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Let’s get real about what will do most for wellbeing

Let’s get real about what will do most for our country’s wellbeing

Source: EMA


A few lines in the most recent budget is an unlikely starting point for what Resource Reform New Zealand (RRNZ) believes is an opportunity for transformation in the way New Zealand looks after its environment and encourages the growth, economic and social well-being of regions, cities and communities.

Potentially the Ministry for the Environment’s budget allocation of $5m for a comprehensive review of the resource management system will do more for the country’s wellbeing than any other part of the first "wellbeing budget."

RRNZ has pushed for this review for several years now because the current framework is both failing our precious environmental legacy, and failing to provide the opportunities for economic growth and the necessary infrastructure that we need for the social and economic well-being of the nation.

We can have both but that requires a fundamental reset of the governance, funding and planning system, and that is well beyond the scope of yet another tinker with the Resource Management Act (RMA).

When enacted 25 years ago the RMA was regarded as groundbreaking and world-leading at the time when it combined our planning and environmental legislation into one. Significantly, no other country in the world followed that lead.

However, despite constant amendment every year since its inception, the RMA is no longer fit for purpose. Two of its main architects - Sir Geoffrey Palmer and current Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton agree - as mounting evidence shows it is failing to protect our flora and fauna and it does not take into account goals around reducing the impacts of climate change.

It is also tempting, as many have done, to lay the blame for hampered economic and infrastructure development with the RMA. But that overstates the case.

The issues are far more complex than just those of a single Act and RRNZ believes that as a starting point we must address the complex tangle of funding, planning, environmental protection and governance. This tangle is created because of the way three major acts - the RMA, Local Government Act (LGA) and the Land Transport Management Act (LGMA) - fail to interact, and also create many different hurdles and barriers to progress.

Add in the many different authorities involved in implementing those acts and the differing interpretations, capabilities and resources applied to that implementation and you have an environment where no-one is certain any project can be greenlit before going into the consenting process.

To overcome these issues then we need significant change that will affect current interests and likely lead to all sections of our communities considering what they want to achieve and perhaps look at what they are prepared to give up to achieve those desired social outcomes.

If we are to create the desirable communities New Zealanders want we have to improve the way those communities are designed. We have to accept that the horizontal and social infrastructure needed to support those communities has to be provided in a timely and efficient manner and we must decide what the environmental bottom lines we are willing to accept to achieve and maintain those desirable communities.

But at the moment we plan for what we can’t do, not what we can achieve.

Separating environmental and planning regulation seems like an obvious step, with one agency setting and enforcing the agreed environmental standards and monitoring the agreed outcomes to benchmark best practice providing guidance to future projects.

A move to spatial planning and a requirement for local councils to develop and give regard to spatial plans seems like another positive step. With planning and environmental frameworks agreed and in place then our agencies and developers can actually get on with delivering new communities and better infrastructure that improves both the social and economic well-being of the country.

Of course none of that is achievable without the appropriate funding and governance tools, which is why reform of the whole of resource management system approach is so critical.

With agreement that the RMA is clearly towards the end of its useful life and a review and restructure of water provision, Urban Development Authorities and the National Infrastructure Commission all in the pipeline, now is the right time to look at our system.

But change on this scale requires a cross-party, non-politicised discussion that allows the many interested parties in the current system to raise their issues and have a say in creating a reasonable consensus on the way forward.

It’s hugely encouraging that Environment Minister David Parker is willing to apply resources and budget to the task.

But it is a task that must go beyond the confines of the Ministry, involving a practical and manageable number of stakeholders to develop the thinking to take to the broad range of New Zealanders with concerns.

That makes the terms of reference for this group critically important.

Our group is co-funding research and development of various scenarios outlining what a future resource management system may look like. This research builds on previous work looking at the shortcomings in the current system and examining trends and legislation in overseas jurisdictions.

We are not seeking to design a definitive answer, but we do want to help shape the national conversation and will feed those ideas and scenarios into the programme of work being undertaken by the Ministry.

The answer we do want is one that enables and allows the social and economic development required to underpin strong, well-designed communities that have access to the amenities and infrastructure they require for a balanced lifestyle.

That is to be achieved against a background of enhanced environmental outcomes that not only protect what we have currently but improve what we will have the future.

It’s done overseas. It can be done in New Zealand and it is an area where we used to lead the world.


Resource Reform New Zealand is: Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), BusinessNZ Environmental Defence Society, Infrastructure New Zealand, Property Council New Zealand.

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