An unlikely alliance of business lobby groups and environmentalists last night launched a campaign in Auckland to review the whole resource management legislative system.
A proposal by one of the group for a Royal Commission into the Resource Management Act appeared to be endorsed by all of them.
The proposals have come as the Government has a series of amendments to the Act in front of a Select Committee, and the Productivity Commission has begun an inquiry into the RMA and other pieces of legislation which impact on it.
But last night’s meeting suggested it was time to go further — to look at the Act, the way it was being implemented and the way it related to other pieces of legislation.
The presentation was attended by a wide range of environmentalists, lawyers and members of the Environment Court as well as MPs from the Greens and Labour.
The campaign involves the Auckland Employers and Manufacturers’ Association, the Property Council, the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development and the Environmental Defence Society.(EDS)
All have already been prominent voices in the debate so far on what to do with the RMA.
The group commissioned the EDS to do an evaluation of what environmental impact the RMA had had since its inception in 1989.
They found a number of problems.
They criticised the way it was not integrated with other legislation; there was a a lack of effective strategy and national direction and monitoring and valuation of outcomes had been limited.
Perhaps most notably the EDS found that vested interests, often farmers, had tended to capture local Government and had reduced the power of the Act to manage the environment.
Marie Brown, the EDS researcher who conducted the study, said that she interviewed 48 people who were involved one way or another with the act and found that 80% felt that the environment had declined since the Act was introduced in 1991 and a third said it had not achieved its objectives.
“Overall, there was a sense of a broken promise,” she said.
The Chief Executive of the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development, Stephen Selwood, said the Act demonstrated a picture of confusion and inadequate law making and processes that had failed to address important problems.
“The machinery of Government seems to have not been up to the task,” he said.
Selwood was also critical of the constant “fiddling” by various Governments with the Act which had weakened it and added to the confusion.
Brown said none of the participants in the study felt the current system was delivering for the environment, and one of the main reasons for this was that the systems which wrapped around the Act, including funding, meant that there were major problems with its implementation.
Selwood also raised the question of funding but his view was broader.
He said that infrastructure relied not just on the RMA but also the Local Government Act and the Land Transport Act, and though they were supposed to be integrated they did not work that well together.
“We have some real challenges now in delivering the transport infrastructure to support growth, particularly if it occurs at the extremes of the city.
He said the recent Auckland Transport Alignment Project had identified a $4 billion funding hole in Auckland transport infrastructure.
“Right now we have plans with no money and institutions without the capacity to deliver,” he said.
Environmental lawyer, Sue Simons, raised the proposal of the Productivity Commission that the RMA be split into an urban planning act and a natural environment act.
Selwood said that the NZCID had put a lot of thinking into what the future might look like.
“Part of our thinking is that sort of separation,” he said.
“But I have to say we’re happy to park that discussion right now because we all need to get around the table and debate the process.
“There are counter-factual views so we have to be open to having that conversation and debate.
“It really needs an independent, evidence based, non-political but authoritative process.”
EDS Director, Gary Taylor reminded the meeting that Selwood had proposed a Royal Commission.
“We would endorse that,” he said.
“If you are going to reform this system it is going to take two or three years of report and analysis.
“It’s a slow cook, not a fast one.”
Om the question of separation, Taylor said that many of the amendments that had made to the Act had been driven by urban issues and when you took them out to the natural or marine environment they did not work.
“So in a sense, urban issues are kind of contaminating the rest of resource management practice so we have to go to do something about that.”
Yesterday’s meeting did not come about by accident, these groups and others have been debating the future of the Act for the past two years now in forums up and down the country.
There is an emerging consensus that the current changes before the Local Government and Environment Select Committee will make little or no difference but that the Act needs a fundamental review.
Yet there was no mood yesterday to remove its fundamental role of protecting the environment. If anything, the meeting was concerned to find more effective ways of doing that.