Making the RMA great again – what next for the RMA under the new Government?
As discussed in our October Resource Management Update, a series of significant changes to the RMA passed by the previous Government came into effect on 18 October this year. These changes followed significant changes to the RMA's plan and policy-making processes that came into force back in April (click here to see our discussion of those amendments in our April update).
With the new Government, the RMA will once again come into focus for further reform. The new Minister for the Environment, the Honourable David Parker, has announced he intends to reverse some of National's latest round of changes to the RMA's notification provisions. But what else can we expect for the RMA from a new Government intent on delivering change?
A radical overhaul of the legislative regime governing natural and physical resources is not on the Government's agenda. While there were suggestions pre-election of new legislation (with a potential "split" between urban and rural environments with different legislation for each getting particular attention), the RMA is here to stay. Labour, supported by its partners New Zealand First and the Greens, has committed to retaining the Act.
Nevertheless, a close review of Labour's 2017 Environment Policy Manifesto reveals significant RMA reform is likely over the next three years.
A reversal of the amendments made by the previous Government is first on the reform agenda. In addition to reversing the latest notification amendments flagged by Minister Parker, Labour has also committed to reversing other recent amendments that it considers objectionable. While the precise reforms will need to be negotiated with New Zealand First and the Greens, Labour has indicated the provisions it wants to reverse include the provisions that:
- Allow for single-step plan and policy-making processes without sufficient safeguards for public participation.
- Limit appeals to the Environment Court.
- Allow National Planning Standards to extend into substantive standardised content.
We expect Ministry for the Environment to continue its work (begun under the previous Government) on National Planning Standards for plan formatting, e-plan standards and potentially some definitions. However, given Labour's stated position, we expect that for the development of standards for substantive plan content to be put on the backburner (at least for now).
While the National Planning Standards are now unlikely to have a significant substantive impact, the new Government will increase the level of national direction for local authorities in other ways.
In particular, we are likely to see more national policy statements (NPS) and national environmental standards. Labour has committed in its Manifesto to developing a range of new NPS, including on affordable housing and for freshwater management. It also intends to continue the development of the NPS for indigenous biodiversity that began under the previous Government. Meanwhile, its coalition partner New Zealand First is championing the development of an NPS for aquaculture, which fits with its regional development agenda. The development of any new NPS, particularly on matters such as affordable housing and freshwater, is sure to generate significant levels of public interest.
The final major initiative on Labour's RMA reform agenda is the appointment of an expert panel to advise the Government on how the RMA can remain "fit for purpose". While Labour is committed to retaining the RMA, the Act has been subject to constant amendment over the last several years such that the RMA we have today is a long way from that which came into force in 1991. Labour is proposing a "stocktake" is now undertaken, to determine how to best achieve the Act's purpose and principles in Part 2 moving forward.
A hard and principled look at the RMA is overdue. The successive reforms to the RMA have resulted in an unwieldy and inelegant piece of legislation that has moved far beyond its original intent. If the RMA is here to stay, as Labour intends, then a review is essential to ensure the Act remains fit for purpose for current and future generations.
It will be important that experienced users of the RMA – including local authorities, network utility operators, infrastructure providers, businesses, community groups and resource management professionals – all look to contribute to the upcoming discussion and debate.
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