Overhauling the resource management system

  • Hon David Parker

Welcome and thank you all for coming.

I have called this press conference today to announce the Government’s plan to comprehensively overhaul the resource management system.

Close to 30 years after the RMA was passed it is not working as well as was intended.

It takes too long.

It costs too much.

It has not protected the environment.

It is unacceptable for this cornerstone law to be underperforming in a country that values protection of the environment while properly housing our people.

Our aim is to produce a revamped law fit for purpose in the 21st Century that will cut complexity and cost while better protecting our environment.

Plan making processes take too long, often longer then the three year term of the democratically elected councils that are meant to be responsible for them.

Ad hoc remedies for Environment Canterbury then Christchurch following the earthquake and for Auckland following amalgamation and now for both the new Urban Development Authority and for water plans to protect water quality show the need for reform.

While not the sole cause of the housing crisis, planning rules are partly to blame.

Restrictive planning rules are also curbing good urban design outcomes.

Environmental outcomes have been disappointing. Freshwater quality has been going backwards. Similarly with wetlands. New Zealand lost 90 per cent of our wetlands outside of national Parks a century ago. Sadly last year Environment Aotearoa’s report showed we lost another twentieth of those left.

There has been too little spatial planning[1] around growing urban populations. The cumulative effect of intensification of land use on water has been poorly managed.

It is clear on many fronts that the system has not delivered the outcomes New Zealanders expect and deserve.

Numerous amendments to the RMA since 1991 have added complexity. It’s now close to twice its original length, rendered the RMA more and more unwieldy to interpret, and hampering its effective implementation.

There is frustration with the lack of alignment between the RMA and the Land Transport Act and Local Government Acts and with the failure to protect environmental bottom lines.

The current limitations of the RMA have been well-researched in a number of recent reports, including two from the Productivity Commission - Better Urban Planning and Using Land for Housing inquiries - and the OECD’s 2017 Environmental Performance by the Environmental Defence Society with input from Infrastructure NZ, the Property Council and the Northern EMA also highlights the need for change, suggests alternative ways in which we could do things differently.

The Government already has a wide-ranging work programme underway to improve freshwater quality, urban development, the protection of highly productive land, indigenous biodiversity and to reduce waste. These were urgent and some changes could not wait for comprehensive RMA reform.

Take water quality for example. Currently over half our regional councils are not confident of completion of plan changes to give effect to the current (and inadequate) Freshwater NPS by 2025. Most have either extended their timeframe to 2030 or indicated that they might need to do so.  That NPS was promulgated by the last government in 2017 – plainly delays of this sort are one of the reasons water quality has continued to decline.

So we will press ahead with changes that will ensure plans needed to give effect to a new National Policy Statement on Freshwater can be put in place with tighter timeframes.

All of this shows the need for more comprehensive reform. We need to create a system that better enables economic growth within environmental limits and which aligns the economy with the environment.

Further ad hoc patch-ups and work-arounds are not the answer.

A thorough overhaul of the law is.

The review needs to address urban development, environmental bottom lines, and effective – but not overly complex – participation, including by Maori.

The aim is to produce a proposal for resource management reform by mid-2020. This will include drafting for key sections of the new Act.

The proposals will build on the Government’s wider work programme across freshwater, climate change and urban development, to ensure reforms come together as a coherent package.

The overhaul will be led by a Resource Management Review Panel. I am pleased to announce the chair will be retired Appeal Court Judge Hon Tony Randerson, who brings extensive resource management and legal expertise to the task. He will be joined by a panel who will work with officials to develop proposals for reform.

What the review needs to do

The review will focus first and foremost on the RMA itself. It will also include how that law interacts with the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Act and the Climate Change Response Act.

We will consider whether or not we need a new urban development law separate from a law to manage natural resources like rivers and soils.

Also in scope is whether the crucial Part 2– or its equivalent – should sit in the RMA or in a separate piece of law. Part 2 sets out the principles and purposes of the act and sets the objective of “sustainable management”. Subsequent legal cases have helped clarify what it means. We will take care not to unnecessarily discard those legal precedents.

We will address issues relating to climate change and urban tree protection. Consideration will be given to accountability mechanisms needed to ensure councils can exercise democratic control of their planning departments to combat the cultural problems that the Productivity Commission said is hindering better outcomes.

The public will have the opportunity to have a say on review proposals, before any legislative changes are made.

The draft terms of reference and two related Cabinet documents have been released today. While we await the panel’s work, by mid-2020, some interim changes are necessary to remedy and remove some of the unnecessary complexity introduced by the previous National government. Over nine years it failed to achieve any substantive improvements to the system – and in some ways made it worse.

So a targeted RMA Amendment Bill will be introduced in the next few months that will reverse some of the changes made by the previous government in 2017. It will increase certainty, restore previous public participation opportunities, and improve RMA processes.

For example:

It will restore the ability of sub-dividers to appeal against unreasonable conditions imposed by councils. Changes made by the previous government perversely incentivise developers to make non-compliant applications in order to preserve appeal rights.

It will ensure those who pollute the environment are held to account for their actions by increasing infringement fees, increasing timeframes for councils to file prosecution charges, and by giving the EPA information gathering powers.

 And it will acknowledge councils’ autonomy by repealing the excessive regulation-making powers that enabled the Minister for the Environment to override council rules. Of course the ability to give national direction is preserved.

Most significantly, it will support the delivery of the Government’s Essential Freshwater programme by introducing a new planning process for regional plan changes needed to protect freshwater. This will assist regional councils to protect our rivers, lakes and aquifers from pollution, by getting new water quality standards in place years earlier than they otherwise would be.

I have said it many times before, and I truly believe that if, with all our advantages, New Zealand can’t overcome its environmental problems, then the world won’t. Our Resource Management System is pivotal to achieving that.


[1] Spatial planning is a high-level strategy for developing a region that relates to its geography to achieve environmental, social, economic, and cultural outcomes.