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RMA replacements reminiscent of Three Waters

In brief
  • The Resource Management Act is widely agreed to be a failure, but the Government’s proposed replacement laws have similar problems.
  • They’re along similar lines to Three Waters, removing the power of local councils and adding Māori oversight.
  • National and ACT are opposed while the Greens seek a delay to improve the laws.

Three resource laws

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) is a planning law passed in 1991. It was more ambitious than previous such laws, aiming to promote “sustainable management” of natural resources.

Arguing about what exactly sustainable management means has been a great boon for lawyers and consultants, but added great cost and uncertainty for developers. It was also found to have not led to good environmental outcomes, so there’s strong bipartisan agreement to scrap it.

The Government is proposing to replace it with three laws, the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), the Spatial Planning Act requiring local committees to develop 30-year regional plans, and the unreleased Climate Change Adaptation Act.

The Government claims the new laws will save people money and increase the speed of resource consents. This is questionable, because the new laws are longer and even more ambitious than the RMA. They seem likely to suffer from many of the same problems. The RMA was criticised for undermining property rights, but these don’t even mention them. They also add a further layer of central bureaucracy.

The NBA adds principles of efficiency and equity to that of sustainability. It also promises to honour Te Tiriti, with a new principle of “Te Oranga o te Taiao”, which “speaks to the health of the natural environment… [and its] capacity to sustain life, and the interconnectedness of all parts of the environment.”

All these principles are undefined, giving more room for arbitrary planning decisions, albeit in a more centralised fashion. Critics say the Government has created something worse than the RMA – and that’s without seeing the Climate Change Adaptation Act.

RMA replacements reminiscent of Three Waters - Centrist
Environment Minister David Parker won’t delay passing the new RMA. Image by US Embassy

Co-governance without the name

Despite not using the term “co-governance”, the laws have many similarities to the Three Waters laws. Like Three Waters, they also deal with water rights. The NBA removes power from local councils, replacing 100 district and regional plans with 15 regional plans. Each local government planning committee must have two hapu (sub-tribe) or iwi (tribal) representatives. It would also be under oversight of an independent national Māori entity.

Bipartisan opposition

Green MP Eugenie Sage, chair of the Environment Committee that has been evaluating the laws, says public submissions have convinced her the laws need more time to develop. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, questions the effectiveness of the new laws at protecting the environment. He also  warns they create uncertainty through the novel terms they use, which would have to be tested in court. National’s RMA spokesman Chris Bishop said “This is RMA 2.0 – it’s fundamentally flawed.”Environment Minister David Parker said the idea of delaying the reforms further was “quite wrong”. The Infrastructure Commission warned a new resource management system is needed by 2028 or NZ would miss its emissions targets, because the RMA is so slow and expensive.

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