Russel Norman

Nats and RMA

by Russel Norman

Aside from the Nats wanting taxpayers and ratepayers to subsidise urban sprawl and developers, the Nats also used their conference to launch the usual attack on the Resource Management Act. Nick Smith’s speech to their conference made a number of proposals for changing the RMA – some good, mostly bad – that threaten to undermine the ability of the RMA to protect the environment.

Below I have put Nick’s comments indented and then tried to decipher what they mean for people who care about the environment.

Firstly, the Act needs greater central government direction. It is the most devolved environmental statute in the world resulting in every Council having to reinvent the wheel. We propose setting up to 20 national environmental goals to clearly guide decision makers on what needs to be achieved and will measure progress towards them. That is also why we are keen on an Environmental Protection Authority.

If this means they will actually do National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards which act to improve standards then good – as I’ve blogged about before.

Secondly, National wants greater use of price signals, markets and better recognition of property rights. That is why in areas like water permits, greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen discharges, we favour cap-and-trade systems over bureaucratic systems of allocation.

The use of pricing signals for commercial use of water for example would be good – when public resources are used for commercial gain they should pay some kind of resource rental. However, making these into private property rights has some dangers. Giving property rights to fishers in the form of quotas has not led to responsible behaviour on their part.

We also want to improve the compensation mechanisms in the Public Works Act. We want to make explicit that landowners must be consulted over rules affecting their land and believe a net conservation benefit approach would get better environmental outcomes.

This is not good – do we want to pay people compensation for not destroying the environment – should every landowner in the country get a payment for not blowling over a bit of remnant bush on their property?

We want less litigation and more science in decision-making.

Of course – but who knows what that means.

We propose refocusing the legal aid fund and putting the money into more technical support and into mediation services.

What Nick means here is taking legal aid away from community groups fighting resource consent hearings. So developers face off against groups that have to raise money from cake stalls to fund their efforts to stop environmental destruction.

Thirdly, National proposes simplifying and streamlining the processes of the Act to reduce the delays, uncertainties and costs. Let me detail some of our proposals for simplifying the Act:
1. We propose to limit the definition of environment to natural and physical resources so as to avoid vexatious arguments over trade competition and where the Taniwha might live.

It could be good to remove economic argument but bad to remove cultural arguments. Physical places have cultural meanings to different cultures.

2. We propose to reduce the number of consent categories from the current five to three, so it is not nearly so complicated.

A bit unclear but it probably means remove prohibited activities which would facilitate more development regardless of its environmental impact.

3. We propose fixing the vague Treaty clause by removing the broad reference to it’s principles that nobody understands and be quite specific about the consultation requirements with iwi.

Not good if you support the Treaty.

4. We propose reducing the number of plans. We note with interest that Northland has adopted a ‘one plan’ policy integrating its Regional and three District Plans into one, and we are exploring applying it nationwide. Eighty-five plans for a country of four million people is excessive.

This could be very good. Auckland is already trying it voluntarily.

5. We propose integrating the RMA properly with the Historic Places, Forests, Building and Fisheries Acts, so applicants are not confronted by multiple hurdles.

Could be good – continues the process whereby RMA brought together Water & Soil, T&C Planning, etc.

We also want to streamline the Act:
1. It is a waste of everyone’s time to go through years of double process of a consent hearing and then the Environment Court. That’s why we back the direct referral of major applications straight to the Environment Court

Has been debated ad nauseum and rejected. For major projects perhaps we could live with it if community groups were resourced properly through better legal aid….

2. It is wrong that Ministers can veto the process as we saw with the 13-year debacle over the Whangamata Marina. That veto will go under National and decisions will be left with the Environment Court.

It’s not a veto, it’s exercising authority on behalf of the owners of the coastal marine area, which is public space, and only applies to a few types of structure. But it could certainly be applied better than it has been.

3. There should be a penalty when Councils ignore the 20-day timeline for resource consents. Councils charge penalties when the ratepayer is late, as with rates. If it is good enough for the goose, it is good enough for the gander

His private member’s bill on that has just been rejected by select committee

4. There should be limits on requests for more information. An applicant should be able to require that a consent be processed, albeit they run the risk of being rejected. They at least then have the option of appealing to the Environment Court.

As long as they are not allowed to bring new info to the EC, which will then have to reject it too!! This is just another way of getting direct referral by short cutting the first hearing.

5. The Court should have the power to require security for costs, a power taken away by Labour. If an application or objection is weak and likely to involve a costs order, this discretionary power of the Court helps get rid of the vexatious and frivolous.

This would overturn one of our key victories. Applicants use threat of security for costs to intimidate objectors and hey presto easier to get a bad development through.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Russel Norman on Mon, August 6th, 2007   

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