Resource Management Act Reform

Environment

President Peter, Prime Minister, Board members, colleagues and most importantly, delegates. Good morning.

There is no doubt that the Resource Management Act is a critical piece of legislation.

It must protect our natural environment and the qualities we hold dear as New Zealanders, while encouraging a successful economy and enabling a vibrant built environment.

As well as being environmental legislation is it also our key piece of planning legislation and it forms the basis for the decisions that determine what we can do on our land and has a huge impact on whether our communities will get what they need day to day; be that jobs, houses, infrastructure, recreation spaces  or other facilities.

And I believe that in this respect the system that has developed over the past 22 years is not serving us well.

Instead of enabling a strong housing supply - it is slowing or blocking development when it is desperately needed.

Instead of encouraging investors to create jobs - it is discouraging them with uncertainty, bureaucracy and delays.
Instead of protecting our communities and businesses with strong modern infrastructure - it hinders projects of all sizes with unnecessary costs, delays and process.

I’m sure most of you have heard the stories.  And the reason we all know them is because they are everywhere.

A recent Statistics New Zealand survey highlighted that potentially $800million of projects hadn't proceeded over the 2 years studied, not because they were a bad idea or didn't make the grade, but because applicants often found it just too frustrating to work their way through the RMA.

Closer to home, we all have our own RMA horror stories. Some recent ones I have come across include:
•       A $3500 consent being needed to do an $800 job to remove a chimney to help quake safe a home
•       Or $7000 in consent costs to add a further 4m to an existing deck
•       Needing a resource consent and an arborist’s report to trim a tree in your own backyard,
•       Heritage protections applied to a 14year old Lockwood home,
•       A consent being needed for a sea plane to do a one-off touch and go landing on a harbour
•       And visual streetscape rules applied to a back section not visible from the street.

It is no wonder public satisfaction with the RMA has consistently been ranking as the lowest across all public services measured by the Kiwis count survey.

And when we hear reports of the sometimes millions of dollars spent on these processes we need to remember that that is something each one of us pays in one way or another; either through our rates, our taxes, or in increased prices for our power, food or houses.

Did you know for example that a recent study of one council showed more than 20% of applications for new building consents were being held up while owners were put to the time and expense of having to also go and get resource consent for some, usually minor, breach of a plan rule

Somehow an argument seems to have built up that because of its role in protecting the natural environment we should ignore the failings of the RMA in providing an efficient and efficient planning system. 

I cannot accept that.

To claim that economic considerations have no place in the RMA is frankly ludicrous and ignores the very wording of the purpose section of the Act.

But I see no reason why we can’t have a system that safeguards New Zealand’s stunning environment while still ensuring we meet the wider needs of our people.

We have to move away from the misguided belief that seems to have developed that the more time and money that gets spent on a process, somehow the better the outcome will be.

Can it be right that a small number of people, if they have enough money, can re-litigate and hold up what the community has decided, sometimes for years at a time?

We currently have one of the most highly devolved planning systems amongst countries we compare ourselves to.

And this system, under which successive Governments have been largely hands off, has become incredibly complex to the point where I challenge anyone to be able to work out with any certainty, what they can and cannot do on their land.

It might interest you to know that for our 4.5million people we have more than 170 different planning documents across 78 councils that are often duplicative or inconsistent. 
Compare that with Scotland which has 5.3 million people but just 37 equivalent planning documents.

This is a symptom of a very real problem.

When the RMA becomes the basis on which Councils look to
•       Take their own stance on national laws they don’t agree with or
•       make rules about how big the front windows can be in our homes, or
•       the placement of lounges within houses or
•       whether a kid can build a tree house...

…we have to ask whether that really is the enabling, effects-based regime that was to allow almost anything to occur as long as the effects on the environment could be properly mitigated, that the original architects of the Act promised back in 1991.

As we currently sit, each Council across the country builds its own planning framework from the ground up, and develops a multitude of plans through long drawn-out processes.

Despite that, many of the actual decisions end up being made on a consent-by-consent basis as issues come through the door.
This means no-one in the community - be they homeowner, business or council – can have a real sense of how the community is going to develop over the years ahead.

Planning has tended to become reactive rather than proactive meaning many more consents are needed than might otherwise be the case.

 And communities find as well as engaging in the community plan process, they may have to re-litigate their position at many consent hearings.

And how do communities go about working out how well their council is performing in providing for our social, cultural, economic and environmental needs?

Under the RMA, councils make decisions with huge implications on things that matter to us all like house prices, job availability, air and water quality.

 But it’s almost impossible to measure how the decisions they make are impacting locally on these critical issues. So ratepayers and residents find it hard to tell how well their council is managing the things communities care about.

