Speech at the Launch of the Resource Management Reform Synthesis Report

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Tuesday 12 February 2019, Bell Gully, 171 Featherston Street, Wellington

 Thank you for inviting me to launch this latest Environmental Defence Society (EDS) publication, the Synthesis Report, which so many in the room have helped with.

I congratulate the New Zealand Law Foundation, Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), Property Council New Zealand and Infrastructure New Zealand for their support of this 18-month long project. This is a significant contribution.

Thanks to the report’s authors Raewyn Peart and Dr Greg Severinsen, and to the numerous other contributors. Congratulations also to Raewyn for recently being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year’s Honours list, awarded for her outstanding contribution to environmental and conservation policy. This report adds to your already impressive body of work. 

EDS has been asking hard questions about the direction of New Zealand’s environmental policy development for many years. As far back as the Beyond the RMA conference in 2007, it was pointing out that poor environmental outcomes had worsened in key areas ­­– and consequently EDS had found little reprieve from its adversarial role as ‘public environmental defender’. It concluded that a more systematic approach to the problems was required, rather than a litigious one.

That conference challenged attendees to look to the future. It is now over a decade later and unfortunately many of the problems identified by participants have not been adequately addressed.

The time is now right for a “rethink”, as EDS puts it. Clearly there is both a need and an opportunity to create a system that better enables economic growth within environmental limits and bottom lines, and which aligns the economy with the environment.

It’s particularly useful to go back to first principles as EDS has done in this latest report. This gives us solid foundations on which to build our ideas about the future resource management system. The Government’s approach to the resource management system reform will be informed by this work.

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) was a significant step forward for environmental management in New Zealand when it was introduced, and reduced the complexity that had existed. But it has also been the subject of sustained criticism and debate.

The Government recognises that the RMA is underperforming in some critical areas. Plan making is too slow. There has been too little spatial planning around growing urban populations and the cumulative effect of intensification of land use on water has been poorly managed. It is clear that the system has not delivered the outcomes New Zealanders expect and deserve.

Of course, this report is about more than just the RMA. The system more broadly includes infrastructure planning and financing under the Local Government Act and Land Transport Management Act, and problems caused by the Building Act – as well as wider approaches to conservation and fisheries.

This broader viewpoint is important, because often the RMA is made the scapegoat for other failures. It is also important to note that law changes cannot of themselves fix implementation failures by both central and local government. Local government, mayors and councillors have responsibility for how their building and planning departments perform or underperform.

The government already has a wide-ranging work programme underway to improve the resource management system. I don’t have time to go into everything in detail, but I’ll touch on a few milestones we can expect this year. In pursuing these, we are not going to wait for comprehensive RMA reform.

Freshwater

As you know, a priority for me is to put in place a new framework for freshwater management. We are working on a package of water initiatives with the aim to firstly halt further degradation of water quality, then improve water quality over time. Detailed policy development is well underway and we will be consulting on a regulatory package this year.

Urban Development

This year we will progress legislation to set up the Housing and Urban Development Authority to fast-track housing and urban development projects, a model not uncommon overseas. The Authority will offer a new way of planning large-scale and complex development so we can achieve scale and pace, while also retaining the importance of great urban design.

As part of the Urban Growth Agenda, the Government intends to soon consult on national direction for ensuring urban planning rules respond to growth and enable quality intensification. The new Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is also working in partnership with local government on progressing new regional approaches to spatial planning in some of our fastest growing urban areas. We are also developing infrastructure funding alternatives.

Climate change

This year we will legislate for our 2050 climate change emissions target. Putting a new target into legislation will both hold this government, and successive ones, to account and try to depoliticise the pathway to achieving that target. The legislation will establish an independent Climate Change Commission to guide New Zealand towards a low emissions resilient economy.

It will look at how we transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and determine how to bring agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Compliance, monitoring and enforcement

Another important move that will help restore faith in our environmental law is to improve enforcement of the rule of law. A new RMA Enforcement Unit is being established inside the Environmental Protection Authority to improve compliance with the rules we already have. Part of the problem we have with the RMA is that rules have not been enforced.

Comprehensive RMA review

The work I have just described can be expected to make a big difference. The steps we are taking to improve freshwater, rural land use and urban development, and to address climate change, will inform a comprehensive review of the RMA that I believe is needed. The time is now right to do this.

