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Consensus on need for bigger environmental regime overhaul

Wednesday 28 September 2016 05:20 PM

Consensus firms on need for bigger environmental regime overhaul

By Pattrick Smellie

Sept. 28 (BusinessDesk) - A new coalition of environmental, business and infrastructure lobby groups has added new weight to a growing consensus that the 25 year-old Resource Management Act is failing both to allow sufficient development and to protect the environment.

However, the report says poor implementation is a major part of the reason for that failure and that legislative reform is not the only possible answer for law that was ground-breaking when passed in 1991 but has been the subject of constant attempts at reform. The current government is currently making a third attempt at reform since election in 2008, although its Resource Legislation Amendment Bill has become bogged down in a parliamentary select commitee, where it is months behind schedule.

The report by the Enviromental Defence Society, a leading voice on complex environmental policy questions, is the second in a series of three prepared with funding from three business-orientated groups, the Auckland-based Employers and Manufacturers Association, the Property Council of New Zealand, and the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development.

"While the business side of the argument was well developed and the business industry organisations had strongly advocated that the current system was a handbrake on development and productivity, what was missing from the conversation was an empirical element relating to the environmental impact," the four groups said in a jointly crafted statement. The EDS research "found that the RMA had not met the environmental outcomes expected of it, and that the wider issue of how the nation's resources are managed was suboptimal".

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EDS had only agreed to undertake the research as long as the funders accepted "we need to manage natural resources subject to bottom lines and limits," said its chief executive, Gary Taylor. "Getting an understanding of how well the present system delivers on that aspiration seemed a useful contribution to the wider reform discussions."

The third report in the series will include recommendations for the future, and a debate has been running for some time about whether the RMA is too ambitious by including both economic development and environmental goals in one piece of legislation and should be split back into two separate pieces of law, as was the case before 1991.

However, today's report cautions against assuming more law reform is the obvious answer.

"This report concludes that the environmental outcomes of the RMA have not met expectations, largely as a result of poor implementation," says the 86-page report's conclusion. "While aspirations were high, the outcomes have not ultimately reflected the desires set down in 1991."

Overall implementation of the RMA had been "weak", and the performance of institutions charged with ensuring good environmental outcomes had been "variable and often poor".

This was particularly so at the local government level and in what the report described as "incorrect jurisprudence" - court decisions that reached what EDS judged to be the wrong outcomes to uphold the provisions of the RMA.

"There has been little consequence for poor performance and thus little drive for improvement by some agencies," the report said. "The oversight body – the Ministry for the Environment – has been historically quite remiss in adjudicating the implementation of the RMA, and many regional councils have been slow to hold their district and city councils to account.

The evidence also suggested that existing resource users were inherently favoured over alternative users, and that efforts to manage cumulative environmental effects had been particularly unsuccessful.

Yet interviews conducted for the report found a high level of loyalty to the RMA and its sustainable resource management principles.

"That the principles can resonate still so loudly 25 years on is a testament to their strength," the report says. "This drives home the message that poor implementation is the major failing of the RMA system to date. It calls into question whether large scale change will really achieve more if the implementation issues are so profound. Perhaps more pragmatically, this finding demonstrates that any future reform of the system must play close heed to power relationships, funding models, distribution of capacity and expertise and accountability if it is to achieve materially improved environmental outcomes."


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