The National Government’s Resource Legislation Bill has been described as making the most fundamental changes to the RMA since it was passed in 1991. It’s a complicated and technical bill which makes 40 changes to six different Acts, including the RMA.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the original architect of the RMA has identified, “at least three significant and dangerous trends running through the Bill”. They include greater Ministerial control and centralised decision making that over-rides planning processes by local councils, limits opportunities for New Zealanders to participate in decisions, and puts an emphasis on the speed of, rather than the quality of, decision making.
The Bill has attracted considerable criticism from a range of submitters on these themes. Many submitters presenting to select committee this week have put in a lot of work to analyse the Bill, to make sense of the changes and explain its impacts.
Their comments and submissions should help MPs amend the Bill and make better law. Just like with the RMA – enabling the public to comment on council plans and policy and resource consent applications helps inform the decision makers and leads to better outcomes. Yet the Resource Legislation Bill will further restrict the ability of citizens to have their say, just as National’s previous RMA changes have done.
The Bill provides for a “streamlined” fast-track plan making process where only ”affected parties” and iwi are notified and able to submit. It narrows the matters submitters can comment on in resource consent applications, it effectively requires submitters to provide expert technical information and it allows councils to strike out citizen submissions.
ECO’s environmental economist Cath Wallace raised these issues at the select committee saying, “we are hacked off with the current emphasis in public policy on extractive interests and the lack of attention to other aspects of our social and cultural life, and to the ecological systems which keep the whole economy going.
“There is a marginalisation of rights of the populace to express their values and have these taken into account in RMA decision making in the Bill.”
The Environmental Defence Society said, “the Ministerial discretion provided for by the Bill is excessive and the reduction in public participation unjustified. The changes allow the politicisation of RMA processes and compromise the democratic separation of powers. The focus on quick decision-making will compromise good decision-making and good environmental outcomes.”
The restrictions on notifying consent applications for comment are likely to make RMA processes more, not less complex. Auckland Council dealt with 19,230 resource consents in 2014-15, around a third of all resource consents in New Zealand. It says the Bill’s changes to notification will increase the council’s processing workload, create complexity, add time and cost, and risk more objections and legal challenges.
The Ministry for the Environment’s own figures show that very few resource consent applications are notified for public comment (only 3% of all resource consents, 2% of subdivision consents and 1% of land use consents). Yet the Government thinks the priority should be to further reduce this. The Dunedin City Council said the changes, especially limiting the scope of submissions are a “disproportionate response to the small number of applications that are notified.”
The Bill is a charter to property developers in its permissive approach to subdivision. It is shutting out the public’s right to have a say so that subdivisions can proceed faster. Changes aimed at fixing Auckland’s housing crisis will have the effect of making the public notification process more complex. They will also restrict New Zealanders’ ability to have a say on new irrigation takes, discharges, and marine farms and other developments that affect the natural assets we hold in common – the sea, the air, rivers and other waterways.
We all want effective environmental law. The thrust of the Resource Legislation Bill throttles local democracy by increasing the power of the Minister and reducing public involvement in plan-making and on resource consents. It restricts the public’s ability to speak out for nature and what people value in their communities.
 Palmer, Sir Geoffrey (12 April 2016) “The Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, the Productivity Commissioner Report and the Future of Planning for the Environment in New Zealand,” Keynote Address to the Annual Conference of the New Zealand Planning Institute.
 Ministry for the Environment Local Aut6hority Statistics for 2012/13