Eugenie Sage

National’s RMA changes weaken our environment law when we should be strengthening it

by Eugenie Sage

At the moment when New Zealand is the focus of international attention over Fonterra’s botulism scare, the National Party seems intent on sabotaging our economy and environment by weakening our environmental laws attacking the Resource Management Act (RMA).

National’s changes will make the RMA an economic development act at the expense of nature and local democracy.

The following changes proposed for legislation later this year are anti-environment:

-        Changes to the “engine room” of the RMA- its sustainable management purpose and principles. These will pancake the current hierarchy of matters of national importance and other matters in sections 6 and 7 into a single grab bag of principles of equal weight.

-        Deleting key environmental principles such as the requirements to maintain and enhance “amenity values” and the “quality of the environment” and weakening others such as the need to “protect the habitat of trout and salmon”.

Many submitters on the February 2013 discussion document opposed these changes as threatening New Zealanders’ way of life and important sectors of the economy including domestic and international tourism.

-        Requiring councils to have identified and specified “outstanding natural features and landscapes” in their plans for these to be considered in any resource consent decision (eg wind farm or mining applications such as Bathurst).

-        Including “the efficient provision of infrastructure” as a new matter of national importance.  This means decision makers  will have to give the same weight to providing new hydro generation and  irrigation infrastructure as to protecting a river’s natural character.

-        Strengthening landowner’s rights.

The changes to the Act’s purpose and principles are based on ideology rather than any evidence or substantive analysis of the need for change.  As the Ministry for the Environment’s on the Minister’s February 2013 discussion document says, “ Submitters were concerned there was an absence of reliable evidence – beyond anecdotes and case studies- on which statements were made. Such concerns were evident irrespective of the submitters’ position regarding the intent of the Discussion Document.”

Even Todd Energy labelled the content of the discussion document as vague or “nebulous.”

The RMA is about enabling development while protecting our environment on which we and the economy depend.   The Green Party’s plan for our economy is to protect and enhance our valuable “100% Pure” New Zealand brand, not help shred it by weakening our key environmental law.

More permissive approach to subdivision

In a major new change to the RMA,  the Government plans to allow new subdivision anywhere and everywhere unless a council expressly restricts this through a plan rule. This change is a recipe for urban sprawl and ad hoc subdivision along the coast, and around lakes and rivers.

Property developers will be overjoyed. So will farmers and other rural landholders wanting a quick profit by carving off sections for sale from a larger rural landholding.

This change won’t solve our housing affordability crisis. It has the potential to blight some of our most spectacular natural landscapes with ad hoc, poorly planned McMansion holiday home development close to beautiful  beaches, high country lakes and other popular holiday spots.     It will also risks the countryside being pepper potted with new homes far from townships and essential services.

The current presumption in the RMA that land can only be subdivided if expressly allowed by a resource consent or a plan rule is based on decades of planning law.  It helps ensure that new subdivision is integrated with existing sewage, water supply and other infrastructure, and avoids sensitive landscapes or areas prone to flooding, coastal erosion and other natural hazards.

At the same time as National is making “the management of significant risks from natural hazards” a new RMA principle, the permissive approach to subdivision proposed will weaken one of the key tools for avoiding development in areas vulnerable to inundation or landslides.

If the local council plan does include a rule requiring developers and landowners to get consent for a new  subdivision, then it appears the public will only be able to comment if the subdivision is inconsistent with the plan objectives and policies. These plan provisions are broadly drafted so expect very few applications to be notified.

National’s RMA changes will let private property rights trump appropriately sited, and well planned and designed compact urban development.


Anti- regulation thrust in  RMA changes

The  RMA changes further entrench private property rights and will make it more difficult for councils to regulate  for clean river for example by controlling land uses such as intensive dairying to protect water quality. This is because of the proposed new requirement in section 7(d) RMA that councils cannot restrict the use of private land unless this is “reasonably required” to achieve the RMA purpose.

The Resource Management Reform Bill 2012 being debated in Parliament already requires councils to produce a more onerous and extensive cost benefit analysis to justify any new plan regulation.   The new section 32 provisions around these cost benefit analyses require councils to consider additional matters of whether such rules provide or reduce economic growth and employment .

These two obstacles to regulation in the form of regional and district plan rules will make it more difficult for councils to, for example, restrict subdivision close to the coast to protect its naturalness or to control nitrate leaching from dairy pasture to protect water quality.  They appear designed to prevent a repeat of the progressive Environment Court decision on the Manawatu-Wanganui  Region’s One Plan which upheld the need for land use rules to control leaching.

Changes attack local democracy and public participation

As well as being an attack on the environment, National’s proposed changes to the Resource Management Act undermine local democracy and citizen participation in decisions affecting their neighbourhoods and places they  value.

The submission summary on the Minister’s February discussion document says 99% of the 13,277 submissions opposed increased powers of Ministerial interference  in plan making.  There has been a small win here as a result of public comment  to allow public submissions. The Minister can still swoop in and direct a council to change a district or regional plan or policy statement.  If she doesn’t approve of the changes a council makes, she can then direct an external commissioner to rewrite part of the plan with the council then seeking public submissions.

Public participation is compromised by the proposed changes around decision making on resource consent applications.  Councils currently only notify four to six per cent of applications for public submissions.  The following RMA changes will increase the powers of council staff and reduce public participation:

-        New powers for councils to allow activities with no need for a resource consent.

-        New powers for councils and Minister to specify activities which cannot be notified for public comment. (This reverses the public participation presumption in the current Act).

-        New restrictions on who can be considered an “affected party” able to comment on a resource consent application.

-        Limiting the matters that submitters can comment on to the reasons a resource consent is required and the effects that led to it being notified. This fails to recognise that submitters often provide additional information on the effects of a proposal which the applicant and council officer may not have considered.

-        New powers for councils to strike out submissions for being irrelevant.

Other changes which will benefit applicants at the expense of submitters include:

-        Allowing applicants but not submitters to object to a council decision and have it referred to an external commissioner to reconsider, rather than the Environment Court.

-        Limiting the matters which can be considered at a council hearing to only those which were not resolved at a pre hearing meeting.

-        No restrictions on an applicants’ right to appeal the council decision. Submitters are restricted to issues raised in their submission.

One of the dumber ideas in the discussion document  – for a new Crown body to process  resource consents – has been dropped. This would have duplicated the work of councils and the EPA.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Eugenie Sage on Sat, August 10th, 2013   

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