After a public consultation process, the Resource Management Review Panel has released a 531-page report on its recommendations for reforming our resource management system. After much foreshadowing in recent weeks, the Panel has recommended repeal of the RMA and replacement with two new pieces of legislation:
- A Natural and Built Environments Act, which would draw on many of the principles of the RMA in terms of sustainable management of land, water and air; and
- A Strategic Planning Act which would promote the strategic integration of legislative functions across the whole of the resource managment system, primarily via a spatial planning approach, with stronger national and regional coordination of development.
The Panel has also recommended the development of a new piece of legislation called the Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act which would deal specifically with the complexities of managing the effects of climate change.
The Panel's view is that the RMA has failed to adequately address issues causing significant pressure on the natural environment such as climate change, biodiversity, and wider environmental decline, and failed to provide for the housing and infrastructure needed for growing populations in urban areas. The Panel also criticises the RMA for failing to adequately respond to rapid changes in rural land use and continued intensification.
A key emphasis of the recommendations is the need to promote greater national and regional coordination in our resource management system, providing more certainty for councils and developers. The Panel proposes that spatial plans would be used to coordinate long-term decision-making for infrastructure and land use planning, something which it says is currently fragmented between the RMA, Local Government Act, and Land Transport Management Act.
The Panel envisages a resource management system focused on outcomes, both to protect and enhance the natural environment, and facilitate development. This would be moving away from what the Panel says is the current focus on managing the effects of resource use. The proposed Natural and Built Environments Act would specify outcomes in relation to quality of natural and built environments, rural areas, tikanga Māori, historic heritage, natural hazards and climate change. Mandatory national direction would provide guidance on how these matters must be reflected in plans, including through the use of targets. Environmental limits and minimum standards would be established for certain resources.
To address local government integration and to reduce complexity, the Panel proposes 14 combined regional plans to consolidate the more than 100 various plans and policy statements of territorial and unitary authorities and regional councils. This appears to be a unitary authority-type approach rolled out for all regions. The Panel's broader commentary on local government structure also signals further reform of the sector is required, and suggests that 78 local authorities is simply too many.
While the RMA is not without its problems, the reality is that many of the issues the RMA seeks to address are complex which necessarily give rise to tensions between (for example) providing for urban development, addressing climate change, and protecting the environment. The Panel's proposal seeks to simplify processes in a way that better enables growth within environmental limits, which should be welcomed. However, greater national and regional coordination will demand strong and clear policy direction, significant local government resourcing, and a move away from managing issues at a local or regional level. While national guidance and direction always sounds enticing, the reality is that many environmental issues are genuinely local. What is an issue in Auckland is not necessarily so in Christchurch.
There is also a risk that by separating the RMA into multiple acts we further fragment the resource management system and introduce unnecessary complexity.
Watch this space as we provide more detailed updates on particular aspects of this report over the coming weeks.