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Dr Nick Smith: Simplifying Resource Managment Act

Hon Dr Nick Smith MP
National Party Environment/RMA Spokesman

4 August 2007
1345 Embargo

Simplifying and Streamlining
the Resource Management Act

Speech to National Party Conference, Langham Hotel, Auckland


Madam President, Leader John Key, delegates.

New Zealand will not achieve the ambitious goals John Key has for our country if we do not have the courage to reform the Resource Management Act.

This afternoon I wish to put the case for reform, propose a way forward, and to set our timetable in Government for fixing this complex and important statute.

But, first, let’s get the context right.

This John Key-lead National Party is as ambitious for New Zealand’s environment as we are for our economy. That’s what our bluegreen vision is all about.

We are a pro-clean water and air party, a party that wants more renewable energy and energy efficiency, and a party that believes in protecting nature.

But we are also a pro-market, pro-enterprise party that hates bureaucracy and stifling red tape.

The importance of reforming the RMA can be found in almost every challenge facing our nation.

The current economic mismanagement around record high interest rates and the high dollar has behind it the huge escalation in house prices.

Section prices have soared under Labour from an average of $76,000 in 1999 to $167,000 today. That’s an increase five times greater than inflation.

The smoking gun was delivered in March in a comprehensive report by the Centre for Housing Research that rightly attributes high section prices to restrictive urban limits and RMA delays. Labour changed the law around development levies that has seen them rocket from $8,000 a section to $24,000. They ignorantly thought they were socking it to developers, but of course it just adds to the cost of a section.

Reform of the RMA is critical to Bill’s goal of lower interest rates and the work of Phil Heatley and Bob Clarkson to improve home affordability.

A second issue that highlights the need for RMA reform is the policy debacle over climate change.

In stark contrast to the Government’s goal of carbon neutrality, New Zealand produces less of our power from renewable sources today than at anytime in our history.

The problem is that while Helen Clark is chanting “sustainability” like a Hari Krishna, her Government’s laws and Departments are making it harder than ever to advance renewable energy projects.

The Dobson hydro project on the West Coast was blocked by her Minister of Conservation, Chris Carter.

Project Aqua was killed off by Minister Marian Hobbs and then local MP David Parker.

The Wairau Hydro Scheme in Marlborough, granted consent last month after a tiresomely long 18-month hearing process, has now been appealed to the Environment Court by none other than the Department of Conservation.

A report by the Government’s own Crown Research Institute, GNS, states that New Zealand will not be able to tap the huge potential of geothermal energy without substantial RMA reform.

Westwind in Wellington had a tortuous resource consent process and is now at risk because, in the time taken to get consents, the turbines have rocketed up in price.

Some wind farms have made it though the RMA but the growth in coal generated power during Labour’s tenure has outstripped wind by seven to one. Ironically, this carbon neutral Government has intervened twice in the electricity market, once to build a new oil-fired power station at Whirinaki, and the other to underwrite the giant new E3P gas turbine at Huntly.

Something is very wrong when you can build new oil and gas power stations without even requiring a resource consent, while hydro, wind and geothermal plants are rejected or delayed for years.

Reform of the RMA is critical to Gerry Brownlee’s task of keeping the lights on at affordable prices while meeting our climate change goals.

Another big issue facing New Zealand is transport.

The combination of the cumbersome provisions of the RMA with Labour’s new Land Transport Management Act has created a bureaucratic nightmare for engineers trying to build transport infrastructure. Congestion in our major cities is getting worse, making for inefficient fuel use, increased pollution, and a huge loss of productivity. Transit New Zealand says it takes seven years to get consent for any major roading project, more than it takes to build it. Maurice can’t and won’t tolerate this madness and needs RMA reform to get Auckland moving.

What transport is to Auckland, water is to Canterbury.

The RMA systems for managing water are wasteful and bureaucratic. It is a long way behind international best practise. We have in Canterbury an unseemly goldrush for water arising from the first in, first served approach to allocation. We also have a rapid deterioration in water quality in Canterbury’s lowland streams. Reform of the RMA is critical to Jacqui Dean’s and Nicky Wagner’s work to better manage our precious water resources.

Let me also highlight the sorry story in the aquaculture industry.

World wide, more farmed fish is now eaten than wild fish. Through the 1990s we saw the mussel industry grow four-fold, to a $170 million a year export industry. It has stalled since.

Aquaculture should be one of our flagship sustainable industries. Labour first imposed a moratorium and then their 2005 amendments were so botched that not one new aquaculture area has been approved since. Phil Heatley will not be able to unleash the potential of this $1 billion plus green industry without RMA reform.

