Environment Minister David Parker’s sweeping reforms of the Resource Management Act unveiled yesterday will move significant aspects of the planning process from Councils to the Government.

Parker — and many critics of the RMA — have consistently argued that the often overly complex and frequently contradictory requirements of local bodies when they decide planning consents has not only held up development but also failed to protect the environment.

Launching the first phase of the reforms yesterday, Parker said there were some Council planning departments that were bigger than Government departments.

He warned that just changing the legislation would not be enough but it would be necessary to change the culture of  those departments, some of which, he said, were overly zealous.

And so the new Natural and Built Environments Act will have at its core a  new National Planning Framework which will set out the Government’s bottom lines for the use of the environment.

The NPF will build on and incorporate what are currently National Policy Standards and National Environmental Statements.

The proposed Act says its purpose will be to require that use of the environment must comply with environmental limits; outcomes for the benefit of the environment must be promoted; and any adverse effects of its use must be avoided, remedied, or mitigated.

“We’re moving away from mitigation of these things on a case by case basis towards trying to achieve long term positive outcomes,” said Parker.

“The proposed purpose of the natural environment set includes protecting and enhancing the natural environment and enabling people in communities to use the environment in a way that supports their wellbeing and that of future generations.”

The draft Act says environmental limits must be prescribed for air; biodiversity; habitats and ecosystems; coastal waters; estuaries; freshwater and soil.

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And, clearly influenced by the current debate over housing, there are now specific references to its provision in the draft Act.

The National Planning Framework will have to provide for urban areas that are well-functioning and responsive to growth and other changes “including by enabling a range of economic, social, and cultural activities; and ensuring a resilient urban form with good transport links within and beyond the urban area.

The Act will also have to ensure a housing supply is developed to provide choice to consumers; and contribute to the affordability of housing.

Parker is proposing that the framework will be in the form of regulations rather than legislation and that  there be a Standing Committee which will have powers to amend and change it as circusmatcnes dictate.

The National Planning Framework will be backed up and partly defined by a second piece of legislation, the Spatial Planning Act, which will be drafted while the first is in front of a Select Committee.

This will provide for regional spatial planning strategies which will

set long-term objectives for urban growth and land use change.

Their intention will be to help ensure development and infrastructure is provided in the right places and in a coordinated way

They will also help identify areas to be protected from inappropriate development ; support development capacity and infrastructure provision, “including by identifying indicative future infrastructure corridors, or sites to improve housing supply, affordability and choice; and

support climate change mitigation and adaptation, and natural hazard risk reduction.”

Parker said yesterday that because of the laborious process that such heavyweight legislation will require he did not expect the two bills to have much impact on housing supply for at least two years.

 “This is the core base of both environmental and development legislation in New Zealand,” he  said.

“It’s a once in a generation opportunity to get it right.”

The proposals got a generally positive reception from some of the interest groups who have been lobbying for fundamental change to the Resource Management Act.

The Property Council, the Northern Employers and Manufacturers’ Association (EMA) and  Infrastructure New Zealand along with the Environmental Defence Society have been working together for six years  to promote new planning legislation.

 “Today marks another win for organisations like ours and our colleagues at the EMA and Infrastructure NZ, who have fought for planning laws which embrace the urgency of building more houses and encouraging development while protecting our natural environment,” said the property Council’s Director of Advocacy, Denise Lee..

Claire Edmondson, Chief Advisor Infrastructure New Zealand said the draft marked a significant milestone in moving beyond the Resource Management Act to a system that was resilient, efficient, effective, future-ready and better able to provide for New Zealanders’ wellbeing, now and in future.

She said she was  encouraged by the Bill’s overall direction and called it a radical shift that would see process-heavy matters shifted to a national planning framework.

“This will serve as a key catalyst in achieving a resource management system that is nimble and responsive,” she said.

The EMA said  the draft was tracking in the right direction but there was still much work to be done.

The Environmental Defence Society’s CEO, Gary Taylor welcomed the draft but said there were important issues that would need further work.

“Chief amongst these are environmental bottom lines and targets,” hes aid.

“These are absolutely critical to get right in order to halt the continuing decline in environmental quality across multiple domains, including land, freshwater, marine and air.”

EDS’s Senior Policy Researcher, Dr Greg Severinsen, who was the lead researcher for EDS’s multi-year resource management reform project pushing for change said a key issue would  be how limits were set and what they would look like for matters such as biodiversity, habitats, ecosystems and coastal waters.

“At the moment the topics for which limits must be set are left relatively vague in the legislation. It is also important that limits can protect unique local environments and valued species and taonga, not just overall measures of biodiversity.

“Moreover, there is an absence of provision for mandatory targets. This is a significant departure from the (Randerson)  Panel’s recommendations. Mandatory targets are critical when limits have already been overshot to ensure that timely progress is made to reverse the situation.”

But there were concerns.

National Leader Judith Collins called the proposal  “ a grab at wokeism” and complained that it would not provide for more houses immediately.

The draft provides for what are currently 100 regional plans to be shrunk to probably 14.

Parker is also proposing that the boards responsible for the plans be largely independent of local Government.

Background notes distributed yesterday say: “The existing system of both regional and district plans under the RMA has planning functions split across regional councils and territorial authorities, and has resulted in poor integrated management across various parts of the environment. This has led to complexity, unacceptable cumulative effects and poor environmental outcomes. “

The committees will include representatives from local government (regional and territorial), central government (Minister of Conservation), and mana whenua.

Federated Farmers Vice President, Karen Williams, said  her organsiaiton was deeply concerned with proposals to place decisions affecting local communities in the hands of unelected regional planning committees, with at most one person representing each local authority, an as yet undefined number representing mana whenua and one representative of the Minister of Conservation.

“That stripping away of local democracy undermines the ability of local communities to have a real say – via duly elected councils – on fundamental aspects of what happens in their own neighbourhoods.,” she said.

Parker denied that this was Governemnt forcing a local Government reogrnaisaiton.

“I don’t think it’s dependent on rationalisation of local government,” he said.

“We haven’t got a secret plan to rationalise local government.

“And indeed, if we predicated this on doing that you would never get there because it would be so difficult.”

Instead, he said he thought local government would enjoy the new regime.

I know that local government are thinking about how this can make their jobs in some ways more pleasurable,” he said.

“Local government have got a very important role in place making and responding to the wishes of the local community as to the shape of their local places and there is frustration among local government about the complexity of planning processes which make them impenetrable and out of the control largely of local government elected members.”

One major change being proposed is that the new Act will require that everybody  exercising powers and performing functions and duties under the Act must give effect to the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The Supreme Court has ruled on a planning matter that ‘give effect to’ simply means ‘implement’.

The Court says it is a strong directive creating a firm obligation on those subject to it.

Parker is hoping that by having manu whenua involved in the regional plan making process, there will be less holdups waiting for iwi approval of consent applications a shappens now.

“We hope that will be the outcome,” he said.

“We’ve yet to land what exactly we’re going to do with participatory right for consents.

“But the new system won’t save money if we don’t change some of the consent processes, which currently are pretty complex.”

The draft will now go to the Environment Committee chaired by Green MP, Eugenie Sage, who will essentially run an Inquiry into the document prepared by Parker and come back with feedback from which a draft Bill can be prepared to go to the House.