The good, the bad and the ugly side of RMA

Indian Newslink Leader
Auckland, February 28, 2021

Environment Minister David Parker on the RMA. (RNZ Picture by Jane Patterson)

Environment Minister David Parker has done well to introduce proposals to reform the Resource Management Act (RMA), rather dump it and replace it with modern and more manageable statutes to allow developmental activities.

That the RMA is an obnoxious piece of legislation has universal acceptable.

But as journalist Thomas Coughlan told ‘The Detail’ at Radio New Zealand, governments have been less than enthusiastic about using these policy statements to essentially tell councils what they absolutely have to do when it comes to managing their resources. “So, it is partly the RMA’s fault because it has empowered Councils to plan in a way that makes it difficult to develop. It is partly the government’s fault because they did not just override the thing in the first place and start issuing these national policy statements earlier,” he said. 

Friendly policy provisions

The RMA has come under fire since it came into force in 1991, with many governments tweaking its provisions in an effort to better protect our environment while streamlining development. One option presented by our politicians is to follow the examples from overseas and have two pieces of legislation; one to provide us with an urban planning framework and a second to protect our precious environment (essentially a non-urban planning framework). This is not a new concept with similar split planning frameworks in Australia and the UK. However as with any legislation changes, the details will be important, and we need to question if a new legislative framework is a right solution.

The Act in perspective

The original RMA was conceived in the 1980s by the fourth Labour government, partly in a bid to prevent a repeat of the Muldoon-era think big situation where the government could do whatever it wanted, including riding roughshod over environmental concerns. 

The idea was to establish parameters: how far can we push the environment to increase productivity and make money, without irreparably damaging it?

In theory, a vast, sprawling piece of legislation pertaining to all the resources New Zealand enjoys makes sense. But theory does not always work in practice.

Long list of complaints

Among the medley of complaints – that it is too long, too complicated; that it discourages long-term housing and infrastructure development; that it empowers NIMBY and is so complex as to be completely inaccessible to anyone who cannot afford the services of specialist RMA consultants or lawyers; and that it is inadequate in protecting the environment, and particularly in maintaining high freshwater standards.

Sustainable Development

The RMA is New Zealand’s main piece of legislation that sets out how we should manage our environment. The RMA is based on the principle of sustainable management which involves considering effects of activities on the environment now and in the future when making resource management decisions.

As well as managing air, soil, fresh water and coastal marine areas, the RMA regulates land use and the provision of infrastructure which are integral components of New Zealand’s planning system.

The RMA has brought a number of benefits. Importantly, New Zealand’s natural and physical resources are now managed in a sustainable framework, with a raft of environmental bottom-lines.

While the RMA provides an overarching guide on what’s best for our environment, with national direction on significant issues, it allows communities to make decisions on how their own environment is managed through regional and district resource management plans. Decisions on resource consents are made with consideration to these plans, national direction and the objectives in the RMA.

While there is no argument that the RMA must be dumped, it is equally important that the replacement should be based on pragmatism and balanced environment.

Our cities should not become concrete jungles.

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