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Tinkering with the Resource Management Act

Tinkering with the Resource Management Act

From National's Finance Spokesperson Don Brash

The Resource Management Act (RMA) was a useful step forward when it became law in the early 1990s, but it's been obvious for years that it also created some major problems. In 1999, the National Government tried to amend the RMA in 16 important ways, but unfortunately National lost the election before the relevant Bill was passed.

The Labour-Alliance Government sent the Bill to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee chaired by Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons. All hope of major improvements was lost. After 400 submissions and 80 hours of deliberation, the Bill was gutted of almost everything which would have improved the way the RMA works.

The Minister for the Environment, Marian Hobbs, said the Bill would be passed in 2001. Then last month (in 2003!) the Government pulled a swifty. Almost TWO YEARS after the Amendment Bill was reported back by the Select Committee, the Government has abandoned it completely. Instead, it introduced another Bill which, the Government admits, is "virtually identical" to its predecessor except that, instead of having the 18 parts of the previous Bill, now it has just two. Why? It's so the Government can ram it through the Parliamentary process without too much debate. Indeed, the Minister has said she hopes to get the new Bill passed into law in just three weeks, allowing just one week for the Select Committee to consider it.

National would support the new Bill if it produced substantial improvements in the RMA. But it won't; so we won't. The RMA will remain a major problem for New Zealand, so the National Party will continue to push strongly for sensible amendments.

Businesses see the RMA as a major source of cost, delay, and uncertainty. So it was hardly surprising that the Government's own Ministerial Panel on Business Compliance Costs made no fewer than 40 recommendations for improving the RMA when it reported in 2001.

In my view, the RMA in its present form creates at least four major problems:

1. It impedes growth by adding cost and delay to many investment projects, both large and small. Transit New Zealand has lamented it can take more than five years to get approval to build a major road because of cumbersome legislative requirements. Mayor John Banks says the main obstacle to the speedy resolution of Auckland's traffic problems is the RMA consent process, not money. It took six years to get the necessary approvals for Auckland's Sky Tower, yet only two years to build it. Approval to build a major power station can take years - years of black-outs and shortages, years that we simply don't have. We need to have genuine consultation, but with realistic time frames. Many investors, faced with the burden of increased costs and delays created by the RMA, no doubt take their money elsewhere - which is hardly helpful when our economy needs to grow, not stagnate.

2. It engenders a climate of corruption and blackmail. New Zealand has historically been almost totally free of corruption, despite the plethora of controls before 1984 - on imports, on foreign exchange, and on prices, all of which are often associated with corruption in other countries. But there are worrying signs that the RMA is changing that. One of our leading businessmen, Bill Day, recently stated that the RMA was being "hijacked" by interest groups looking for payouts to withdraw objections to projects. He described this as the "thin end of the wedge of corruption in New Zealand". Plenty of others have echoed his comments.

3. It adds to racial tensions. My colleague, Nick Smith, recently highlighted a leaked document produced by Hauraki iwi Ngati Puu which, referring to the RMA, states "1st rule on consent applications is: Object. 2nd rule on consent applications is: Object. If in doubt go back to rule 1. Objection gives time. Time is of no importance to us, only the applicant." William Kapea, an environmental and heritage consultant for his Auckland iwi, Ngati Whatua, said recently the RMA is being "exploited to the max" by Maori (Weekend Herald, 18-19 January 2003). The international media coverage given to the recent demand by some Maori for payment for the use of Mt Taranaki in 'The Last Samurai' can have done nothing for our international reputation (The Daily Telegraph, UK, 13 January 2003). Most Maori objections seem able to be resolved for the payment of a sufficient sum. Few things anger Pake

4. It pushes up the price of residential sections. As Owen McShane has pointed out in the National Business Review several times, residential sections in Auckland cost five years' income (compared to most American cities where they cost only one year's income) because of the way some local authorities interpret their powers under the RMA.

These problems could have been solved by sensible amendments to the RMA. The Amendment Bill now being rushed through the Parliamentary process could have made an important contribution to both our economic growth and harmonious race relations. But it will do neither, and that's a damning indictment on the importance this Government attaches to both issues.

Don Brash

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