Environmental blockage

Environmental blockage

There was a telling moment at the National Party’s Blue-Greens conference in early March. The government has the bit between its teeth on environmental law reform, from resource management, to freshwater policy, housing affordability and the balance between economic and environmental imperatives. Leading the charge is Environment Minister Amy Adams, who has inherited the juggernaut started by her predecessor, Blue-Greens founder-member Nick Smith.

During a panel discussion on proposed reforms to the Resource Management Act. Mike Ball, a party member from nearby Te Horo, told of losing his home to the controversial Kapiti expressway. He accepted his fate, supports the bigger road and felt fairly compensated. What got his goat was the fact that, three years on, the road still hadn’t started.

“The RMA has constipated this country,” he said, gaining the most vigorous audience approval of the session. The only problem is that his diagnosis was entirely wrong.

“That’s not the RMA,” said Alan Dormer, National Party stalwart and key adviser on RMA reforms. “It’s the fault of central government for not having got on with it. The RMA comes in for a lot of unfair criticism and that’s one of them.”

However, Adams is relying on the RMA’s bogeyman image to drive support for the more controversial aspects of the government’s reforms, knowing environmental lobbyists largely agree with the rest of the package.

Proposals to merge Sections 6 and 7 of the Act, which guide the courts on the untouched Section 5, which establishes ‘sustainable management’ as the sole focus of the RMA, are seen as weakening environmental protections in favour of economic objectives.

Combined with proposals to make today’s local decision-making much more subservient to central government directives, the stage is set not only for more nationally cohesive decision-making, but also for a marked pro-development, pro-growth shift in the management of our natural resources.

Overlay these changes with the freshwater reforms Adams announced the same morning, and there is potential for much more coherent and decisive policy-making across those resources. Done well, it could be a good thing.

National established the collaborative Land and Water Forum process and, after four years, has produced a new, long-term blueprint. LAWF’s success was one reason for the unprecedented attendance at the Blue-Greens forum by major environmental groups.

The government sees a need – recognised in principle by the environmental movement – for greater central government direction; 78 local councils doing their own thing on the basics is madness, and the courts end up deciding too many disputes, the deepest pockets winning.

Its proposal for a new government agency to fast-track action on nationally important issues at the local level is a big power shift.

Adams has accused opponents of that policy thrust as being out of touch with New Zealanders who see the RMA as one of the main reasons the country doesn’t grow faster.

That includes those represented in the room at Tatum Park, who see the RMA as a totem of bureaucratic, anti-growth meddling, and the plaything of anti-growth activists. The trick will be balancing that constituency with the aims of what remains world-leading environmental legislation.