First thoughts on RMA changes

Written By: - Date published: 10:42 pm, February 3rd, 2009 - 22 comments
Categories: economy, Environment - Tags:

We’ve got an expert guest post coming on National’s newly announced RMA changes. I’ve got a few brief(ish), non-expert thoughts first (which, hopefully won’t be totally contradicted by the expert making me look dumb)

1. It’s good to see that National has dropped its initial proposal of changing the definition of ‘environment’ in the RMA to ignore its amenity and aesthetic values, only counting resources. As discussed here, the proposed change would have created a carte blanche for developers without regard to the need for the rest of us enjoy our beautiful country and well-planned towns. National says it was advised by the Technical Advisory Group it appointed that narrowing the definition like they wanted to would have serious ‘unintended’ consequences. Good on them for listening to the experts if that’s what happened. The cynic in me suggests they realised that there would be a major political backlash if they tried it. Still, a good outcome either way. Unless, the change turns up in the phase 2 amendments later this year.

2. Resource management is really complicated. It just is, there are so many actors, so many resources, so many competing interests to try to balance, all the while, hopefully, not screwing the environment we depend upon. All over the world, resource management legislation is really complex and controversial. By the nature of the beast, consent for major projects tends to be time-consuming. In fact, the RMA, introduced by National in 1991 to replace more than 50 pieces of legislation then on the books, is regarded as world-leading. Relative to the rest of the world, the RMA does the job quickly and cheaply. Now, that’s no argument not to try to do better (and there have been endless incremental improvements since 1991). But it does show that it is childish to believe that there is a fix that will make resource management simple and quick. While the changes National has proposed seem good for the most part to this non-expert, they will not, cannot, cut the Gordian knot of resource management.

3. The devil is in the detail. It’s great to try to make the resource management process simpler, cheaper, quicker, and better but writing the legislation to do that isn’t easy. If it were, National and Labour’s previous attempts to do so over the past 17 years would have been more successful. National will have to be very careful that its amendments don’t have unintended consequence or simply create new angles for unwarranted obstruction of worthwhile projects. And, if it is careful, it may find it has to be less ambitious.

4. It’s good to see they’re only going to rush the first reading through under urgency. Resource management legislation is too complex and important to be slammed through Parliament without the public getting the chance to have input through the select committee process.

22 comments on “First thoughts on RMA changes”

  1. vto 1

    I will bet what little money I have left that the 9 month timeframe being proposed will be complied with on only rare occasions. Seems like an impossibility.

  2. Peter Burns 2

    Can I now cut my rose bush back without the bureaucratic inertia of the RMA costing everybody millions of $$$$$ talking about how I should cut back the plant? Do I need resource consent to blow my nose?
    Good stuff National. It will take years to fix the damage caused by the vile Miss Clark!

    [lprent: Actually it was national who put in the RMA. It must be a bloody big rose bush – growing all over a 6 metre tree is is?]

  3. vto 3

    ha ha Mr Burns rose bushes. Years ago I was very close to making a resource consent application to fart, such was the frustration at the time. Thought it would have made a great headline.

    Environmental effects assessment would have been interesting. And highly subjective…

  4. Peter Burns 4

    vto – the RMA management report would have been rather smelly 🙂

    No doubt a meaningless environment court judge signed it .

  5. Chris 5

    Resource Management is political. The use of resources is a political decision; some people see the environment as a resource to use, and use, and use til it either falls over or runs out or goes weird on us all. Some people see the environment as the basis for our wellbeing, and that we should treat the environment as if it were our wellbeing (which it is, duh).

    National see the environment as a resource to use (and use and use til etc). Labour saw it the same way. The Greens see it as the basis for our collective wellbeing.

    I would prefer the RMA to strike a balance towards protecting our collective wellbeing. Funnily enough, a ‘rose bush’ contributes to our collective wellbeing – it absorbs CO2, provides stormwater benefits, provides habitat for insects and micro-fauna, and to boot provides us with aesthetic pleasure.

    Having said that, it’s hard to see how some uses of the RMA can be justified – I’ve heard some horror stories.

  6. @ work 6

    Any other laws that Rodney recomends we break?

  7. Janet 7

    The rich and powerful will always get their way. These changes will only increase that. Who is going to appoint the decision makers in this process? The National Party will give these jobs to their pro-development mates.

  8. tsmithfield 8

    On talkback radio yesterday someone was commenting that their neighbour in the Malborough sounds was required to apply for a resource consent to set up one of those canvas shade sails on their own property. As you probably know, this usually involves the simple act of attaching the sail to one end of a building and a pole at the other end.

    This is the sort of nonsensical red tape that drives people mad.

  9. Joshua 9

    I doubt you’d find a rose bush more than 6m in height.

    There are some good aspects to the change and some worrying aspects. The good aspects relate to higher fines for non-compliance with consent conditions, making it harder for trade competitors to “do a Progressives” and more central guidance for local councils.

    Worrying aspects relate to restrictions on what can be appealed to the enviornment court, letting applicants effectively choose their hearings commissioners and – most notably – removing blanket tree protection.