We know that this review will be complex, and that is why I have deliberately been taking a staged approach to it. I am grateful to the many groups that are helping. The first stage is a Bill that is currently being drafted, and I would expect will be introduced in the coming couple of months to address issues with the current RMA that need fixing now. This will largely reverse changes made through the 2017 RMA amendments that were widely criticised by all sides, but will also include some other desirable fixes.

However, I know it is the next and more complex stage of this work that most of you will be particularly interested in. The Ministry for the Environment actually wanted to charge into this straight after the last election, but I stopped them from doing so. We couldn’t do everything at once, so I prioritised us dealing with freshwater and climate change issues, and with urban development and planning issues.

This second stage will be a more comprehensive review of the resource management system, focused on the RMA. Cabinet has invited me to report back to discuss the scope and process of the review which I intend to do shortly. I also intend to engage with key stakeholders after having that discussion with Cabinet, to ensure that multiple perspectives are heard before final decisions are made.

My intention is that the review make recommendations that help the system better deliver outcomes for both our built and natural environments. The review should be cognisant not only of current challenges, but of those that we can be expected to face in future from new technology and a changing climate.

To be successful, the review must also be broad enough to address frustrations with complex and varied RMA processes, which have bred like fleas in my opinion. These processes sometimes incentivise effort in the wrong places, and have rendered the process of applying for a consent or objecting to a decision increasingly inaccessible without expert help.

The review will need to build on the significant existing work programme to ensure reforms come together as a coherent package. The EDS report has rightly identified the importance of institutions in the resource management system. Any proposals to change functions within the system should also take into account the capability and capacity of those tasked with responsibility for delivering those functions, and the incentives under which they act.

Local government accountability

I am interested in a new mechanism to help local government organisations exercise their democratic responsibility to control their planning and building departments, and to achieve environmental bottom lines set nationally. Central government has far more accountability mechanisms to control government departments than councils have to control theirs. We also need to address culture issues in councils.

Intergenerational environmental test

Through all of this, I’ll be a staunch defender of the need for strong and clearly articulated environmental bottom lines. Our state of the environment monitoring shows that we need stronger, not weaker, environmental limits. Like EDS, the EMA, Property Council New Zealand, and Infrastructure New Zealand, I see environmental bottom lines being driven by an intergenerational environmental test. This will be a key plank of any future system.

Decline of wetlands

One example will suffice for me.

Our freshwater quality problems are well known, but the continued decline of our wetlands less so. It really saddens me. The decline is serious and not yet under control.

Ninety per cent of New Zealand’s wetlands outside of National Parks were lost many decades ago, following colonisation and the conversion of land to agriculture. Last year’s State of the Environment report showed that we lost another 20th of the last 10 per cent over the prior decade.

Bird habitat, fish spawning, whitebait and rare plant habitats are being lost. The loss of wetlands filtering sediment and nutrient also has impacts out to sea. The loss of wetland to roads, subdivisions and agriculture must be halted, and proves to me that an environmental test is needed in both urban and rural areas.

Doing things better

Valuable jurisprudence has developed around Part 2 of the RMA and I don’t think we should be quick to discard it. Especially as it’s only since the King Salmon decision of the Supreme Court that it has finally been made clear that the hierarchy of RMA instruments mean what they say. However, I am open to considering different and potentially better ways of expressing core principles and setting and implementing bottom lines – for example through placing greater emphasis on longer-term spatial planning.

I will reiterate what I have said on multiple occasions – the RMA is now excessively long and complex, over twice its original length. We must be able to do better than that, without building ever more detail into the Act.

Some of what needs to be done is mundane but practical – like national planning standards with standardised plan formats and common definitions, although even that has taken a decade to do. We need both principles and practicality.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail, but I feel positive about the RMA review. I feel privileged to be responsible for it in my role as Minister for the Environment. I am looking forward to drawing on the work in the Synthesis Report, and on the many centuries of collective experience in the room.

We have a wonderful environmental ethic in this country. It draws upon Te Ao Maori. We are also a practical people. These two attributes will be key.

Our responsibility for the future

Environmental issues are increasingly in the public focus. Parents are worried about the future for their children. The country is expecting us to do better.

If, with all our advantages, New Zealand can’t overcome its environmental problems, then the world won’t.

This may seem a dim view of the future, but it charges me with a sense of responsibility to get this right. Working together, we have a great opportunity to do so.

 Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

 Reference: Raewyn Peart and Greg Severinsen, Reform of the Resource Management System, The Next Generation, Synthesis Report (Environmental Defence Society, Auckland, December 2018, released February 2019).

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