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May 2020

RMA under the microscope

15 Apr 2020, Industry Updates, News

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 come at a time where many are asking for the temporary suspension of red tape post-Covid to accelerate work after Alert Level 4

The panel, chaired by retired Appeal Court judge Tony Randerson, has 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 Resource Management Act was introduced in 1991,” says 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, as 99% of NZ’s population growth is taking place in those 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.

Calls for less red tape post-Covid?

The panel’s suggestions for a better system come at a time where many, including Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, National Party leader Simon Bridges, and Infrastructure New Zealand’s Paul Blair, are calling for a suspension of red tape to kick-start the construction industry at the conclusion of Alert Level 4. With one in three construction workers facing possible job losses amidst the Coronavirus epidemic, avoiding delays typically encountered when dealing with the RMA could help prevent further job losses and boost cash flow as a result of more work getting the go ahead.

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