The Randerson report on the Resource Management Act yesterday splits the Act in two and subtly moves power in the planning system towards the centre.
It does that by proposing a drastic reduction in the number of district plans and by empowering National Policy Standards.
It dramatically redefines the role of Maori in planning and has raised the question of the need to resolve the water allocation impasse.
Wisely, Environment Minister David Parker is not proposing to do anything with the report between now and the election but rather to put it aside for the next Government.
And it looks like it will get a positive reception from whoever forms the Government.
Though Opposition Leader Judith Collins claimed that National could have produced legislation three years ago to comply with much of the report the complexity of the issues involved and the sheer size of the planning sector and its stakeholders, would suggest that is a bold claim.
But what it did imply was that, by and large, National supports much of what Judge Tony Randerson has proposed.
Randerson said the existing RMA was unduly complex and had resulted in tensions between environmental and development interests.
“We reached The View as a panel that it was better to start again and try to eliminate the complexities that have resulted over the last 30 years; so we’ve recommended what amounts to a package of different pieces of legislation,” he said.
That package includes a “new” RMA; the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA); and a new Act which will have regional spatial planning at its centre and which will sit on top of the NBA.
(Spatial planning, which is used in New Zealand only in Auckland’s Unitary plan looks at everything about communities; about what happens in them; who lives in them and how they relate to each other. It is particularly important with its implications for transport infrastructure.)
Randerson has picked up on a recommendation from last year of a long-running study headed by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) and the Auckland Employers and Manufacturers’ Association (EMA) supported by Infrastructure New Zealand and the Property Council which has advocated that a separate spatial planning piece of legislation sit above the RMA.
Randerson is proposing that it be called the Strategic Planning Act.
“It’s designed to integrate the planning legislation, which would be under the Natural and Built Environments Act and other legislation such as the Local Government Act, the Land Transport Legislation and the Climate Change Response Act,” he said.
“At the moment, a link between those separate pieces of legislation is missing, and an important part of our review was to identify ways in which those particular pieces of legislation could be combined and integrated, and the Strategic Planning Act is intended to enable that to happen.”
Necessarily for spatial planning to work, it will need to be on a regional basis, and Randerson’s report notes that currently there are “well in excess” of 100 planning policy instruments in New Zealand, so he is proposing that plans be developed by combing regions to produce just 14 plans for the whole country.
But he went further.
Too many local authorities
“It has become clear to us that the resource management system would be much more effective if local government were to be reformed,” the report said.
“The existence of 78 local authorities in a nation of just five million people is difficult to justify.
“Much could be achieved by rationalisation along regional lines, particularly in improving efficiencies, pooling resources, and promoting the coordination of activities and processes.
“Reform of local government is an issue warranting early attention.”
At the media conference to launch the report, Environment Minister David Parker, was quick to point out that local government reform was well beyond the scope of what Randerson was asked to do (a point that Randerson had already acknowledged).
“If they are saying we should do away with councils as part of this, you’ll never get to the finish line,” he said.
“It’s not necessary.
“You can actually combine services as we’re doing in three waters.
“You can combine the plans without actually having that loss of less local democracy that happens if you actually do away with local Government and only have regional Government.
“So if the (Randerson) panel thinks that the answer to these issues actually lies in larger units of local democracy. I disagree.”
Regardless of how the spatial planning bodies are constituted, they will not be the only entities sitting above the Natural and Built Environments Act.
Randerson is proposing an expanded use of National Policy Statements.
In some ways, these are in current political favour with the National Freshwater Standard now almost in place imposing national standards for freshwater.
The report agreed with the RMA’s architect, Sir Geoffrey Palmer that insufficient use had made of national direction.
While the report proposes that the existing model for standards should continue it proposes that it be mandatory to have national standards covering the purposes and principles of the Natural and Built and Environments Act.
These purposes and principles replace Part Two of the RMA, which is regarded by many as being at the heart of the protection that the RMA offers the natural environment.
