Report recommends RMA repeal and overhaul of resource management system

Following a comprehensive review, the Resource Management Review Panel (Panel) has recommended the repeal of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) as part of an overhaul of New Zealand’s resource management system.

The recommended reforms would, among other things:

  • change the system from being effects-based to outcomes-focused, under a new Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA);
  • better integrate planning with infrastructure under a new Spatial Planning Act;
  • have 14 combined plans replace the existing regional and district planning documents;
  • introduce specific legislation to address the challenges of climate change adaptation;
  • make resource consent applications easier and more predictable;
  • centralise enforcement powers and strengthen penalties;
  • centralise other matters and give iwi/Māori matters greater weight.

Chaired by retired Court of Appeal Judge Tony Randerson QC, the Panel’s report New directions for resource management in New Zealand potentially sets the stage for transformative changes to resource management law.

The Panel identifies a range of failures in the RMA and the broader resource management system – that the system is unnecessarily complex; inconsistent across the country; and fails to recognise the positive effects of urban development.

The Panel’s recommendations respond to three key challenges facing the resource management system.

  1. The natural environment is under significant pressure from the effects of climate change, threats to biodiversity and wider environmental decline.
  2. Local government is struggling to provide development capacity and infrastructure to support urban growth.
  3. Changes to rural land use are placing increased pressure on ecosystems.

Change to an outcomes-focus under a new NBEA

The Panel recommends repealing the RMA and replacing it with a new NBEA. The stated purpose of the NBEA would be to enhance the quality of the environment to support the wellbeing of current and future generations.

Key definitions would reflect differences from the RMA:

  • The ‘environment’ would only include ecosystems and their constituent parts, people and communities, and natural and built environments (not, as in the RMA, amenity values or the social, economic, aesthetic and cultural conditions which affect those matters).
  • ‘Wellbeing’ would include the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of people and communities and their health and safety.

The Panel recommends shifting the focus away from an activity’s effects on the environment, to one of achieving positive long-term outcomes.

The NBEA would specify outcomes in relation to the quality of the natural and built environments, rural areas, tikanga Māori, historic heritage, natural hazards and climate change. The provision of national direction (i.e. national policy statements or national environmental standards) on these matters would be mandatory. The provision of national direction is not mandatory under the RMA, and provision of RMA national direction was limited until recently. The provision of mandatory national direction would likely lead to greater consistency across local authority level plans.

The Panel is also recommending that:

  • Ministers and local authorities are required to set positive environmental targets to act as stepping stones to guide how the outcomes specified in the NBEA are to be achieved (which would be a significant change in focus from the RMA); and
  • The NBEA should include environmental limits (bottom lines) for air, water, soil and biodiversity, to clearly state the biophysical limits for these resources and enhance the quality of the environment.

Better integration of land use and infrastructure under a new Spatial Planning Act

The Panel recommends a new Strategic Planning Act to reduce costs and increase the efficiency of land use and infrastructure planning, processes and funding. The proposed Act would align multiple Acts: the NBEA, the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Management Act and the Climate Change Response Act.

Under the Spatial Planning Act, joint committees comprised of representatives of central government agencies, councils and mana whenua would develop long-term regional spatial strategies. The Panel suggests this is an opportunity to align the long-term planning of entities such as Waka Kotahi/the NZ Transport Agency and the Infrastructure Commission. NBEA plans (discussed below) and regional and local funding plans would be required to be consistent with spatial strategies.

Therefore, the proposed Strategic Planning Act would provide an opportunity to transform long-term spatial planning and delivery and funding of infrastructure.

14 combined plans to replace regional and district planning documents

Following the lead of the Auckland Unitary Plan, the Panel recommends that the NBEA require one combined regulatory plan for each region. This would combine over 100 policy statements and plans from 87 local authorities into 14 combined plans. Regional councils, territorial authorities and mana whenua would work together to produce these combined plans.

These changes would likely make the consenting framework easier for applicants to use.

The intention is that the pooled resources and guidance from mandatory national direction would lead to higher quality, more consistent plans.

While it is outside the scope of its terms of reference, the Panel also suggests that a review and reform of local government is due. The Panel suggests amalgamating local government along regional lines, which would be consistent with the Panel’s recommended 14 combined plans. This out-of-scope recommendation is a space to watch – the amalgamation of Auckland Council reduced operational costs and increased efficiency, which are identified as problems with the current system.

Introduce specific legislation to address the challenges of climate change adaptation

The Panel also recommends a new Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act. This proposed Act would seek to address the current complexities faced by local and national government where climate change poses significant risks and decisions need to be made on managed retreat. The Act would establish an adaptation fund and provide powers to modify existing land uses, acquire land (with compensation determined by specific principles) and impose targeted rates.

Further changes are recommended across the resource management system

Resource consent applications should be easier and more predictable

The Panel’s recommendations aim to make resource consent applications easier and potentially more predictable. The Panel recommends that:

  • applications for multiple consents should be ‘bundled’ and determined by one authority;
  • non-complying activity status should not be included;
  • the information requirements for consent applications should be proportionate to the complexity of the activity for which consent is sought;
  • consent application notification requirements should focus on more than minor effects, and:
    • applications for controlled activities should not be notified (unless special circumstances existed);
    • NBEA plans would specify whether applications for restricted discretionary activities would have full, limited or no notification, and in what circumstances; and
    • applications for discretionary activities would be fully-notified.

Enforcement powers should be centralised and penalties should be strengthened

The Panel recommends that:

  • environmental enforcement should be more independent from local government, consolidated into regional hubs with national oversight; and
  • penalties for environmental offending should be higher, particularly where there has been disproportionate commercial gain as the result of an offence.

Other matters should also be centralised and iwi/Māori matters given greater weight

The Panel recommends that:

  • the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment should have a role in a new national environmental monitoring system;
  • there should be a National Māori Advisory Board to advise the government and oversee the resource management system; and
  • there should be a requirement to “give effect to” the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, rather than to “have regard to” them.

The next steps for reform will be clearer following the General Election

It will be up to the government elected in September how the Panel’s recommendations are acted on. However, all political parties have indicated that they are open to changing the resource management system.

The Panel can only make recommendations, and the specific drafting of any new legislation would be crucial to the impact of any reforms.

We can expect that there will be wide engagement with the public and stakeholders before any legislation is introduced, which will provide an opportunity for further input into these significant proposals.

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