Resource Management reform is firmly back on the legislative agenda, with the Minister for the Environment yesterday announcing more detail around the long-anticipated changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).
In his speech to Nelson Rotary, the Hon Dr Smith was critical of the Act, stating that it has “fundamental design flaws that require substantial overhaul”. These criticisms include unacceptably slow planning processes and “out-dated and ill-matched” purposes and principles. Dr Smith blames the RMA for hampering job and export growth, stymieing the provision of much-needed infrastructure, and causing housing to become unaffordable. He stated that the upcoming reforms will protect against “unnecessary bureaucratic meddling”, provide stronger national consistency and encourage a more collaborative approach to resource management.
Key changes proposed:
Four key additions are proposed to sections 6 and 7 of the Act, as matters of national importance or matters that decision-makers must have regard to:
- management of significant natural hazards;
- recognition of the urban environment;
- recognition of the importance of more affordable housing; and
- provision for appropriate infrastructure.
Significantly, Dr Smith stated that provision for appropriate infrastructure will be added as a purpose of the RMA. However, he also noted no changes were proposed to the Act’s over-riding purpose of sustainable management (contained in section 5).
In addition to amending sections 6 and 7, Dr Smith stated that the reforms will also include proposals to: give greater weight to property rights; consolidate RMA rules via national planning templates; accelerate plan-making processes; encourage collaboration over litigation in resource management disputes; strengthen powers for national regulation, and implement wider use of the internet for resource management processes (such as public notifications and document exchange).
The Government has cited the housing affordability “crisis” as a push-factor behind resource management reform. While accepting the complex and wide-reaching nature of the RMA can make it “difficult to make the connection between the labyrinth of RMA rules and the significant decline in housing affordability and home ownership over the past 25 years”, Dr Smith maintained that the Act is “making housing too expensive”. In support, he extrapolated the results from a recent Treasury-commissioned report to estimate that over the past decade, the RMA has reduced housing supply by 40,000 homes, and increased the cost of completed housing projects by $30 billion.
However, some property developers and political commentators have already noted that the link between RMA requirements and housing affordability issues is tenuous at best. There are other factors behind rising house prices in Auckland, including in particular significant infrastructure costs (such as roading and water/wastewater connections required for new subdivisions) which discourage new developments. These factors seem unlikely to be addressed by the proposed reforms.
Role of district and regional plan rules
In his address, Dr Smith gave several extreme examples of unreasonable costs and delays involved with resource management processes. However, in our view it is often not the RMA itself, but how it is applied through specific district and regional planning rules which cause these costs and delays. Changes to the RMA will take some time to have effect, as they will be required to ‘flow through’ to these lower level plan and Council implemtnation of those plans.
Further, the Government’s proposal to issue national planning templates for consistency of local planning provisions is likely to be an unwieldy, time-consuming and expensive task. Imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template across different local contexts – while aspirational – will have its own challenges.
As stated in our earlier article (read here), we are unconvinced that the outcomes which Government seeks can be achieved by legislative reform alone. This is particularly the case with housing affordability, which we consider to be a complex issue. We also fear that laypeople will eagerly embrace the proposed reforms without fully understanding that many of the costs and delays associated with the Act result from how it is applied by various Councils. This is a factor acknowledged by Dr Smith, who concluded his speech by cautioning local government officials “to be practical and to appreciate the impact of the time and costs of how they administer the RMA”.
The new emphasis on private property rights will be interesting, too. Although Dr Smith referred to officious neighbours preventing New Zealanders from the full enjoyment of their homes as their ‘castles’, we note that sometimes protecting the amenity of your ‘castle’ requires an ability to comment on what those around you are proposing to do with theirs (a point best illustrated by Darryl Kerrigan in the eponymous Australian film). We would not like to see the public participatory ethic undermined too drastically.
Finally, we also note that while the RMA is blamed heavily when it fails, it rarely receives recognition for its many successful outcomes.
The Government intends to release a Bill for consultation shortly, and promulgate the amendments by the end of 2015.
Many of the broad proposals outlined by Dr Smith will become significantly clearer once the Bill has been released. We will update you here when that occurs.