The reality of being in Government and the limits it imposes were on sharp display yesterday on day one of the Environmental Defence Society Conference in Auckland.
The annual conference is something of an environmental summit and drew three Labour Ministers along with a host of Government, local Government and NGO “big names” to debate what were billed as “the Government’s environmental reforms”.
Attendees probably left last night with more questions than when they arrived as Ministers, who in Opposition had seemed sympathetic to environmental issues were left qualifying and modifying their stance on major issues.
This was starkly evident in an exchange between Urban Development Minister, Phil Twyford, and the EDS CEO, Gary Taylor over urban sprawl.
Twyford had set out an impassioned description of the impact of high house prices in Auckland and advocated the linking together of transport and other infrastructure and new housing developments.
But he also advocated the scrapping or urban-rural limits.
“We believe that we have to manage growth on the fringes of the city,” he said.
“If we do not allow new land to come into the supply we will never ever fix the problem of absurdly expensive urban land.
“With good investment in infrastructure and transport, with more planning, not less to create the future urban environment that we want, setting aside areas of special value and open spaces, acquiring land for transport and other infrastructure, if we then allow the city to grow we will bring down urban land prices and it is absolutely critical that we do,” he said.
Twyford had proposed this when he was in Opposition but, even so, any suggestion that more rural land was going to be absorbed for housing was going to be controversial at an environmental conference.
And Taylor was quick to respond.
“Everything makes sense except I worry about why you need to do away with rural-urban boundaries altogether,” said Taylor.
He said that giving free reign to developers seemed inconsistent with Twyford’s overall objective of having a compact city.
Twyford replied that it was a question of values.
“This is for us, for Labour, for our coalition government, this is fundamentally a social justice issue.
“Our objective is not to build a Copenhagen of the South Pacific.
“We could build a beautiful city with a whole lot of the policies we have talked about.
“We could build a Vancouver of the South Pacific; beautiful but utterly unaffordable.
“I’m interested in us fixing this totally dysfunctional urban land economy.
“If we don’t deal with affordability we will have completely wasted the opportunity that has been given to our generation.”
Twyford said the only way to deal with the affordability issue was to deal with the land price issue and that meant dealing with the artificial scarcity of land caused by the planning system and the availability of finance for infrastructure.
However he didn’t dispute that the Auckland region was going to become more heavily built up.
“You know what,” he said. “In two or three generations this is going to become a tri-city conurbation between Hamilton, Tauranga and Auckland whether we like it or not.”
At last year’s conference, Jacinda Ardern, barely a week into her leadership of Labour, appeared with the current Environment Minister David Parker to announce a levy on the commercial use of water.
The levy was to be partly used to clean up waterways.
Ardern promised that Maori issues would be “dealt with”.
However yesterday Parker had to confirm that the only levy on water imposed by the Government this term would be a tax on bottled water for export.
Parker said he was happy to be judged at the end of his time as Minister on whether he had made progress on freshwater.
“I was very pleased that water quality issues were issues throughout the 2017 election campaign,” he said.
“At last year’s conference, I was here trying to rark up water issues as an election issue.
“I am very pleaded that stayed at the top of the agenda from the start of the election until the end.
“One of the reasons for the controversy was the discussions we had about pricing, which I still believe in.
“But as part of our coalition agreement, we have agreed that we will not introduce pricing this electoral term.
“I was involved in those , and we chose to prioritise greenhouse gas emissions pricing over water pricing.”
Parker now also presides over reform of the Resource Management Act.
This was a major topic for a number of speakers at the conference, and the EDS is part of a group of NGOs in Auckland which wants to see a radical redrafting of the Act.
Dr Greg Severinsen, the society’s senior policy analyst, told the conference that its review of the Act was starting from the top.
“What we should be aiming for; the structures; how we design our legislation, our institutions, our participation processes,” he said.
This led to a suggestion from Dame Anne Salmond that the Act needed a name change; that calling it a resource management act emphasised its extractive mentality.
Other speakers suggested the Act should have a Charter above it.
But Productivity Commission Chair, Murray Sherwin, who advocates a rewrite of the RMA and the Land Transport Act and Local Government Act altogether, said it came down to political leadership.
“Good political leadership builds that sort of thing,” he said.
“I don’t think a bunch of bureaucrats sit down and build a charter.”
But any hopes the conference had for a new RMA may have to be put on hold till next year at the earliest.
Parker said he expected to have legislative changes to the current Act to tidy up a number of problems he has identified with last year’sr changes to it in the House by the end of the year.
“I deliberately took off the agenda early progress on wider RMA reform because we just didn’t have the capacity to do everything,” he said.
“But I also thought that there were learnings to be made form what we were doing in respect of urban development plus what we are doing I respect of national direction for water.
“So we have got a short-term, remedial Bill and next year we will crack into a holistic look at the whole RMA.”
Twyford said the Government was not of the view that the RMA was a problem and that it should be thrown out.
“We think that if you were to design something to govern land use and provide access to justice then you would end up with something that looked like the RMA.
“Yes, it could be leaner and meaner, less complicated, less expensive, less transactional but we still need a framework.”
So though the Ministers may have been disappointing on some matters, there was little doubt they were in general agreement with the conference about the role of the environment in Government.
And Parker’s assertion that he believed that the economy was a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment,ent was quoted by other speakers through the day.
It was clear that the conference believed that the Government’s heart was ion the right place; it was just the getting it done that was the problem.