However, currently, it is not mandatory to cover each one off with a national standard.
A draft of the Natural and Built and Environment Act lists the purposes and principles as covering a wide range of environmental, economic, Maori and rural issues.
Thus the National Policy Standards would appear to form a centrally-driven core set of standards for all regional plans.
What Maori will do
Randerson has also proposed a different role for Maori in the planning process.
Currently, Councils or Iwi can initiate a Mana Whakahono a Rohe whose purpose is to provide a mechanism for councils and iwi to come to an agreement on ways tangata whenua may participate in RMA decision-making and to assist councils with their statutory obligations to tangata whenua under the RMA.
This has been politically contentious and was the price that the Maori Party demanded from their support of National’s changes to the RMA in 2017 in a deal that was derided by the-then Opposition Environment spokesperson, David Parker.
Randerson’s report proposes that over-riding everything should be the inclusion of a requirement that the Natural and Built Environments Act “give effect to the principles of Te Tiriti of Waitangi.”
The report notes that the phrase “give effect” is much stronger than the current to “take account” and using the phrase “principles” enables the partnership to “go beyond the transaction that was made in 1840.”
The Te Reo name for the Treaty is also deliberate; that means that the version used will be the Te Reo version.
By implication, this means that Maori will have a more strategic role in the development of the regional plans.
But Randerson has also proposed that the Mana Whakahono a Rohe process be redesigned.
“We propose an integrated partnership process to provide a better avenue to use the current mechanisms,” the report said.
“This process would be an opportunity to discuss how mana whenua aspirations for the transfer of powers and joint management agreements can be realised and how iwi management plans can influence spatial and combined planning through the mana whenua representation in those processes.”
The regional plan
Thus the combined regional plan would be subject to all of these influences and would be prepared by a process similar to that used for the Auckland Unitary Plan.
“Preparation of these combined plans would be undertaken by a joint committee comprising representatives of the regional council, the constituent territorial authorities in the region along with representatives of mana whenua,” the report said.
“The Ministry for the Environment would have an auditing role to ensure quality and consistency.
“An independent panel, chaired by a sitting Environment Judge, would hear submissions, review the combined plan and make recommendations on its provisions.
“Decisions would then be made by the joint committee, and a streamlined appeal process would follow based on the model recently used for the Auckland Unitary Plan.”
All of which leaves the question of consents.
Issues surrounding consents provoke much of the Opposition to the current RMA.
One principal objection is covered with a proposal that when considering an application, regard must not be had to trade competition.
Otherwise, there would be very specific procedures to go through in the consenting process.
“We expect that there will be fewer resource consents and greater clarity provided in these combined plans to resolve tensions which currently go unresolved and are often dealt with at the consent process rather than the plan-making process,” Randerson said.
“So we propose a much greater emphasis on the quality of the plans.”
The report also proposes that major projects be dealt with differently.
“We’re also proposing that for larger proposals there be a better means of moving bigger proposals from council level directly to the environment court on a direct referral basis without requiring the consent of the local authority,” he said.
At the other end of the scale, the report proposed a simplified process for minor consent matters.
“We’ve also proposed streamlined processes for consents that are of a relatively confined nature.
“If there’s a dispute, as there commonly is between neighbours over whether somebody’s breaching the height in relation to boundary rule or whether they come too close to the boundary, or they want to put on a new deck, and it’s confined really to those neighbours with no wider implications, then we’re proposing an alternative dispute resolution process that would be quicker, simpler and cheaper.”
Ultimately what Randerson has proposed is a move to a system where the emphasis will go on the planning process rather than the local council issuing consents and that process, in turn, will be heavily influenced by central Government requirement son the big environmental issues like water, bio-diversity and climate change.
Parker told the press conference that he believed the next Government could have the legislation drafted inside two years. However, it would seem obvious that the Select Committee process would be lengthy and detailed after that.