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RMA moving with the times

A select panel has examined the Resource Management Act to identify areas of weakness and suggest potential improvements. The panel’s recommendations for increasing the efficacy of resource consents came late last year. In addition, in early May the Government announced a temporary fast-track consenting process in response to Covid-19

The panel, chaired by retired Appeal Court judge Tony Randerson, reported back with a list of key issues and options for reform to resource management systems and the Resource Management Act (RMA). Presented in November 2019, the report stated the panel was expected to deliver reform proposals to the RMA by mid-2020, including draft legislative provisions.

A system in need of change

Environment Minister David Parker said the review accurately identifies what changes are needed to fix the system, and a number of its suggestions reflect a wide range of possibilities in improving the RMA.

“The RMA is responsible for managing our built and natural environment, and it has been underperforming,” said Parker. “It costs too much, it takes too long and it has not protected the environment.”

Challenges for the RMA

“Much has changed since the RMA was introduced in 1991,” said Randerson. “Serious challenges have emerged in our ability to respond quickly to urban development pressures and to house our people in liveable communities. And we are facing a significant new threat in dealing with climate change.

“The overall aim is to improve environmental outcomes and enable better and more development in urban areas and elsewhere within environmental limits.”

The struggle for urban areas to keep up with population growth was a key challenge identified by the panel, with 99% of growth taking place in urban locations, especially Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga.

“Our cities are under pressure with rising urban land prices and some of the highest housing costs relative to income in the developed world,” the review stated. “Some councils, particularly in high-growth areas, are struggling to provide sufficient development capacity for housing in regulatory plans and supply enough infrastructure to support urban growth.”

Suggestions for improvement

The review noted that the main form of permit under the

RMA — resource consents — had undergone many reforms over the past 15 years to improve its efficacy, but that this had also led to a more complex system.

“Considerable variation across the country creates uncertainty for resource users. Processes are complex, litigious, costly, and frequently disproportionate to the decision being sought or the risk or impact of the proposal,” the review stated. “Matters that should be addressed in plans are left to the resource consenting process to resolve, generating unnecessary uncertainty.”

Suggested ways of reforming resource consents included:

  • Simplifying the categories of activities and processing tracks.

  • Reducing the complexity of minor consent processes.

  • Establishing a separate process and dispute resolution path for residential activities.

The review also identified a lack of adequate national direction.

It was intended that, under the RMA, central government would set national environmental guidelines and policies through national policy statements and national environmental standards. However, this was not carried out for years after the RMA was first passed, with some describing it as a failure by government to fully cooperate with local authorities.

Despite some national direction being developed from 2013, and national planning standards announced in 2019, the report concluded that “the suite of national direction is not yet cohesive”.

To remedy both issues, the panel suggested reconsidering the legislative make-up of the resource management system and developing a central government national direction programme that is easy for councils to implement.

RMA fast track in response to Covid 19

In early May, the Government announced a major element of its Covid-19 rebuild plan included a significant and immediate law change to help fast-track eligible development and infrastructure projects under the RMA. It does not amend the RMA itself, but provides an alternative consenting pathway.

Minister for the Environment, David Parker, will determine which projects will enter the fast-track resource consenting process.

According to Parker, the change would mean consent decisions for large projects would not need to go to council or the public for consultation. Rather, a panel of experts, chaired by a current or retired Environment Court judge, would determine whether a project could go ahead.

Each panel will have a person nominated by the relevant local councils and a person nominated by the relevant iwi authorities.

The changes were approved by Cabinet in May and new legislation is expected to be passed in June.

Parker said: “The consenting and approval processes used in normal circumstances don’t provide the speed and certainty we need now in response to the economic fallout from Covid-19. The new processes will get projects started sooner and people into jobs faster.”

Some large-scale government-led projects, including those in the NZTA’s Land Transport Programme, will be named in the legislation to go through the fast-track consent process. Some works by government agencies will be able to start “as of right”.

“Projects that help alleviate housing challenges, encourage active transport and enhance the environment are prioritised under the proposal,” said Parker.

The fast-track process is designed as a short-term intervention to help with economic recovery from Covid-19 and the legislation will be repealed in two years.


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