Back in 2008, incoming National MP Amy Adams spent an unusual amount of her maiden speech to Parliament talking about the need to boost New Zealand’s infrastructure investment – and the pressing need for central and local government to remove some of the bureaucratic roadblocks to that investment.
“For New Zealand to succeed, we can’t keep saying no to infrastructure projects just because they involve change,” she said. “The process should instead focus on fairly balancing all competing interests, including wider public needs. To build New Zealand’s productivity, we need to get innovative, take some risks and do it fast. Being told by central or local government that the system means it will take months or even years, and often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultants and legal fees, to work out if something can be done, is not OK. It’s a huge drain on business. It’s pouring productivity down the plug hole.”
Providing the example of a farmer in her Selwyn electorate who was building two identical sheds on his property, not far from each other but dealing with two different council staff, she outlined the problems involved and traced them back to a lack of central guidance about what councils should be doing.
“One council, two building applications, two different council officers,” Adams points out. “The approval for the first shed took just a few weeks and was issued without the need for further information. The second identical shed took months and required the furnishing of considerable further information and reports and of course extra costs.
“How is that right? Of course we must have regulation but let’s think very carefully about what any restriction on people’s freedom actually gives to society. If the benefit is minimal and the compliance or productivity cost is high, let’s not do it.”
After only a term in Parliament, Adams is now in charge of what is shaping up to be the largest overhaul of New Zealand’s planning laws for a generation, with some sweeping changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA) set out in a discussion document and likely to reach the law books before the 2014 election.
“Be careful what you wish for, huh?” she says when reminded of just how much of her first Parliamentary speech was devoted to the issue.
Numerous previous ministers for the environment have made changes to the RMA ever since it was introduced in 1991; there’s been an amendment bill roughly every 18 months since the mid-1990s.
The current government made some major changes in its first term, in a batch of reforms dubbed, informally, “RMA One”, steered through by then-Environment Minister Nick Smith. It was always understood that “RMA Two” would be the hard bit, and that it would have to wait until the National-led government’s second term. And now this is the largest piece of business on the desk of Adams, a lawyer and farmer from the Canterbury plains.
The proposed changes, which were released back in March, were met with a storm of protest from environmental groups and some pointed, clenched-teeth comments from the local government sector.
This mean councils, in granting resource consents, will have to consider economic development issues as well as environmental ones, and they also give the government much greater powers to guide councils from the centre.
Even an environmentalist seen, historically, as a National Party ally (the Ecologic Foundation’s Guy Salmon, who worked on RMA One and has, in the past, been a National Party candidate as well as being involved with the governing party’s ‘Blue Greens’ wing) was scathing, likening it to the centralising powers used by the Chinese government.
It is this sort of reaction that Adams characterises as “going nuclear”.
“For some reason the RMA has got a sort of sacred cow element to it and it’s not difficult to identify the issues and the challenges.”
The key thing to remember, she says, is the RMA is not just New Zealand’s environmental protection legislation – it is also the country’s planning law.
“It is not performing well as planning legislation, and we need it to. Planning is actually critically important; it’s what determines when we have jobs; it’s a big component of housing affordability; it’s a big component of the character of and liveability of our neighbourhoods – all of those issues.”
Any number of sector groups, be they non-government organisations, community groups, councils, housing sector groups, business and investors will “tell you tales of woe and difficulty,” she says.
“But where people have looked to amend this it very quickly all gets very hard, both in terms of how you deliver a regime that will fix it without tipping the balance too much the other way – and I’m not talking in terms of environment and the economy, I’m thinking more in terms of process, getting that balance right of good process, but not an overly drawn-out one.
“It all gets very difficult to find the right levers to pull and it gets very difficult politically to know whether you want to wade into it, because as soon as you start talking about making some fundamental changes to the Act, it gets quite nuclear and heated and divisive, and all sorts of emotional language gets thrown around.”
Which means most changes have been piecemeal and aimed at not upsetting too many people. Adams says people have looked for small, discreet changes that would improve bits without getting too much into the middle of that particular minefield.
“And perhaps I’m a little less patient with that sort of thing, and perhaps it’s just naivety, and I just want to charge into the middle of it and see if we can get to the heart of it.”
Adams admits it’s a contentious and difficult area to tackle and she is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task.
