Environment Minister David Parker will today unveil the most fundamental and sweeping reforms of our resource planning laws since the introduction of the Resource Management Act in 1991.

Parker will introduce the Natural and Built Environments Bill {NAB), which will be the first of three major bills that will affect planning.

The Spatial Planning Bill, which will deal with the impact and requirements of longer-term population shifts will also be introduced today and the Climate Change Adaptation Bill, which will address issues like the impact of sea-level rise will appear next year.

But Parker’s Bill today will reduce the number of regional plans from over 100 to 15, and it will include a number of measures to standardise planning consents across the whole country.

POLITIK has had an extensive briefing on the Bill and has already reported that the 15 regional planning bodies will not require a co-governance arrangement.

And Parker has also ruled out the NAB resolving water allocation issues for Maori.

Instead, POLITIK understands he believes the courts are the appropriate location for those issues to be sorted out.

But it has been the emphasis on trying to make the consenting process faster and more efficient, which is a central feature of the Bill.

The reduction in the number of plans will be critical though it might be expected that smaller Councils will repeat their Three Waters complaints that this is centralisation.

In some senses, they might be right. But Parker’s centralisation is intended to prevent every Council from having different resource management rules.

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In a speech in September, he said a key part of the legislation would be the National Planning Framework (the NPF), through which the Government would give nationally consistent direction, allowing potentially conflicting outcomes to be resolved at the national level.

Interestingly Parker brought in the Infrastructure Commission, with its background in large-scale construction projects, to work with the Ministry for the Environment on the development of this part of the legislation.

The intention is to develop a set of national standards so that, for example, there might be a number for sediment control in developing a subdivision.

Instead of a consent applicant having to design and specify a solution, they could just agree with the consenting Council on which one of the national standards might apply.

Not only has Parker involved the Infrastructure Commission on this, but he has also written to Downers, Fulton Hogan and Fletchers asking if they would help develop the standards.

“This work will build on the Government’s other moves to accelerate housing provision and the required infrastructure,” he said in his September speech.

Parker will also incorporate existing National Policy Standards, such as those on air, water and urban intensification will be incorporated in the new legislation.

Just as sustainability was at the heart of the 1991 Resource Management Act, Parker hopes that “Te Oranga o Te Taiao” (the health and wellbeing of the environment) will be at the heart of the new Bill.

“Te Oranga o Te Taiao is defined as an intergenerational ethic for all New Zealanders to support a more responsible and positive relationship with the natural environment,” he told Christchurch lawyers in August.

“Te Oranga o te Taiao places greater emphasis on understanding the interconnections between different parts of the environment, including people.

This will help achieve our desired outcomes and better manage cumulative effects.”

The Bill also sets out the desired environmental outcomes.

Parker set these out in his Christchurch speech.

  • The natural environment is protected and, where degraded, restored. The health of New Zealand’s freshwater, coastal water, air, soil, and ecosystems and their ability to sustain life is to be maintained in line with Te Oranga o te Taiao.
  • Nationally and regionally significant landscapes, natural features, habitats for indigenous species, native biodiversity and the natural character of the coast, lakes and rivers are to be maintained or, where appropriate, enhanced.
  • Important habitat for indigenous species and their ecosystems are protected and, where necessary, restored.

As the consultation process on the Bill has gone on, there has been debate among environmentalists as to whether the Bill should include baseline limits or aspirational targets in its measurement of environmental degradation and mitigation.

At last year’s Environmental Defence Society conference, environmentalists were critical of limits which, they argued, became de facto targets.

Parker has resolved this by making the status quo the limit for most environmental activities.

In other words, it will not be possible to get a consent which would lower the quality of an environment.

“Targets must be set at a level that is at least equal to the limit,” he said in the Christchurch speech.

“Beyond that, the new system will acknowledge local differences with communities generally being able to set targets associated with limits that reflect their own aspirations for the environment and the things they care about.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Parker will retain the current fast-track provision, which allows a project to be called in for a fast consenting process.

He has commissioned two reviews of the process, one by Nelson environmentalist Guy Salmon and the other by former Chief Environment Court Judge Laurie Newhook.

Salmon opposed it being carried forward, but Parker, possibly influenced by the Infrastructure Commission, has decided to put it into the new Bill.

It will cover a wide range of infrastructure, including social infrastructures like hospitals, schools and police stations, and it will also cover very large, regionally significant housing developments.

The journey that leads to this afternoon’s introduction of the Bill really began back when Nick Smith was Environment Minister in 2015.

He addressed a Blue Greens conference with proposals for reform of the RMA. Then to incorporate its reform with the reform of the Local Government Act and the Transport Act.

In 2016, following up on Smith’s proposals, the Environment Defence Society, the Property Council, the Northern Employers and Manufacturers’ Association and the Infrastructure began a campaign to have the RMA reviewed.

They suggested an urban planning act and an environmental protection act but called for a Royal Commission to provide advice.

POLITIK Retired Judge Tony Randerson who reviewed the Resource Management Act for David Parker

With the change in Government in 2017, Parker commissioned former Appeal Court Judge, Tony Randerson, to review the current law and proposed changes.

Much of what he proposed in his report in July 2020, the Natural and Built Environments Act and the Spatial Planning Act, have been incorporated into Parker’s reforms.

But Randerson has argued with Parker that the new NAB should allow for some quality targets in the urban environment.

After Randerson argued in favour of urban “amenity values” at the Environmental Defence Society conference, Parker explained why he was opposed.

“One of the problems that we have had in the country 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,” he said.

Parker has thought hard about the question of transition from the existing regime to the new one.

“The Government has budgeted $179 million over four years for implementation of resource management reform,” he told the Christchurch lawyers. 

“This will ensure funding to help complete the National Planning Framework, the first Regional Spatial Strategies and Natural and Built Environments Plans, and establish the National Māori entity.   

“As the shortcomings in RMA implementation show, funding an efficient transition to the new system is crucial to delivering a system that has shorter timeframes, lower costs and better outcomes for New Zealanders.

“To make implementation easier, we will work with several councils to develop the first full Regional Spatial Strategies and NBA plans, which will serve as a model for subsequent strategies and plans.

“We will apply the lessons learned to the wider rollout of the system. They will provide practical templates for other regions to use, reducing cost and unnecessary variations between plans.”

And though Parker is often characterised as an extreme and sometimes unreasonable environmentalist, his objectives with the review of the RMA have been very much rooted in practicalities.

He says the reforms represent an opportunity for greater certainty and reduced timeframes and costs, enabling the right infrastructure and development in the right place.

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