other matters contained in sections 6 and 7 of the RMA have remained largely frozen in time and can no longer be said to cover everything that is important to New Zealand or to our communities.

A single and updated set of principles to guide planning and decision-making to replace the out of date Sections 6 and 7 is proposed.

Where there is a matter of national significance that needs local action but has not been able to be adequately addressed, for example residential land supply in Auckland, the existing tools have proved inadequate for quick and effective central government action.

Changes are also proposed that will clarify and extend central government powers to direct plan changes where appropriate, for example including national as well as local priorities.

These powers would be more flexible than the current tools, and will make sure that the country's priorities are included in local planning.

To ensure councils have clear guidance to follow on important issues, improvements to National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards would allow them to target specific areas of the country that face nationally-important issues.

We need fewer, better plans.

New Zealand’s 78 local authorities have more than 170 resource management planning documents covering 2272 different zones, management areas or policy overlays. By comparison, Scotland, with 5.2 million people, has just 37 comparable planning documents.

The Government proposes to introduce a single resource management plan per district, incorporating local and regional planning, removing the current requirement for separate district and regional plans.

The single district plan would be future focused, would be required to address important issues such as housing availability, and improve public participation up front.

It is also proposed that those plans would follow a common template within five years. The template would be designed to allow for local issues and priorities, but makes sure the plan includes future priorities, manages for both positive and negative effects of development, addresses everything a plan should in one place, and includes wider regional and national issues.

This template is also likely to prescribe standardised terminology and definitions, removing the need, for example, to have multiple and contradictory definitions of what ground level is across neighbouring Councils.

Councils could also opt to work together to develop a fully-integrated plan covering a wider area, such as a region with common issues and goals, or a water catchment, if they choose. This would integrate the various district and regional council rules for their area.

These changes will mean that plans will be structured consistently across the country, and provide a single source of truth for the rules affecting any particular area, making them easier for people to understand their obligations and for councils to deliver.

We need more efficient and effective consenting.

For some consents such as extending a deck, the current system can be slow and expensive.

To address this issue, a new 10-day limit for some categories of consents would be introduced with a simplified process for applicants and councils to have to follow.

Where consents have been notified, submissions and appeals would be restricted to the issues that required notification and Environment Court appeals would no longer be carried out on a de novo basis but instead would be done as the more common merit appeals.

These changes not only help focus consent decisions on the specific issues in question, but also actively encourage community engagement up front in plan development processes.

A new ‘approved exemption’ category is also proposed allowing councils to easily certify that technical breaches of rules or those that are very minor can be progressed without the need for a full formal consent.

New rules would also improve the transparency around consent fees, control the reach of consent conditions and make the Environment Protection Authority's nationally-significant proposals process most cost effective.

Where, despite best efforts, major issues still appear unlikely to be resolved quickly enough, we are considering the establishment of an alternative crown agency to process some types of consents. An obvious example would be considering the role such a body could take in freeing up residential land supply in Auckland while the Unitary plan process is worked through.

We need faster Environment Court decisions.

The Environment Court process has often been relied on to resolve complex and substantial issues of the application of community values, instead of the issues being worked through in some detail when plans are prepared.

A new system of developing plans is focused on reducing reliance on courts making decisions instead of communities, but the Environment Court will still be needed to resolve some complex issues.

To prevent decisions taking longer than necessary, the Environment Court’s existing power to enforce agreed time frames would be increased - for example the time period for exchanging evidence.

Existing requirements for alternative dispute resolution would be strengthened, and the full potential benefits of electronic case management delivered.
We need better natural hazard management.

We need to manage the risks of all natural hazards effectively to ensure businesses and communities are resilient to their effects. Currently, planning and consents only have to consider some of the hazards we face.

Taking lessons from Canterbury and the findings of the Canterbury Earthquake Commission, this reform package includes providing greater national consistency and guidance as well as improved planning to manage natural hazards. Resource consents would be required to consider the risks of all natural hazards.

We need effective and meaningful Māori participation.

There are many examples of Māori participating successfully in resource management processes. However, around the country practises vary considerably and in some cases appear ad hoc.

In areas with settled treaty claims, individual arrangements have often been put in place and these will remain unaffected. In other areas, however, clear expectations need to be set.

It is our view that Māori interests and values should be considered earlier in resource management planning processes with solutions developed up front.

Unless it already exists, Councils will be required to establish an arrangement that gives Māori the opportunity to directly provide advice during the development of plans.

Māori will also be involved when developing national environmental standards, as they already are with national policy statements.

We need to work with councils to improve their RMA performance.

If we are to improve our understanding of how the Resource Management Act is working in practice across the country, we need to be asking the right questions and monitoring performance.

Improved guidance is being developed by the Ministry for the Environment in collaboration with councils.

This system is likely to specify key performance indicators and clarify what the government and the community expects from councils.

Councils will be required to publish these key performance metrics so we can all identify and learn from best practice around the country, and communities can see the performance of their council.

Taken as a package, these reforms will deliver a clearer, better, faster and lower cost resource management system for New Zealanders that meets our needs environmentally, socially and economically, now and into the future.

Over the next month, I will be taking part in a number of meetings and hui throughout New Zealand, with councils, iwi, businesses, organisations and the public.
May I conclude by noting that the RMA is now 22 years old.

It was an innovative approach at that time, an enabling flexible approach that wouldn’t seek to proscribe behaviour but would permit most things as long as environmental bottom lines were met.

It is still a laudable goal, but the reality has not lived up to the vision of the original architects.

This morning, I have not, of course, attempted to describe every part of the proposals but to focus on the largest of them.

I hope you all have the opportunity to read through the discussion document and engage with us through the process.

I have no doubt the debate will be robust and the views strongly held but unless we ask the hard questions and challenge the core assumptions the status quo is all we can ever expect and it is my view that we can have a system that does so much more.

Thank you.