Any time I hear of proposed RMA changes, I wonder if we’ll get closer to the international standard that allows for robust biodiversity offsets and incentives for private land to be used for conservation purposes like they do overseas. So I watch National’s proposed changes and started to write.
The latest stab at reforming the RMA has come from the incumbent National Government, intent on overhauling the RMA and hopefully encouraging more houses to be built in New Zealand’s most strangled housing-shortage areas. National made similar efforts in 2012 but was not successful.
“Smith signalled that National was reviewing the most contentious of its proposed reforms of the RMA, covering changes to the act’s principles – a move critics have argued would aid development … In a speech in his home city of Nelson tonight, Smith called for changes to streamline the development of local planning rules and give recognition to the need for economic development.”
In reaction, there have been many who see these changes as opening the door to diminished environmental protections. Proposed changes designed to streamline and expedite resource consent processes are instead simply cutting out who can make submissions and participate in consultation about large resource consents. Both DOC and Forest and Bird feel their advocacy rights are being eroded, leaving the public conservation interests silenced against large development project proponents.
But I found that Geoff Simmons, and economist with the Gareth Morgan foundation, wrote an excellent piece last month on the proposed changes to the RMA:
There are lots of changes proposed and lots of concerns felt from all over the political spectrum, but the biggest concern seems to be how to keep enough consultation in the process to protect everyone’s interest, without wasting too much time and money on consultation that actually stifles progress – both in development or in conservation.
Geoff puts it well:
“The thorns in the side of development are the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) – people resistant to change in their areas, even when it’s in the public interest. The processes of public notification and appeal under the Resource Management Act have at times left developers in a quagmire of red tape. At their best councils tend to be risk averse, and the threat of litigious NIMBYs only makes them more introverted….
Reducing the power of NIMBYs is a good step. However, the same public notification and appeals processes abused by NIMBYs are also used by groups to advocate on behalf of the environment. Sometimes it can be hard to tell a NIMBY from a Greenie.”
He points to EDS’s April 2012 report “Report of the EDS TAG on the review of Sections 6 & 7 of the RMA 1991” and lists three key points required:
- Truly Independent Environmental Assessments to ensure bias doesn’t creep in and money isn’t spent re-checking Environmental Assessments done by parties too invested in one outcome or the other (e.g. those purchased by developers seeking consent).
- Benchmarks that require the environment is better off overall: This doesn’t just mean no net loss, it means including ‘offsets’ and looking at outcomes in their entirety, not just what is being lost:
…”as long as it’s not rare or unique environment that’s been damaged, the developer should be able to “offset” that damage by improving the environment in other ways. That way the development can proceed if it still stacks up with the true environmental costs included. Many councils already do this but we need to do it in a much better way. This requires having some clear national guidance on damage and how to offset it, and having a ready market of quality assured offsets that the developer can purchase.”
- Get better at following through on monitoring, enforcement and auditing so that proposed offsets and development impacts are what they are supposed to be. He and EDS recognize we’re not good at this in New Zealand and we’re letting environmental gains slip though our fingers, not because we can’t achieve them, but because we don’t take steps to ensure them.
I found his last comment most useful:
“The final question we must ask ourselves is how many times we should tinker with the RMA before we need to take fresh look and start again at the way we do development while protecting our environment.”
We’ve come a long way, and there is power and tools in the RMA (backed up in case-law) that lets us offset environmental impacts from development for better outcomes. But I’d love to see legislation that would allow us to bank these offsets too, and actually deliver some of the offset results we see elsewhere in the world. I support reform, but perhaps instead a complete overhaul is most efficient way to bring our natural resource management legislation and policy up to the standards 2016 requires.
You can see the full EDS report here