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2013 RMA Reform Act Endangers Democracy and Environment

2013 RMA Reform Act Represents the Biggest Threat to Local Democracy and Damage to the Environment in Decades

by A. Omundsen
September 6, 2013

The Minister for the Environment, Amy Adams in August 2013 released the Government’s proposed changes to the principle planning legislation in NZ (the Resource Management Act 1991), following on from its release of a RMA Discussion Document titled ‘Improving Our Resource Management System’ in February. The Minister’s assertions that the proposed changes will not harm the environment and will achieve substantial efficiency gains in resource management have been heavily contested by environmental, community, legal and professional organisations around the country, including:

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright
Former Environmental Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, Queen’s Counsel
New Zealand Conservation Authority
Local Government New Zealand
Forest and Bird
The Environment Defence Society
Greenpeace NZ
Environment and Conservation Organisations of Aotearoa NZ
NZ Law Society
Resource Management Law Association
Historic Places Aotearoa
New Zealand Planning Institute
New Zealand Institute of Architects
New Zealand Institute of Surveyors

Approximately 13,000 submitters on the Discussion Document are disappointed that key concerns raised, particularly regarding proposed changes to the principles section of the RMA to reduce the importance of existing environmental principles and increase the importance of new development principles, have not been reconsidered. Reading through the Ministry of Environment’s, Summary of Submissions, it is clear that several changes had little or no support from the general public.

The need for the proposed changes have been repeatedly questioned, with submitters pointing out that the vast majority of resource consents in New Zealand (approx. 90%) are already processed within 20 working days without notification of neighbours or public. Which in terms of time taken and use of notification, is significantly lower than that for applications decided in England, Wales and NSW (Australia). Less than 0.6% of all resource consents in NZ are refused, compared to 12% in England. Apparently 5% of applications being notified and a 0.56% refusal rate for consents are too high for the NZ Government and business investors, so changes are proposed to further reduce the ability to decline consents or allow submissions from neighbours and the public to be considered. All in the absence of information, as to whether environmental standards originally intended to be required through the planning legislation are or have ever been achieved.

The poor quality and one-sided nature of the information presented by the Ministry for Environment has been heavily criticised. Forest and Bird lodged a complaint with the State Services Commission, that information released breached government standards of integrity and conduct. A lack of justification for proposed changes was raised by Local Government New Zealand, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, Sir Geoffrey Palmer (Queen’s Council), Wellington City Council, Wellington Civic Trust, New Zealand Conservation Authority, Members of the New Zealand Planning Institute, New Zealand Institute of Architects, Environment Defence Society and Greenpeace.

As best summarised by the Environment Defence Society, in its media release of 10 August 2013, the Environmental Minister has largely relied on information “widely pilloried for its lack of problem definition and reliance on unsubstantiated anecdote. It has been derided amongst the resource management professions for its lack of intellectual rigour…[and] has been widely criticised by experts, environmental NGO’s and business groups…”.

As well as Forest and Bird in their campaign text, attached to the summary of submissions on the RMA Discussion Document:
“The quality of policy analysis in the discussion document is extremely poor, both in terms of objectively defining the problem, and analysing options for addressing it. It appears to rely heavily on anecdote and prejudice, not research…It doesn’t address what could be done by more fully and effectively utilising the tools that already exist under legislation.”

The changes have all the appearance of creating a sham environmental consenting system. In that it maintains the appearance of a consent process (for public appearances), whilst progressively removing the ability of decision makers to turn down development with harmful effects and opponents of proposals from delaying consent decisions through submissions or appeals.

Proposed changes to increase central government powers and the national planning template have the ability to open the door to a whole raft of draconian measures proposed to be incorporated into the NSW Environment and Planning Act 1979 as announced in the NSW Government White Paper. Whereby, local investors disagreeing with the Local Council’s approach to providing for/managing urban growth can directly approach central and regional government agencies, to override existing local planning provisions. With these agencies having considerable power to intervene in local planning, where Council policies do not meet central or regional government agency specified housing and employment targets.

Residents of several councils in Wellington are protesting loudly about the possibility of forced Council amalgamations into a Wellington Super Council, whilst being blind to the loss of local democracy that could arise through the proposed planning reforms. As pointed out by Local Government New Zealand in their submission on the RMA Discussion Document “some of the discussion document’s proposals directly undermine local democracy…”

And explained by the New Zealand Law Society in their submission on the above document:
It is important that the creation of a single resource management plan allows for community aspirations to be considered through the public consultation process. The content of regional and district plans should not be regulated to secondary importance in the scheme to achieve national outcomes…The national template should not include content which dictates the outcome of land use consents in specific zones or for particular activities, which may run counter to community values and expected outcomes as reflected in regional and district plans…”

The fact that the proposed changes to the principles of the planning legislation will “significantly and seriously undermine environmental protection” has been demonstrated by Sir Geoffrey Palmar (Queen’s Council), Resource Management Law Association, DLA Phillip Fox Lawyers, The Architectural Centre Inc., Forest and Bird, Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand, Greenpeace and the Environment Defence Society.

The assessment of resource consents may no longer need to consider effects on amenity (which covers matters of privacy, outlook/views, access to sunlight/overshadowing, recreation opportunities, local character/identity and urban design), which currently underpins the majority of planning policies and rules in urban areas. This could pave the way for new commercial and housing developments, which harm the appearance of streets/districts and provide little or no amenity for occupants.

If this is not bad enough, serious concerns have been raised by Local Government New Zealand, Resource Management Law Association, Local Councils, members of the New Zealand Planning Institute, New Zealand Institute of Architects, New Zealand Institute of Surveyors, BusinessNZ and environmental groups that proposals will have high transitional costs and may not deliver the intended benefits. No detailed consideration has been given to how these changes will be funded or implemented.

The public need to consider: Do you want to help fund the removal of amenity in your own neighbourhoods and loss of environmental sensitive land in your country? I don’t.


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