No longer sustainable? A new direction for New Zealand’s resource management system
By: Michelle Mehlhopt, Jesse Aimer
Published: 31/07/2020
In a report released Wednesday 29 July, the Resource Management Review Panel (Panel) recommended major changes to New Zealand’s resource management system.  Notably, these changes include repealing the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and replacing it with three pieces of legislation:
  • A Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA) – which would be the most direct replacement of the RMA, albeit with a different flavour.  
  • A Strategic Planning Act (SPA) – which proposes to facilitate the spatial integration of legislative functions from across the resource management system.
  • A Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act (CCAA) – which proposes to deal with the complexities of managing the effects of climate change.
The Panel’s report is considerably detailed (at 531 pages!), and can be viewed here.  To help you digest the report, we have summarised some of the Panel’s key proposals below.

Change in focus

The Panel proposes the resource management system refocus on identifying and protecting environmental outcomes, as opposed to managing the effects of resource use.  The purpose of sustainable management in the RMA is replaced with a clearer focus on enhancing the quality of natural and built environments.  The NBEA introduces the concept of Te Mana o te Taiao, which refers to the importance of maintaining the health of air, water, soil and ecosystems and the relationship between the health of those resources and their capacity to sustain life. 

Improved engagement with Māori

The Panel proposes a new Tiriti clause that requires those exercising powers and functions under the NBEA to give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (with a national policy statement providing direction on how this is to be achieved).  Changes are proposed to better enable partnerships between mana whenua and local authorities, with local authorities having a positive obligation to initiate integrated partnership processes with mana whenua.  The proposals also aim to increase funding and support for Māori involvement in the resource management system.

Regional and district plans to be combined

To address local government integration and reduce complexity, the Panel recommends combining regional and district policy statements and plans into a single plan for each region (Combined Plans).  Effectively, this would result in 14 unitary plans, in contrast to the more than 100 that currently exist.

These Combined Plans would be created by a joint committee comprising representatives of central government, the regional council, all constituent territorial authorities in the region, mana whenua and a representative of the Minister of Conservation.  The plan-making process would be more streamlined – similar to the Auckland Unitary Plan process, or the freshwater planning process proposed in the Resource Management Amendment Act 2020 (which we have summarised here).  However, one notable difference with these processes is the recommendation that the plan be audited by the Ministry for the Environment prior to its notification.

Smoother consenting process

The consenting process under the NBEA will look familiar to resource management practitioners, although there are some significant changes proposed.  The Panel’s overall aim is to reduce complexity, allow plans to provide more certainty on the process and refocus on promoting outcomes as opposed to managing effects.  Proposed amendments to notification – a notoriously tricky issue under the RMA – are particularly notable.  

Strategic planning

The proposed new SPA facilitates long-term strategic integration of functions exercised under the NBEA, Local Government Act 2002 (LGA), Land Transport Management Act 2003 (LTMA) and Climate Change Response Act 2002 (CCRA) through mandatory regional spatial planning.  These regional spatial strategies would have a strong influence on policies and plans developed under the NBEA, LGA and LTMA.

Increased tools for the fight against climate change

There is a more explicit focus on climate change issues.  Regional and district councils will be given powers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, allow for climate change adaptation and reduce natural hazard risks.  Together, the NBEA, SPA and CCAA will support the aim of a managed transition to a low carbon economy and line up with the direction taken in recent climate legislation.  Increased powers and funding will support both national and local government in undertaking these new and improved climate change functions.

Big changes ahead?

Overall, the Panel’s view is that the RMA has failed to adequately address issues causing significant pressure on the natural environment, while also failing to provide the housing and infrastructure needed for growing populations in urban areas.  The aim of the Panel’s proposed changes is to simplify processes in a way that enables growth within environmental limits. 

The changes proposed will result in a big shake up for the resource management system, involving a new overarching focus, greater co-ordination between central and local government and an increased involvement for Māori.  The (apparent) outcome of reduced complexity is to be welcomed, although the shift to a more national, rather than local, focus on issues will need to be carefully considered by the local government sector.

The broader goal of repealing and replacing the RMA appears to have support from across the political spectrum, although what it should be replaced with is a source of contention.  We are likely going to have to wait until after the election to see what shape New Zealand’s resource management system will take – but regardless of who is in Government, it appears that the RMA in its current form will not exist for much longer.
 
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