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National attacks the RMA

July 4, 2002

National is threatening to undermine the core principles of the Resource Management Act, says Forest and Bird.

Forest and Bird's environmental lawyer, Kate Mitcalfe, says "National's policy on the RMA is based on hype and misinformation. National claims that the RMA creates 'unnecessary costs, delays, and uncertainties'.1 However, an OECD Report published in 2001 directly challenges these claims.2"

The OECD Report shows that New Zealand has low environmental compliance costs. New Zealand businesses require fewer permits under our environmental legislation, than that required in most of the 11 countries surveyed. The Report confirms that the cost to comply with the RMA is considerably lower than the cost to comply with our tax or employment laws.

"National threatens to shut the community out of environmental decision-making. Opportunities for community participation in resource management decision-making are already very limited - a staggering 95% of resource consent applications are processed without any opportunity for public input" says Ms Mitcalfe. "National proposes to reduce opportunities for community involvement even further by whittling the notification of resource consents; squeezing the public out altogether."

National plans to block members of the community that are not "directly affected", increasing the barriers to public participation in environmental decision-making.3 Ms Mitcalfe says "public participation ensures that relevant information is available and properly balanced. Public participation creates fair and sustainable decisions. By undermining community involvement, National threatens sound and well-informed environmental decision making."

National's proposal to block public participation will undermine the quality of environmental decisions. "Restricting the public's involvement in planning decisions may smooth the way for developers and business interests but at what cost to the environment and the community?" Ends

1 2 Businesses' Views on Red Tape: Administrative and Regulatory Burdens on Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (see the OECD website at: www.oecd.org) 3 A case in point is the proposal to dump the Frigate Wellington in a proposed marine reserve off Wellington's South Coast. Sandra Lee, the Minister of Conservation, has confirmed that this area has important scientific values and approved the marine reserve application, a view supported by Victoria University marine scientists and Forest and Bird. In spite of its values, Wellington Regional Council has granted a resource consent to dump the hulking skeleton of the Frigate Wellington in the proposed marine reserve area. Two committed individuals have appealed the Council's decision to the Environment Court - a scientist and a planner. Neither will be "directly affected" but both are extremely concerned about the effects on this important marine environment. National's proposal would have these two concerned members of the community blocked from participating - and then who would advocate for the environment? BACKGROUND INFORMATION

What is the Resource Management Act?

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) is world-leading environmental legislation. The purpose of the RMA is to promote the sustainable management of land, sea, air and water. It does this by "remedying, avoiding or mitigating" the negative effects of proposed activities on the environment.

The RMA integrated environmental management. It replaced 50 different statutes that dealt with air quality, noise control, water and soil conservation, and town planning and coastal management, so that all the environmental effects of a proposed activity could be considered at once. The RMA is frequently used as a guide for other countries considering environmental law reform.

The RMA seeks to protect those qualities of our environment that we all cherish, such as breathing clean air and being able to swim at an unpolluted beach. It also seeks to encourage the protection of wetlands, the natural character of the coast, and the diminishing areas of our natural environment that provide habitat for indigenous species such as kiwi and giant weta. Without rules controlling new activities, large-scale, dirty and unsustainable factories, mines or dams could be built anywhere.

The RMA allows the community and local councils to comment on proposed activities that may have significant environmental impacts. It sets up processes to ensure that decisions are fair, balanced and sustainable.

The RMA requires local councils to prepare plans and policy statements. These documents set out those activities that require a resource consent and those that can take place without any permit at all. These plans and policy statements ensure that the quality of our environment can be protected - for our enjoyment, for future generations, and to protect our unique natural biodiversity.

Dispelling the RMA Myths

Myth 1: The RMA creates uncertainties and slows development. Not true

The Facts: The majority of consents are processed without delays. In the 1999/2000 and 2000/2001 financial years 82% of resource consents were processed within the statutory time limits. Some resource consent applications require particular scrutiny because of their potentially serious environmental effects. The proportion of applications that are declined or appealed is tiny - less than 1%.