“It will be the centre of considerable robust debate, but I take the view that we’ve had the system we’ve had for 22 years, that we know what it delivers because we’ve all been living with it, and if we genuinely want a system that works better we have to be prepared to go back to not quite the first principles but right back to the heart of it and see how we can rethink some of the decisions that were made that are fundamental to the way it works.”
And fundamental to this are two things: one is the role of central versus local government; the other is the trade-off between economic and environmental priorities.
Tension with local government is a growing feature of New Zealand’s political scene and will no doubt grow during what is a local body election year.
The rise of Auckland as a supercity is a major factor in this. With more than a third of the country’s voters, Auckland can now challenge central government with far more confidence – and, under Mayor Len Brown, is doing so.
Economic policy is largely about how resources – capital, labour, intellectual and natural – are used, yet in this area the levers ministers can pull have been in the hands of local rather than central government.
Adams says this is not about blaming local councils; rather, she says, central government has historically left too many of the difficult decisions in the area to local bodies.
“I think, to be fair, central government has let the local government sector down over the past 22 years in this space, because when the RMA was first passed, the expectation was always that central government would be much more upfront in providing assistance as to how this stuff was done.”
That assistance was supposed to come from tools within the legislation such as national policy statements, but few of these have ever been issued.
“What tended to happen is that elected people in central government found these decisions just as politically hard as those in local government and said ‘OK, you guys figure it out’. So it’s not surprising that we’ve ended up with this massively duplicative set of planning rules that have become more inconsistent, more divergent, totally less clear, contradictory in and of themselves, even within an area, because we’ve required every single council around the country to build their own system from the ground up.”
Critics have interpreted this as a grab for more centralised planning but Adams says it is only more centralised in the context of how New Zealand has managed this area since the RMA was passed.
“If you look at the state level of Australia, a number of the state-level ministers, my equivalent, have final sign-off on all plans. So you think I’m getting more involved in the stuff – if I was over there, I would be having final approval on every plan that’s issued around the country.”
That is, she says, the last thing she wants to be doing, but the fact highlights that New Zealand is at the “far more highly devolved, completely hands-off end of the spectrum”.
New Zealand has 178 planning documents across the country and Adams has a goal of moving to 63 of them. As a quick comparison, Queensland is moving to having one such document; Scotland has 37 plans and some five million people.
“I am deliberately and quite openly trying to pull it back so that central government gives a much clearer set of expectations and assistance to local government on how it should make these hard calls.”
One simple example of the duplication that goes on at the low end of the scale is noise control. Every council has its own way of measuring noise and consent hearings go over the same questions around the science of measuring noise.
“All the rules are inconsistent. So in my view, quite clearly, it makes more sense for us to say, ‘This is the way you measure noise, you will live under those set of rules’. Bang. Done once. Councils then decide what the noise levels should be, but we set the rules.”
More seriously, the paramount issue of water management is exercising minds across the Wellington bureaucracy, and not only in her own ministry. Adams says it’s not just “a bunch of policy wonks and politicians sitting around a room”, but rather scientists and leading practitioners working to come up with a national objectives table. That table would set the framework of all the things councils might wish to manage in a body of water.
Meanwhile, central government would provide the science that tells councils how to classify a body of water and what the ‘tipping point’ of any change is.
“For example, they can say ‘Okay, we’re concerned about aquatic habitats in this water body, we know that if the night trap levels get above X that’s an ecological tipping point’. So all of that can be provided for and settled at a central level.”
That leaves councils to apply this, decide how they want to manage, say, a lake, and work out how to get to that point.
“That enables them to focus very much on the local application versus trying to have to fight the science and the frameworks and the thinking all the way from the ground up.”
All this is going on as the government pushes to reform the entire local government sector, and Adams says the RMA work has an obvious bearing on Local Government Minister Chris Tremain’s work in this area.
The RMA changes are not a process for driving local government reorganisation, but rather designed to work with whatever structure local government has in place. Other large laws linked up to the work include land transport, conservation, public works, and heritage legislation.
“And working out whether you could better align the roles and responsibilities of councils so that they’re not being required to plan and do these things over separate pieces of legislation and whether they could be more cohesively managed to make it a bit easier. And actually, that’s something the local government sector is very keen on. But we’ve got a pretty big piece of work with what we’re doing. You want to get the core RMA stuff right, before you start trying to meld it with other things, otherwise you just bring different messes together.”