As clashes go, the differences between Environment Minister David Parker and Tony Randerson, the retired judge he hired to review the Resource Management Act, are mildly and politely expressed.
But in their separate speeches at the Environment Defence Society’s conference in Christchurch, it was clear that Parker has rejected what Randerson considers to be a crucial element of his report.
They were arguing over whether the new planning legislation should consider the quality of the urban environment (which Randerson advocated) but which Parker dismissed as simply a matter of taste.
In his report, Randerson repeatedly defined one of the key aims of the reform of the Resource Management Act as being to put “a new focus on enhancing the quality of the natural and built environments to support the wellbeing of present and future generations.”
But in the draft of the legislation, which is now being considered by Parliament’s Environment Committee, the objective of enhancing the “quality” of the urban environment has been left out.
In contrast, the bill’s objectives list the environmental outcomes it is intended to produce as; “the quality of air, freshwater, coastal waters, estuaries, and soils is protected, restored, or improved.”
Meanwhile its outcomes for urban areas focus almost entirely on housing development.
The defined outcomes for urban areas are: “Urban areas that are well-functioning and responsive to growth and other changes, including by— (i) enabling a range of economic, social, and cultural activities; and (ii) ensuring a resilient urban form with good transport links within and beyond the urban area.”
“There are some references in the exposure draft to the quality of the natural environment, but the quality of the urban environment, the built environment seems to have been left out of the equation,” Randerson said.
“So I think that maybe we need to revisit the issue and whether that should come back into the draft.
“If there is going to be nothing about the quality of the urban environment in the legislation, then we need to remember that after all, 85 per cent of us live in cities and towns and small provincial towns.
“So one would have thought it was pretty axiomatic that having a quality urban or built environment was at least as important as having a quality natural environment.”
Parker was not present for Randerson’s speech, but EDS CEO, Gary Taylor, was quick to tackle him later over Randerson’s comments during a question session at the conference.
“One of the things that came out during the discussion earlier today was the need for more emphasis on quality design, quality urban outcomes that we haven’t seen in the Natural and Built Environments Act,” said Taylor.
”Deliberately stripped out,” replied Parker.
“And it’s not going back in, which is not to say that form isn’t important. It really is.
“And we want it, and we’re going to design it into the system
“But one of the problems that we have had in the country now is that the reference to amenity is being overused by players and by objectors and has really focused on issues which I would call matters of taste rather than environmental outcomes.”
So Parker suggested one way to fix it would be to make plans less rigid.
“One of the things that I find quite exciting about the reforms is that it is that if we’re a bit less rigid about these regional plans about how local district councils go about their work, then they can have a bit of a play.”
But the CEO of the Hawkes Bay Regional Council, James Palmer, suggested that there was a danger that because people did not trust politicians, they sought to put convoluted processes in place in planning to limit the ability of the politicians to make decisions.
“Nowehere else in public policy in this country do our elected members have to go through so many convoluted hoops to make a decision on behalf of the community and then have to present enormous amounts of evidence to justify it and then have it litigated to death,” he said.
“We don’t do it in any other area except resource management.
“And I think it’s because the environmentalists don’t trust politicians to look after the environment; the socialists don’t trust politicians not to favour the wealthy developers, and a private company owner doesn’t want the politician in his life.
“That’s the tough conversation we have to have because if we have lots of convoluted, long planning processes in the years that lie ahead, we’re not going to be flexible enough to respond to climate change, global biodiversity collapse and the water quality and quantity challenges we have.
“So we need to make decisions at pace, and we have to reflect on whether the democratic process of electing people to make decisions on our behalf and using their judgment is something we need to start to have faith in.
“Then that might be the solution rather than the problem.”
The conference spent most of the afternoon debating the proposed RMA reforms. Much of that debate was technical over issues such as whether the new legislation should specify environmental limits or environmental targets.
Most speakers favoured targets arguing that with limits, people tended to regard the limit as a target rather than aiming for something more aspirational.
The Director of Policy and Advocacy for the northern Employers and Manufacturers Association, Alan McDonald, brought the debate back to the question of the quality of the built urban environment.
“Targets really are around ensuring when you do development that it’s done very, very well to the highest standard,” he said.
But he warned that if targets were introduced, someone would need to enforce them.
“Councils aren’t very good at it. Do we need a beefed-up Environmental Protection Authority?”
It is this level of detail that will now dominate the hearings of the Select Committee.
The Committee can also expect to hear strong opposition to many of the reforms in Parker’s legislation from National, whose leader, Judith Collins, has dismissed the proposals as “a grab at wokeism.”
But as the debate in Christchurch, yesterday demonstrated, working out what should be in the legislation is not going to be easy.