ECONOMICS Re-thinking the RMA

Politicians dragged the chain on changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 for several years, before rushing amendments into law last year. By then the reforms prepared when Simon Upton was Minister for the Environment had been stripped out of the legislation, however, and host of fundamental issues was overlooked. The changes had been long time coming and, as many feared, they did not go far enough to address the problems with the Act, Business Roundtable member Rob Fisher lamented in speech (The Resource Management Amendment Act: is it too little, too late?) to the Institute of Management in September last year.
Fisher recognised that the 1991 RMA was groundbreaking legislation, unique piece of planning and environment legislation which replaced jumbled mess of around 50 natural resource and planning statutes and modified or repealed more than 150 other laws and regulations. He also recalled that business people generally warned the act would retard the economy.
Business leaders certainly rate the RMA high on their grievance list. They are critical of the costs, delays, uncertainty and inconsistencies in approach between local authorities and regional councils in the resource consent process.
The Business Roundtable is adamant the process has frustrated development and scared off investment. It cites the dearth of exploration activity in the hard-rock mining industry. Yet the two large open pit gold mines in Macraes Flat and at Waihi together have generated as much as $180 million in overseas earnings year and provided 350 jobs.
More critically, the RMA is seen as an obstacle to development of the country’s economic infrastructure – roads, power generation and so on.
Among the improvements sought by business people are constraints on vexatious parties who hold up the resource consents process and often thwart development. “These complainants and those objectors who object for the sake of objecting need to be weeded out,” said Fisher.
Another grouch is use of the Act by businesses to restrict competition, practice reflected in heavily contested applications for petrol stations and supermarkets where competitors raise environmental objections to knobble their rivals.
But hey. There is always another day for the politicians to get things right, and they have responded in recent months as the RMA has come under increasingly critical scrutiny. Prime Minister Helen Clark told Local Government New Zealand’s conference in July amendments to the RMA are being prepared for introduction later this year. “We are looking for more certainty and efficiency in the way the Act operates and reduction in costs and delays,” she said.
Isn’t that exactly what business people were calling for last year, when the watered-down version of Upton’s legislation was enacted?
Associate Environment Minister David Benson-Pope treated the same conference to insights into proposals being considered during the official review of the legislation. These include the idea of limiting Environment Court hearings to considering only points of law, to eliminate it as forum for re-hearing entire project applications. Moreover, councils may be enabled to refer major infrastructure projects to national committee or board.
The National Party has cast doubts on the Clark Government’s courage to go as far as is needed with its amendments. Leader Don Brash told LGNZ key area of reform on his party becoming the government would be the RMA. National remains committed to the core principles of the legislation, he explained, notably sustainability, an integrated approach to resource management and focus on the environmental effects of development. But “we believe the Act requires substantial amendment if we are to meet the infrastructure and growth needs of the New Zealand economy”.
National would rewrite the Maori and Treaty of Waitangi provisions in the RMA, too, “so that the culture and values of all New Zealanders are put on an equal footing”.
Local government is recommending RMA changes, too, to reduce costs, hasten decision-making and provide more certainty for resource users. The association favours better process to enable local and central government and applicants to consider and select between more flexible and efficient range of options for dealing with applications for major projects. The options should include referral to special national committee or board; an enhanced local process, supported by national resources; or the standard local process. All of them would be informed by the preparation of “whole of government” statement of national interest.
Alasdair Thompson, chief executive at the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association, welcomed what he called “the dramatic change in thinking over the Resource Management Act by New Zealand’s local authorities”. But let’s treat this as matter of urgency, he urged.

Bob Edlin is regular contributor to Management.

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