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RMA overhaul would harm environment & human health

March 31, 2004 - Wellington


RMA overhaul would harm environment and human health

The Government is threatening to undermine the core principles of the Resource Management Act in an effort to speed things up for development, says Forest and Bird.

The new Associate Minister for the Environment David Benson-Pope and Finance Minister Michael Cullen are signaling yet another overhaul of the Resource Management Act in an effort to smooth the way for business.

Forest and Bird Senior Researcher, Barry Weeber, said the public must ask whether they are prepared to accept the polluted streams, poor health and environmental damage that would result from weakening the Act.

"Speeding up the process will prevent careful consideration of the issues and allow wacky projects to slip through the net. New Zealand needs to protect air quality, land and water, and public health and enjoyment," he said.

"The RMA is important to stop developers make a quick dollar at the cost of the community and the environment." Mr Weeber says that it is essential that the impacts of development on the community and the environment are addressed," he said.

"Everyone agrees that there are improvements that can be made to Resource Management Act practice. Forest and Bird supports better training and support for Councils who implement the RMA, but constantly reworking the Act is not the solution, he said.

"The money spent to date on fiddling with the Resource Management Act is money that could have been spent on providing national leadership. The Government should instead forge ahead with effective National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards that will give certainty for business and the environment."

Forest and Bird supports some of the Government's recent responses including the launch of the Quality Planning website, the introduction of accreditation for Councillors and Commissioners and support for poorly performing Councils. "It is important that these measures are funded for future years," he said

Mr Weeber said that "the Government's announcement is based on hype and misinformation. The Government claims that the RMA creates costs, delays, and uncertainties for big proposals; however, an OECD Report published in 2001 directly challenges these claims."

The OECD Report shows that New Zealand has low environmental compliance costs by international standards. New Zealand businesses require fewer permits under the RMA, 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. The cost of complying with the Resource Management Act is a fraction of the billions of dollars that our "clean green image" is worth each year to exporters and the tourism industry," he said.

Forest and Bird is concerned that, in an effort to reduce cost to business and speed up applications, communities will be blocked from participating in important environmental decisions and Councils will come under pressure to push applications through.

"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 Mr Weeber. "The introduction of "limited notification" in the Resource Management Amendment Act last year only served to shrink this further".


BACKGROUND INFORMATION The RMA replaced over 50 statutes that dealt with different aspects of environmental management so all the effects of a proposed activity could be considered together. The RMA is world-leading in this respect and is frequently used as a guide for other countries considering environmental law reform.

Under the RMA, district and regional councils are responsible for making most environmental decisions.

The purpose of the RMA is to promote sustainable management by "avoiding, remedying or mitigating" the adverse effects of proposed activities on the environment. This does not mean that there should be no development or that all natural areas should be protected. To the contrary, this generally means there should be a process, the resource consent process, to consider the effects of proposed developments on our environment and our community.

On average, only 5% of resource consent applications are currently publicly notified, allowing any opportunity for public comment. In addition, more than 99% of all resource consent applications was granted last year and only 1% of applications were appealed. The level of notification under the RMA is less than half that which occurred under the Town and Country Planning Act 1977, the planning legislation that preceded it.


It is not uncommon to hear claims that the RMA creates 'unnecessary costs, delays, and uncertainties', but how much is environmental management really costing us?

A recent OECD Report (Businesses' Views on Red Tape: Administrative and Regulatory Burdens on Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (2001) OECD) shows that New Zealand businesses require fewer resource consents under the RMA, than the number of permits required under environmental legislation in most of the ten other countries surveyed. The Report shows that it costs New Zealand businesses significantly less to comply with the RMA, than the cost to comply with our tax and employment legislation. It estimates that 42% of our businesses' compliance costs come from meeting the requirements of tax legislation, 32% from employment legislation and only 25% from meeting environmental standards. Further, the overall compliance costs for New Zealand businesses are substantially below the average compliance costs for the OECD countries surveyed in the Report.

The RMA, by its nature, is weighted in favour of developers and against community groups. Developers have better access to information, funding, scientific expertise, and legal representation, while community groups are usually under-resourced and unable to participate. Participating at the Environment Court level also exposes community groups to the risk of having costs awarded against them. After losing their case, legal costs of nearly $27,000 were awarded against the Save the Sounds - Stop the Wash group, which had sought to reduce the speed of the fast ferries to address environmental and safety issues (Marlborough District Council v New Zealand Rail Limited 1 NZED 60). The Marlborough District Council has since passed bylaws to reduce ferry speed.

Claims that "vexatious" submitters hold up development are used as an argument to reduce public participation. However, few members of the community have the time or energy to participate in the RMA planning process - if they manage to hear about and understand a proposal, writing a submission can still be a daunting prospect (let alone appearing before a council hearing committee). The RMA devolves responsibility for the environmental public interest to communities but there is little support for those that participate to ensure that councils properly consider the environment.

Complaints about the costs associated with the RMA are usually uninformed and without foundation. The RMA provides an opportunity to safeguard our environment for future generations - reducing public participation may reduce costs to the developer, but at what cost to the community and the environment?


The courts have endorsed public participation in environmental decision-making. The Environment Court in Minister of Conservation v Southland District Council (A039/01) held that "the process of deciding whether resource consents should be granted or refused is more complete, and leads to better decisions, when others have the opportunity to make submissions." The High Court in Murray v Whakatane District Council (2 NZED 557) held that the broad right of public participation in environmental decision-making is "based upon a statutory judgment that decisions about resource management are best made if informed by a participative process in which matters of legitimate concern under the Act can be ventilated."


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