The impacts of a new development are often reduced or avoided through conditions being placed on resource consents, rather than the whole proposal being rejected. Sometimes a compromise can be reached that satisfies the interests of all those involved. For example:

a) A subdivision proposal in a bird corridor near Wellington was allowed to go ahead once it was agreed that cats would not be introduced into the area. This has occurred with a number of wildlife friendly sub-divisions in ecologically sensitive areas around the country.

a) A major subdivision in the Canterbury high country, close to conservation land, was allowed to go ahead once conditions were agreed to that would reduce the impacts of new buildings, garden weeds, grey water and sewerage disposal.

Claims that the RMA stifles development and involves too much "red tape" are the same accusations as those that were levelled against the Town and Country Planning Act, which the RMA replaced. But it is essential that developers' interests are balanced against those of the public and the environment, so fair and sustainable planning decisions can be made.

Myth 2: The RMA is costly and anti-business. Not true

The Facts: An OECD report published in 2001 shows that New Zealand has low environmental compliance costs by international standards. Businesses here require fewer permits or consents under environmental legislation than those in most other countries included in the survey. The cost to comply with our environmental laws is much lower than that for our tax or employment laws.

The RMA process has, in fact, tended to be weighted in favour of developers, and against environmental and community groups. Developers have better access to information, funding, scientific expertise, and legal representation. Until recently members of the public did not have access to legal aid to enable them to voice their concerns. Community and environmental groups are usually under-resourced and as a result are often unable to participate in the RMA process to the extent they would like.

Opposing activities with negative effects on the environment exposes community groups to the risk of having costs awarded against them. After losing their court case legal costs of nearly $27,000 were awarded against the Stop the Wash group, which sought to slow down fast ferries to reduce the environmental damage and safety problems caused by the fast ferries' wake. These costs were awarded despite the group having legitimate concerns - the Marlborough District Council has since passed bylaws to reduce the ferry speed. Myth 3: The RMA allows submitters to be obstructive. Not true

The Facts: People object to applications because of their concern for the effects of a proposal, whether it is close to their homes or in another part of the country. Claims that "vexatious" objectors hold up development are used as a justification for further reducing the public's right to have a say on resource consent applications. In reality few people have the time or energy to participate in the planning process - if they manage to hear about and understand a proposal, writing a submission can still be daunting, let alone appearing before a council hearing panel.

Sometimes an individual is labelled as unreasonable purely because they are the only person to object to a proposal. But the fact that so few people make objections is indicative of how difficult and daunting it can be to make submissions, give evidence and lodge an appeal with the Environment Court, rather than an objector's unreasonableness. Most people who appeal a decision to allow a development proposal do so at great personal cost and from a genuine desire to protect an area of significant natural or aesthetic value.

Myth 4: The RMA requires too many notifications Not true

The Facts: Only 5% of resource consent applications were notified, and therefore could be commented on by the public, in the 1999/2000 financial year. This is less than half the rate of notification that occurred under the planning legislation that preceded the RMA.

For the vast majority of resource consent applications there is no opportunity for the public to comment. Forest and Bird believes that concerned citizens should be able to submit on any application that may have a significant impact on the environment. While this is envisaged by the RMA, it often does not happen.

The failure of councils to notify consent applications has resulted in important areas of native habitat being destroyed without any opportunity for public comment. Examples of resource consent applications that the local council approved without public notification include:

* Farming of the alien invasive seaweed pinnatifida, Wellington harbour. * A coal mine under Paparoa National Park, West Coast. * Heavy logging of Orikaka beech/podocarp forest by Timberlands West Coast, Buller. * Clearance of an extensive area of matagouri (New Zealand's only thorn woodland species) on the banks of the Maruia River. * Construction of the 10 storey Park Terrace apartment block next to Christchurch's Hagley Park. * The construction of a new two storey house on an undeveloped and wild cliff edge at Punakaiki, ruining a spectacular landscape.

Think twice the next time you hear that the RMA creates "costs, delays and uncertainties". Do you want a clean environment, natural beauty and an opportunity to have a say - or rampant, unsustainable development approved behind closed doors?

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