Comprehensive review of New Zealand’s resource management legislation announced

Environment Minister Hon David Parker has launched an “overhaul” of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) targeting underperformance in the management of key environmental issues, such as freshwater, and in delivering affordable housing and well-designed urban communities.

This “thorough overhaul of the law” involves establishing a Resource Management Review Panel to undertake a comprehensive review of the Resource Management (RM) system.  The piecemeal approach, in the form of successive amendments to the RMA, has led to what the Minister has called “disappointing” environmental outcomes.

The review, chaired by retired Court of Appeal judge Tony Randerson, will focus on the RMA itself, but will include a review of its interface with other associated legislation including the Land Transport Management Act (LTMA), Local Government Act (LGA) and Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act.  Some of the key areas that will be addressed include:

  • Removing the unnecessary complexity of the RMA:  The Panel will investigate options to reduce the complexity of the RMA, in part by rationalising the multiple decision-making pathways.  The Panel will address ways of enabling faster and more responsive land use planning (including the consenting process) and adequate responses to environmental harm.
  • Creating a new role for spatial planning:  The Panel will consider options to strengthen spatial planning by integrating decision making across the RMA, LTMA and LGA.  This has the potential to make the RM system more future-focused.  We may see a greater alignment in land use planning and regulation and infrastructure planning and funding.
  • Separating Part 2?  Interpretation of the purpose section of the RMA, set out in Part 2, has been at the heart of both political and legal dispute about how the RMA should be appliedin practice.  The Minister has indicated that one option to be considered is whether Part 2 should sit within the RMA or in a separate piece of legislation.
  • Recognising the role of climate change:  The Panel will look at ensuring that the RMA aligns with the purpose and process set out in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act which is currently before the Select Committee and that the RM system as a whole is resilient to the risks posed by climate change.  The Panel will also look at the interaction between the Act and the newly established Climate Change Commission.
  • Ensuring Maori participation and recognition:  The Panel will look at ways of ensuring that Maori have a role in the RM system, particularly through participation giving effect to Treaty settlement agreements.
  • Improving the effectiveness of the RM system as a whole:  The Panel will also look at the roles of central and local government in the planning system and more broadly examine all RMA functions and processes (including national directions, plan making, consenting, funding tools, economic instruments, and compliance monitoring and enforcement functions).

Overall, the review aims to “improve intergenerational wellbeing by strengthening environmental protection and better enabling urban development outcomes within environmental limits”.  The review’s scope would include potentially separating statutory provision for land use planning and environmental protection.

The Panel will release a report recommending how to improve the RM system and will provide detailed policy proposals for significant parts of a new act (or acts).  This report is due at the end of May 2020 making it difficult for the Government to pass the legislation before the next election.  Before then the Panel will prepare an issues and options paper to be presented to the Minister at the end of October 2019.

Despite the extensive mandate of the Panel, the Government’s existing plans have not been put on hold.  The Minister has indicated that the Government “will press ahead with work to improve freshwater quality and urban development, protect highly productive land and indigenous biodiversity, and reduce waste, because these are urgent and cannot wait for the comprehensive reform plan”.

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