Environment Minister David Parker briefing journalists yesterday on the passage of his legislation to replace the RMA

The new resource management legislation approved by Parliament yesterday will now take at least two years before it immediately impacts people seeking resource consent.

It will be phased in region by region, which means that some parts of the country could have to wait as long as five years before it is finally operational.

To add to that uncertainty, National committed itself yesterday to repealing it by Christmas if it becomes the Government and then repeating the whole reform process all over again.

The legislation passed yesterday began its formal journey seven years ago. 

A replacement could take at least as long, which could mean the country was stuck with the existing Resource Management Act for at least ten more years.

National has been warned against this approach by former Environment Minister Nick Smith, who told a Blue Greens forum earlier this year it should do what it did in 1990 with the original Resource Management Bill.

That was left behind by Labour when it lost power, and National did what political parties usually do when governments change and simply amended the bits they didn’t like.

In his statement yesterday promising repeal, National’s resource management spokesperson, Chris Bishop, said the Natural and Built Environments Act and Spatial Planning Act would increase bureaucracy, remove local decision-making, and put decarbonisation goals at risk.

“It would stymie the investment and sustainable development of the environment that New Zealand needs, including in renewable electricity generation,” his statement said.

All of those statements are debatable.

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Where Bishop is partly right is that the new legislation will reduce local decision-making.

That was one of the intentions of those who worked on the reform proposals.

Judge Tony Randerson, in his 2020 review of the RMA, found that there were 11 regional and 61 territorial authorities, all with their own district or regional plan, and all were different.

In 2017, the OECD looking at New Zealand’s resource planning, found that it could take up to eight years to prepare and complete a land use plan and up to four years to change one.

Randerson concluded that council plan-making was often criticised for being slow, prone to litigation and unresponsive to changes in technology, community values and economic drivers.

As a consequence, the new legislation proposes just 16 regional plans drawn up by regional planning committees with members appointed by local councils and iwi.

The Committees would be guided by a national planning framework which would, in effect, take over from the current practice of issuing ad hoc National Policy Standards, which “trump” local plans.

In its minority report in the Environment Select Committee’s report on the legislation, National pointed to the politics of leaving local councils out of the decision-making process.

“The bills have faced near-universal hostile opposition from local government,” they said.

All along, it has looked as though National was seeking to capitalise on the local Government’s opposition to the Three Waters proposals, which they also promised yesterday to repeal by Christmas if they form the next Government.

In his “Get New Zealand Back on Track” speech which he is delivering night after night in provincial New Zealand, leader Christopher Luxon says the Government is taking New Zealand “off course” with a number of things it is doing, including “a focus on centralisation and control; we know best, we will run it from Wellington.”

The other objections Bishop has raised — that the new legislation would put decarbonisation goals at risk and would stymie renewable energy planning — are contestable.

The energy companies certainly objected to parts of the bills but not to the bills as a whole.

Mercury Energy, who operate 192 of New Zealand’s 581 wind turbines and have consents for another 498, told the Committee that they supported the intent of the Bill and the proposed wider reform of the resource management system.

“Mercury considers that reform is critical to realise New Zealand’s low emissions future,” their submission said.

“Renewable electricity generation plays a critical role in that future. In particular, the new system must enable renewable electricity development at a much faster pace than has been achieved under the RMA framework.

“Mercury’s submission on the NBE Bill, therefore, focuses on amendments to enhance the Bill’s potential to achieve that long-term vision and support renewable electrification.”

Mercury was a part of another submission from the Electricity Sector Environmental Group, which focussed on the outcomes and environmental limits that the National Planning Framework must try and achieve.

It put the dilemma facing the Committee bluntly: “As the Bill stands, the (legislation) risks scoring an ‘environmental own goal’ whereby climate change imperatives are defeated, through an overly rigid approach to environmental limits, that ultimately will be to the substantial detriment of what is sought to be protected and achieved through them.”

But a relatively simple redraft of Clause 5 of the Bill would have satisfied that.

Given that National’s Environmental spokesperson, Scott Simpson, has been a party to the reform legislation for all of its six years and that the party’s Blue Greens environmental sector group has also maintained support, it would seem that National’s objections now are entirely political.

The only positive about an early repeal would be that the legislation is going to come into effect gradually over a long period.

Only one measure, the fast track, will come immediately.

Only last week, Environment Minister David Parker announced that currently there were applications for 82 wind turbines in Waiuku, Southland and Rotorua making their way through the fast-track consenting process.

Fast-track consenting is run by the Environmental Protection Authority and overrides local Government consenting procedures.

Expert consenting panels make decisions on both the resource consent applications and notice of requirements and set conditions on the projects before they can go ahead.

Parker told POLITIK that after the fast track is renewed, the rest of the legislation will turn on region by region.

“Over the next two years, we will complete the national planning framework,” he said.

That will incorporate advice from the Infrastructure Commission, and he plans to make it public before the election.

That will then go to a Board of Inquiry, which can take public submissions.

While that is taking place, the first regional Planning Committees will be established. They are expected to be established within two years.

They will be established on a pilot basis in a handful of carefully selected regions.

“ We want a mix of North Island and South Island, and we want to  include  metropolitan, as well as provincial and rural interests,” Parker said.

“We also want a unitary authority because their issues are slightly different.

“And we want at least one that’s got some reasonably complex Maori issues like overlapping iwi because those issues have to be worked through.

“We think if we have that combination of sort of north and south metropolitan, provincial, rural, unitary authority, separate districts and regional councils will effectively have precedence for the whole of the country once we finish that.”

But after they have been established, the pilot regional planning committees will then have to draw up their regional plans.

As an indication of how long this might take, the Auckland Unitary Plan took three years of constant hearings and court cases before it was able to be implemented.

It took Parker six years to get the new legislation developed and through Parliament; add another five years transition to that, and National could face 11 years before it was able to scrap the Resource Management Act if it decides to start the process all over again.

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