Rethinking the RMA

The government is proposing a revamp of the Resource Management Act (RMA) and has released a discussion document outlining potential changes to planning, consenting and appeals.

The government is proposing a revamp of the Resource Management Act (RMA) and has released a discussion document outlining potential changes to planning, consenting and appeals.

The RMA is now 22 years old, and while environment minister Amy Adams says it was an innovative approach at that time, it has not lived up to its full promise and is overdue for an overhaul.

“Around New Zealand frustration with the Resource Management Act (RMA) is rife.  The way RMA processes are operating is costing us all in time, money and lost opportunities.  The systems have become cumbersome, uncertain and highly litigious,” Adams said.

“The money spent on having to fight to get ahead or to defend your position is money that our households and businesses are missing out on. The impacts of this are real - delays and uncertainties means potential new jobs are not being created, houses are more expensive and communities have no idea what to expect in their neighbourhoods.

“Fundamentally, the proposed reforms are about providing greater confidence for businesses to grow and create jobs, greater certainty for communities to plan for their area’s needs, and stronger environmental outcomes as our communities grow and change.

“In most cases, this is not about whether a particular project can or cannot proceed, it is about the time and cost to reach that decision.”

She said too often inconsistency led to wasted resources as councils battle between themselves.

"For example, I have had reports of rules that stipulate lounge rooms in houses must face the street, heritage zone provisions that apply to a 14 year old Lockwood house, and streetscape rules applied to houses on rear lots, not visible from the street. And just this week, I was made aware of a council that wanted to dictate the size of the front windows of new houses. Is this really what sustainable management of our resources is about?"

The Property Council has welcomed the proposals, particularly around the national guidelines, single regional plans and the consent process.

“We are reviewing government proposals to speed up non-notified consents for less-complex projects and we will be seeking to work with the Government and local government to make sure we have an efficient but robust framework," said chief executive Connal Townsend.

“An important part of legislative change is the practical changes that will need to be made. Ultimately, the system needs to work in practice.”

The reforms within the package are divided into six core objectives:

Greater national consistency and guidance:
 
As a general principle, central government should provide direction for matters that are nationally important or where consistency outweighs the value of local specificity, including housing affordability and natural hazards.
 
These proposals would amend Part 2 of the RMA by updating the matters identified as being nationally important.
 
Fewer and better resource management plans:
 
These proposals would combine all the planning instruments in a defined area into a format that would provide applicants with a one stop shop for the planning rules that affect their properties and activities.
 
Planning would be future focused, making provision for matters such as housing affordability, infrastructure development and urban growth management. District and regional councils would be able to choose, where appropriate, to group together and jointly prepare a single integrated plan for each district or area. The proposal includes an option of adopting a more collaborative process for the development of the single plan.
 
Changes would be made to appeal provisions to encourage effective participation in the development of plan content while retaining the role of the courts as a safeguard.
 
More efficient and effective consenting:
 
The proposals in the discussion document would introduce a 10-working-day time limit for processing straightforward, non-notified consents accompanied by a proposed national requirement for some types of application to be processed without notification. A new process is proposed to allow an “approved exemption” from consent requirements for technical or minor rule breaches.
 
Additional proposals are to limit affected parties’ opposition to the specific effects that projects will have on them, amend the scope of potential submissions and appeals on consents, introduce the potential for an alternative crown body to undertake consent-processing functions in areas facing particular growth management pressures, and provide consenting authorities tools to prevent land banking.
 
The proposals would also improve the transparency around consent processing fees, place constraints on the scope of conditions councils are able to place on consents and reduce the costs associated with the Environmental Protection Authority’s nationally significant proposals process.
 
Better natural hazard management:
 
The discussion document includes proposals aimed at providing greater national consistency and guidance to improve the way that natural hazards are planned for and managed.
 
Under the proposals, provisions would be made to ensure the risks of all natural hazards can be appropriately considered in resource consent decisions.
 
Effective and meaningful iwi/Māori participation:
 
The discussion document includes proposals aimed at clarifying the role of iwi/Māori in plan-making processes and enabling more effective iwi/Māori participation in the resource management system more generally.
 
These proposals would encourage councils and iwi/Māori to proactively seek local solutions early in resource management processes, which would help reduce the time, costs and uncertainty of the status quo, and reduce the risk of litigation.
 
Working with councils to improve practice:
 
These proposals would provide more effective guidance on the development of best practice and would require councils to publicly report on their service performance in relation to the resource management accountabilities.
 
Under the proposals, a standard approach across local authorities would enable more effective benchmarking of performance between councils.