The government have announced plans to reform the Resource Management Act, a hideously complicated piece of legislation that gets a bad rap for all sorts of reasons. Here’s what it all means.
What’s all this then?
Imagine a set of laws which covered pretty much all of the physical space in New Zealand, and how that space gets used. It’s big, it’s hairy, it’s complicated and it’s tremendously important – it’s the Resource Management Act. And it’s in line for major changes, environment minister David Parker has announced this morning.
What’s the problem with it?
Basically, no matter what your views are, there will be something in the RMA that pisses you off.
You might be an environmentalist who wants stronger legal force behind action on climate change. You might be a property developer wanting to build new housing, but be stymied by regulations which many see as contributing to the housing crisis. You might be concerned that the RMA is breached thousands of times a year, but almost nobody is ever prosecuted. You might think the conditions on farming which contribute to the state of freshwater are too strong or too weak. You might, like Don Brash, think Māori get too much preferential treatment under the RMA, or like the Māori Party think consultation with tangata whenua has been inadequate. You might think the required levels of consultation are too arduous. You might be a mediocre journalist considering sitting down and reading the law in full and deciding it’s just too damn long.
Haven’t we been here before?
For all of those reasons outlined above and more, reform of the RMA is one of the catch-cries of almost everyone who takes a legalistic approach to politics. As the defining tool of environmental regulation, it is the context in which pretty much all decisions take place – therefore reform plans send an extremely strong signal about the general direction of travel of a government.
In fact, National leader Simon Bridges has said he regrets that the previous National government wasn’t able to push through RMA reforms in their final term, in part because they couldn’t square it with their coalition partners, and were instead left with a few small-scale amendments. A similar announcement on direction of travel was made by the current government last year.
So what will this government do?
At this stage, it’s looking a little bit like all things for all people, nothing less than an attempt to “comprehensively overhaul the RMA to cut complexity and costs, and better enable urban development while also better protecting the environment”. Minister David Parker points to delays in house building and urban development as a reason for concern, saying while the RMA is “not the sole cause of the housing crisis, planning rules are partly to blame.”
As well as that, he sympathises with the plight of the lazy journalist, and says the law has become far too complicated since it was first introduced in 1991. “Further ad hoc patch-ups and workarounds are not the answer. We need a thorough overhaul.”
Will the National opposition support this reform, then?
Judith Collins zapped out a press release within minutes of the embargo lifting. She said, “We are open to working with the Labour-led government on this reform if it can present sensible solutions that will deliver New Zealand the infrastructure it needs.” But also: “My concern is that by waiting so long to undertake this piece of work, the government has left it too late in the electoral cycle to act on it. This suggests they aren’t confident of getting NZ First and the Greens on the same page … The last thing New Zealanders want or need is yet another working group that kicks an important issue to touch until after the next election.”
Sounds like there may be a bit of work involved, will it take long?
Yes, it will take ages. A draft bill will be introduced in the next few months with amendments requiring immediate attention, and proposals for wide-scale reform will be delivered in the middle of next year. It’s highly unlikely that such wide-scale reforms will be legislated in by the time the next election rolls around, which means some of the issues will potentially become part of the campaign. Given that National have their own plans to reform the RMA, the details of each plan could become points of differences for voters to assess.
What about Māori and the consultation process?
Parker has also promised the review will make recommendations for “effective – but not overly complex – participation” by the public in RMA decisions. In a cabinet paper about the review, the importance of the RMA to Māori was highlighted – “RMA provisions for Māori participation are some of the most significant expressions of how the Crown provides for the Treaty of Waitangi (the Treaty) and the Māori-Crown relationship.” The paper promises that Māori will be engaged throughout the review.
How will this affect other stuff going on?
The government is currently working on a review of freshwater laws, and has the Zero Carbon bill before parliament. The existence of both is a reflection of the fact that existing laws weren’t doing enough to protect the environment or reduce emissions. In the draft terms of reference for the review, there was this Venn-ish diagram to visualise how the RMA would interact with other legislation.
Finally, will any of this make people like the RMA more?
Well, probably not. The cabinet paper says the review “must resolve debate on key issues” in how the RMA is written and applied. But fundamentally what the law is designed to do is navigate a path between competing interests and groups. Arguably, all of representative democracy is an effort to navigate that path. So even if the law is made more simple, and somehow achieve the unicorn of both streamlining housing development and better protecting the environment, those various competing interests will still exist. No matter how the law is changed, expect calls to reform the RMA to continue approximately until all life on earth is extinguished.