The cries for reform of the RMA come from every corner of New Zealand.

Federated Farmers last month came out with a comprehensive survey showing that only 3% of farmers are happy with the RMA and a staggering 73% of farmers calling for change.

The Government’s own Compliance Cost Panel rated reform of the RMA as the number one issue for small business.

The Business Council for Sustainable Development, representing large enterprises that encompass over 30% of New Zealand’s GDP, state that reform is critical to the greening of New Zealand enterprise.

And we had the IWD competitiveness study that rated New Zealand 60th out of 60 in the quality of our environmental laws and how they affect business.

Despite the overwhelming evidence for reform, Labour has neither the will nor the capacity to deliver. The untidy departure of Minister David Benson-Pope has left a vacuum. The mantle falls to National to find the way forward.

It is as important in this debate about the RMA to make plain what we won’t change, as much as what we will.

No one gains, least of all New Zealand, from policy flip-flops of the likes of what we see in industrial relations laws. We need a reform package that is not just economically and environmentally sustainable, but also politically.

We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We are, as a Party, committed to the principle of sustainability. We will not be changing the purpose clause of the Act defining sustainable management.

We back the Act being ‘effects based’ and don’t want to unleash a new era of economic planning. We also back the integrated approach to resource management that underpins the Act.

There are three broad themes that make up National’s proposals.

Firstly, the Act needs greater central government direction. It is the most devolved environmental statute in the world resulting in every Council having to reinvent the wheel. We propose setting up to 20 national environmental goals to clearly guide decision makers on what needs to be achieved and will measure progress towards them. That is also why we are keen on an Environmental Protection Authority.

Secondly, National wants greater use of price signals, markets and better recognition of property rights. That is why in areas like water permits, greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen discharges, we favour cap-and-trade systems over bureaucratic systems of allocation.

We also want to improve the compensation mechanisms in the Public Works Act. We want to make explicit that landowners must be consulted over rules affecting their land and believe a net conservation benefit approach would get better environmental outcomes. We want less litigation and more science in decision-making. We propose refocusing the legal aid fund and putting the money into more technical support and into mediation services.

Thirdly, National proposes simplifying and streamlining the processes of the Act to reduce the delays, uncertainties and costs.

Let me detail some of our proposals for simplifying the Act:

1. We propose to limit the definition of environment to natural and physical resources so as to avoid vexatious arguments over trade competition and where the Taniwha might live.

2. We propose to reduce the number of consent categories from the current five to three, so it is not nearly so complicated.

3. We propose fixing the vague Treaty clause by removing the broad reference to it’s principles that nobody understands and be quite specific about the consultation requirements with iwi.

4. We propose reducing the number of plans. We note with interest that Northland has adopted a ‘one plan’ policy integrating its Regional and three District Plans into one, and we are exploring applying it nationwide. Eighty-five plans for a country of four million people is excessive.

5. We propose integrating the RMA properly with the Historic Places, Forests, Building and Fisheries Acts, so applicants are not confronted by multiple hurdles.

We also want to streamline the Act:

1. It is a waste of everyone’s time to go through years of double process of a consent hearing and then the Environment Court. That’s why we back the direct referral of major applications straight to the Environment Court.

2. It is wrong that Ministers can veto the process as we saw with the 13-year debacle over the Whangamata Marina. That veto will go under National and decisions will be left with the Environment Court.

3. There should be a penalty when Councils ignore the 20-day timeline for resource consents. Councils charge penalties when the ratepayer is late, as with rates. If it is good enough for the goose, it is good enough for the gander.

4. There should be limits on requests for more information. An applicant should be able to require that a consent be processed, albeit they run the risk of being rejected. They at least then have the option of appealing to the Environment Court.

5. The Court should have the power to require security for costs, a power taken away by Labour. If an application or objection is weak and likely to involve a costs order, this discretionary power of the Court helps get rid of the vexatious and frivolous.

So that’s how; what about when?

These issues around process have been debated to death, going all the way back to Simon Upton’s 1999 reform bill and will make up Phase I of our reforms.

We will introduce our Resource Management reform bill in the first 100 days of a new National Government and they will be made law within six months.

Phase 2 needs to be done with far more consultation. Ideas like tradable water permits will improve water management but only if we get the detail right. That is why this work is set on a slower timetable.

Delegates,

New Zealand needs a Government with the capacity to reform the Resource Management Act. Your Caucus Environment, Primary Production and Infrastructure teams have done the work and are ready to get on with the job.

With your help to put us on the right side of the House, we will deliver.

Ends

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