Tiny RMA step, giant leap for the environment?
On Friday, in his post-budget speech to the trans-Tasman business lunch, the Prime Minister told his audience that there would be “no changes to sections 6 and 7 of the RMA as planned”, because government can’t get support.
“The probability of us getting our partners to agree to substantial change are very low,” he said.
If true (and “no change” really does mean no change to those key sections), it’s a breakthrough in our RMA campaign and government thinking, but we’re not hanging up the megaphone or the placards just yet.
A big focus of much of the media coverage and Parliamentary party opposition has been on the section 6 and 7 changes. Changes to those sections, different from planned but not much in substance, could still be in negotiation – the Maori Party is still in negotiation with the government – and there was a further clue in the Prime Minister’s comments which followed.
The reforms were “slightly different to what we would have hoped”, he said.
“My view would be the focus of attention has to be on all the other parts of the legislation,” he said. “We’re just going to have to do a bit of creative thinking…”
The government will still introduce a Bill to reform the Resource Management Act later this year, but its strategy may change.
We’ve said from the start that the risks aren’t only about sections 6 and 7 – that huge damage to the Act’s good outcomes could be done by what look like very small and technical process changes in the other 800-odd pages of the Act. Things like perhaps:
- changes to the Environment Court or its powers?
- even more limited opportunities for appeals against planning or consent decisions on the merits?
- different, politically-appointed decision-makers?
- more council discretion to limit or disregard public submissions?
- new types of processes with perhaps much shorter timeframes, or processes making it harder for evidence to be tested or heard
On a brighter note, the Budget 2015 announced last week included more funding for National Policy Statements done under the RMA, and guidance to local and regional authorities. Budget 2015 will “invest an additional $20.4 million over four years to provide greater national direction and support to councils in implementing the resource management reforms”. Government is now talking about stronger national direction and greater use of National Policy Standards and National Environment Standards – and we agree these are needed, in some cases desperately needed. They can be good things like a biodiversity NPS. One better approach than rewriting the Act to target real problems may be an NPS on urban planning or housing. The budget money will also support the development of planning templates to enable a more standardised and simplified approach to resource management. Again, subject to the kinds of considerations above, Forest & Bird is likely to support this.
Whatever approach is taken we’ll still be focused on good processes for people and places – that let evidence be tested, people be heard, and independent expert decision-makers make good decisions with better outcomes for us all. But in particular, better environmental and ecological outcomes.
And of course, some changes to the RMA are needed but currently missing from government proposals: to adequately provide for climate change, for example, or reverse unworkable changes made in 2009 and 2013 that slashed protection for urban trees.
We shouldn’t be having to guess what the changes might be. Expert groups like not only ourselves but the RMLA, or the NZ institute of planners – people who work with the Act every day – should be being closely consulted.
Ideally, we’d see cross political-party agreement on RMA reform, that gave the Act its 25-year life to date.
Still: if we have stopped the government’s disastrous 2013 plans to rewrite sections 6 and 7 – tilting the Act’s foundations towards economic development and away from environmental protection, an approach that would have scrapped a quarter century’s law and forced us all to start again at huge uncertainty and cost – this is a huge step forward. And it’s thanks to your support.