    The tree protection issue seems to have been ignroed by most media commentators, but I think it’s the big issue here. Blanket tree protection does have some negative effects in that people will cut down trees just before they reach 6m or whatever the protected height is. However, without such rules I think there will either be huge pressure on councils to individually identify all the trees they want to protect (leading to a massive amount of work for them) or you’re going to see a lot of notable trees being lost. The current system isn’t perfect, but I think this swings too far the other way.

  10. vto 10

    Sheesh Joshua, nothing infuriates me more than when Councils decide they like somebody’s property (such as a tree, landscape, view, colour of one’s house, or even one’s house fullstop) and slap a protection thingy on it without proper compensation. That is outright theft and it f…..g stinks.

  11. SjS 11


    what if that shade sail was right up against your boundary and would block your evening sun? Would you think they should just be able to build it? Or would you consider yourself to be an affected party and expect the Council to consider your loss of sunlight?

    No as simple as it seems is it!

  12. Daveski 12

    This would seem to be a pretty balanced post from SP. I’m impressed!

  13. SjS 13


    nothing under the RMA lets a Council ‘slap’ a protection or a restriction on someone’s property without first consulting with them and without giving the property owner the right to contest the Council’s decision at a Council hearing and in the Environment Court.

    National’s RMA review may change this by allowing national (central government) RMA policy – that can’t be challenged in court – to be directly implemented into District Plans. This would mean that there could be overnight changes to restrictions on a property owner’s land without any recourse for the owner.

  14. toad 14

    Maybe this is going to be one of National’s tactics to mitigate opposition. Threaten something really nasty (like their proposed changes to the definition of “environment”), then backtrack on it, and people will then say what remains isn’t really all that bad after all, which makes it harder to fight the bits that are actually bad.

  15. BLiP 15

    Toad said:

    ” . . . Maybe this is going to be one of National’s tactics to mitigate opposition . . . ”

    Absolutely – Rodney is the bad cop, Goober John Key is the good cop.

  16. Lew (not Pascal's bookie) 16

    Well, the most interesting aspect so far for me is regarding section 8, the section of the act requiring authorities to take into consideration the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. This section (and similar are present in lots of post-Waitangi Tribunal legislation) is the classic case of a com[promise which keeps none of the stakeholders happy – a vague gesture enshrined in legislation and turned into something with at least some value by the courts, but not much value, and only in some cases.

    National were planning on repealing it, but due to their coalition agreement with the māori party means they can’t, and that’s an important symbolic win. S8 is the bit of law which enabled the early ground-breaking challenges to crown plans under the Waitangi Tribunal, and have allowed the strength of that body to gradually expand. At least one prominent RMA expert has criticised the māori party for not using its position in government to strengthen the Treaty protection provisions in the RMA; however I think this is a bit hopeful. They still only have five MPs, and even ACT haven’t got anything like what they wanted out of this review of the act.


  17. Lew 17

    Sigh, ’tis me again, above.


  18. BLiP 18

    I note that National has broken another election promise (surprise surprise) in its neutering of the RMA . Not that I’m particularly concerned about this one, but didn’t Goober John Key say National was going to rid legislation of any reference to Maori cultural and spiritual values? I’m sure that promise is in the party manifesto.

    Still, National have been, are now, and always will be liars.

  19. Felix 19

    “Maybe this is going to be one of National’s tactics to mitigate opposition”

    Yeah I’ve been watching this too. It also has the effect of shifting “the centre” of debate well to the right while appearing (to the less observant) to be moderate and sensible.

  20. Looking forward to the upcoming contributor’s piece..

    Notwithstanding an expected common sensical approach from this government – after all Upton introduced the RMA as I understand things and catchup would be expected. Conservative catchup that is aka dealing with what is or has proved in practice a need for change – there remain reservations.

    Immediately I have four. From yesterday a fairly extensive (likely govt handout) appeared which concluded with a summary of so-called improvements, beginning:—

    The improvements proposed in this reform package include:- Providing the Minister for the Environment (and Minister of Conservation in respect of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement) with powers to cancel, postpone and restart a national policy statement development process that has already commenced at any time before it is gazetted.

    What is the improvement here?

    And are we supposed to accept such wording as duly capable of effecting oversight, management or even necessary development/s arising from what is likely to come by way of changes to natural and physical resources in enzed..?
    No, I’m not referring to ‘unintended consequences’ here, save those arising from do nothing..

  21. Geoff 21

    Maybe National’s environmental strategy is better than anyone realises. Abandon efforts to tackle climate change and gut the Resource Management Act. Destroy our clean green reputation. Overseas consumers then reject New Zealand’s agricultural produce and refuse to visit causing a widespread collapse the economy. This then radically reduces New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions… But seriously, National is taking risks with the New Zealand economy by damaging New Zealand’s clean green brand so thoroughly.

  22. Rob 22

    Fantastic effort National still believe it needs more. Especially when you see the staggering rise in compliance costs under Labour through City Councils.
    Isn’t it a breath of fresh air to have some pragmatism in Government at last not hell bent on Social Engineering for a change.

    [I love the capitalised Social Engineering, makes it sound like the Black Death. Pray tell, isn’t crushing boy racers’ cars Social Engineering? Oh, that’s the good kind because it attacks a group you don’t like whereas civil unions etc give groups you don’t like equal rightsSP]

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