Our reforms are focused on taking away much of the uncertainty, time and cost from the RMA and creating a system that enables growth while ensuring important environmental standards are maintained.

Since 2008 we have already made some great strides in streamlining and simplifying consenting processes for projects of national significance and ensuring that more local consents are processed on time.

We ended the supermarket wars and now we are ensuring that major planning decisions are backed by robust information and a full consideration of all the impacts of those decisions.

Today I am announcing the third stage of our RMA reforms which we intend to introduce as a Bill to parliament later this year

In essence these reforms will;

•       Bring in a simplified planning framework with central government providing greater direction and consistency, in the form of a national planning template, leaving local decision makers to focus on how those frameworks should apply in their local communities.

As part of this we will be revising and consolidating the current sections 6 and 7 of the Act into a single set of matters of national importance.

•       We will require plans to be more proactive so that more decisions are made up front and fewer consents will be needed

•       and, as the Prime Minister has already told you, where consents are required we will ensure the costs and processes are streamlined and proportionate to the activity so that projects aren't held up or made to cost more than they need to.

•       we will require a single plan to be created between councils and made available electronically so property owners can more easily understand what all the rules that affect them are

•       We will require Councils to engage better with their communities and local iwi in their planning so that fewer drawn out legal battles are needed for communities to feel heard.

•       We will make councils more accountable to their communities for how they are meeting local environmental, cultural, social and economic needs… by requiring better reporting and benchmarking against indicators such as vacant section availability and prices, local employment information, water and air quality indicators, and so on.

•       We will require better consideration of natural hazards in planning learning the lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes and picking up the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

We are determined to create a system that’s more certain, less costly, and enables growth while protecting core environmental standards which are so critical to New Zealand.

By providing clear national direction on issues of importance across New Zealand, or where the benefits of consistency outweigh the need for local variation, we will allow communities to focus their energy and resources more effectively on local application of issues.

This will give councils greater power to act decisively and get on with implementing plans once they are in force, and create certainty for communities and applicants about what they can and can’t do.
This is all quite high level, so let me give you an example of what this will mean on the ground.

As a homeowner, if you want to add another bedroom to your house or build a retaining wall, right now you might have to read the regional policy statement, the regional plan, and then your local council’s plan and figure out how they fit together.  What a nightmare!

We’ll insist every council simplifies the rules into one document. 

So for example if you are working with your local council to comply with their rules for earthworks, you won't subsequently find there is a different and inconsistent set of rules for earthworks buried in a regional plan somewhere that also apply.

And under our new national plan template, which will be compulsory, if information about retaining walls is in chapter seven in Invercargill it would also be in chapter seven in Hamilton.

And how you measure ground height would be the same in both places, leaving the community to focus their discussion simply on how high the wall can be.

This means that for a small business working across different councils, such as a residential builder, these plans will be easier to use, and definitions would be applied consistently across the country.

The reforms in total cover a number of aspects and today we are releasing a summary document that sets each of these out but for now let me mention a number of others I think are worth highlighting;

We will require councils to set and publish a list of fixed fees for simple consent applications and to publicly report on consent charges and costs. This means that for most consents, people will know the cost of the council’s work in advance.

As you have heard from the Prime Minister, we will introduce a 10-day fast-track consent process for the simplest and most straightforward projects that have few environmental effects, such as alternations to residential properties

And we will allow councils to exempt projects from the need to obtain resource consents, on a case-by-case basis where a rule is breached in a technical or marginal way but any effects on the environment and people would be negligible.

We will also be improving the process for determining resource consents at Council level and through the appeal process.

We will be legislating for the reforms already announced as part of our programme to better manage New Zealand's freshwater built of the back of the successful Land and Water Forum,

And we will make it clear that as hazardous substances and new organisms are comprehensively regulated on a national basis, councils should not use the RMA to set up their own independent regulatory frameworks for these things.

Following feedback on the discussion document, we have made a number of changes. 

We have made amendments to the proposed list of matters of national importance, and we have made it clear how and when the minister can intervene in plan processes, and that such intervention does not permit the minister to write plan content.

It is also not the Government’s intention to proceed with the alternative appeals tribunal or Crown consenting agency canvassed in the discussion document.

Of course I am sure our opponents will still want to measure how we are caring for our environment by how many hundreds of millions of dollars get spent each year on lawyers, consultants and planners and lost opportunity.

And I am sure there will be howls of outrage from some of those that have made a nice industry from the very complexity we are seeking to address.

But in our view, these changes represent a long-overdue tune up of a 20 year-old Act.

They are designed to ensure that we identify what we need and plan for it - and that good decisions can be made more quickly while ensuring we continue to protect New Zealand's natural beauty.

They are about ensuring the sustainable management of our resources to better meet the needs of our communities - social, cultural, environmental and economic.

Thank You.