Peter Dunne argues the Government should make it clear the principles of the RMA are to remain unchanged, with the real focus of the review to make the RMA work the way it was originally intended

Peter Dunne argues the Government should make it clear the principles of the RMA are to remain unchanged, with the real focus of the review to make the RMA work the way it was originally intended

By Peter Dunne*

We are pretty good in New Zealand at passing groundbreaking legislation through our Parliament and then leaving it to moulder until some government decides it is not working and should be radically changed.

Seldom do we stop to look at whether the reason for the legislation not working as intended is not so much the legislation itself, as the way bureaucrats and successive governments have chosen to implement it. No, instead we adopt the “baby out with the bathwater” approach, and start all over again, assuring only that without fundamental changes to the way legislation is implemented, the same thing will happen all over again.

Two examples this week highlight the point – the Official Information Act and the Resource Management Act. Both were hailed as far sighted and world leading at the time of their passage, yet both now face the cool breeze of review, once again.

The Official Information Act 1982 introduced the then revolutionary concept that government information should be released to the public, unless there was good reason to withhold it, turning on its head the previous notion that all government information was secret and should be kept so. The Act’s principles still stand up well today, but, over time, problems have arisen with regard to the way requests for official information are handled, with too many instances of unacceptable delays in the processing of requests, or the restrictions on the type of information being released.

Most practitioners of the Act will say there is little wrong with its principles, but much wrong with the way it is administered that should be updated and changed.  Yet, significant modification and updating still seem a long way off, with the government announcing a further delay of at last another three months before it decides whether there should be a review of the Act and the way it works, and despite a preliminary review attracting over 300 submissions calling for more transparency with official information.

At the other end of the scale, the government has announced a complete overhaul for the Resource Management Act 1991. This Act puts environmental sustainability at the core of economic development and replaced the previous mish-mash of more than 54 separate pieces of environmental and planning legislation. A point its critics, probably through sheer ignorance rather than wilful deception, keep overlooking.

However, it was launched in a vacuum in 1991, in part because the then National government did not want to give too much credit to its Labour predecessor for developing the legislation, and in part because of its own deep antipathy to regional government, which had been intended to play a significant role in the Act’s operation. Consequently, it has never really worked as intended, with central government over the years reluctant to issue any national policy statements, and regional and local governments left consequently struggling to find their proper role. It is little wonder that excessive bureaucracy, decision-making timidity and inconsistency have been the outcome. So now the Resource Management Act is blamed for everything from the housing crisis to climate change, and the knives are out for its replacement.

As with the Official Information Act, making the Resource Management Act work as intended would solve many of the problems associated with it. The previous government tried to do so, but it failed because it found that while attacking the Act and promising to gut its principles altogether was far more attractive to a section of its supporters, there was not a majority appetite in Parliament to do so.

Now the present government is promising a root and branch review of the Resource Management Act, although it is likely to be 2021 at the earliest before any real change proceeds. The Minister for the Environment, David Parker, at least seems cognisant of history, so is unlikely to want to cast aside the principles on which it was founded. But he is also likely to face major challenges keeping both the Greens and New Zealand First on side as the review proceeds, and will come under just the same pressure from development and primary production interests his National predecessors did to simply get rid of the Resource Management Act altogether. It may end up being all too difficult.

He would be on far safer political ground to make it clear from the outset that the principles of the Resource Management Act are to remain inviolate, but that the real focus of his reform programme will be to make the Act work the way it was originally intended. Such an approach is not only more prudent, but actually has a chance of succeeding and enduring.

Otherwise, some successor Minister in the next decade or so will have the same bright idea all over again.           


*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

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14 Comments

PD has articulated the core problem with the RMA: it was conceived of and legislated for as a pure Effects-based regime, with a major role for a few Region-wide Councils who should have had a good enough balance between the national overview and the local detail, to be able to come to sensible effects-based rulings.

But the Act has been applied by Local Governments - all 70-odd of them - by staff steeped in the old Brit-inspired Town and Country Planning Act. So there are 70-odd District Plans, each taking decades to refine, all being internally inconsistent to some degree, none bearing any necessary relationship to the TLA Next Door's Plan, and being an absolute goldmine for the Non-Tradeable sector:

  • Planning consultants to navigate the Plans, for a Modest Fee
  • Consentors and Inspectors: multiple events, multiple Modest Fees
  • Inconsistent rulings as between Consenters from one week to the next, as between TLA's (differing Plans), and over time as staff change, latch onto the Latest Fad, or just decide to Play God. Oh, and each time, another Modest Fee.
  • Zero recoginition that in the development game, Time = Money. So injecting Time into processing consents, applications etc, bears no penalty for the TLA. But, as the developers' financiers like to remind their clients, the Bank has first dibs...
  • And when the inevitable happens: the irrepressibles meet the absolutists, and things go titz-up, cui bono? Why, the Legal Eagles....

It will take more than a legislative magic wand to make generations of TLA staff act differently. They have already shown their ability to foobar what started off life as a perfectly sensible Act. To expect their now-much-greater Empires to bow to Yet Another Legal Tweak is folly.

My solution, since y'all will expect that, after such a rant, I have given it Deep Thought?

  1. Leave the RMA alone for a while
  2. Declare all District Plans null and void: by lunchtime tomorrow.
  3. Regionalise all planning - 4-6 Regions to cover NZ should be sufficient.
  4. Disinvite all existing Planning staff from being hired into the new RMA Regional entities - they can always go join Housing Factories on the shop floor, or Learn to Code.
  5. Set up a Disputes Resolution Service to handle (say) any and all Residential-oriented consent kerfuffles - plain language, court-appointed legal staff, quick settlements. The Insurance sector has the bones of a model here.
  6. Import the German 'right to build' constitution into the heart of the practical application of the RMA - permissive rather than restrictive.

No doubt commenters will react, add their thoughts, and generally act maturely. Ha!

you got my vote

+1 me too.

There were only ever two effects based plans that we're developed under the RMA. Both were massive failures. Your suggestions have limited merit and are not grounded in reality. Planning will always be about balancing private property rights with wider community benefit. This is not an easy thing to do, but at least the RMA provides a robust process in which to balance interests through evidence-based decision making. The biggest problem with the RMA is that the evidential threshold for change is so high, that it takes significant time to front load a change process before the lengthy public consultation process begins. Changes to the RMA should focus on how this could be more efficient, so that policy is in place quickly for the market to respond. Unfortunately, many developers have no clue about planning and often don't properly resource the planning phase of their developments. This adds further time delays and costs when development plans have to be revised. The RMA process could be a lot smoother if business acumen improved.

Sorry, I disagree.

No plan rule/policy I've seen has ever gone through a individual full policy or regulatory impact assessment that weighed all costs and benefits.

For example - low density zoning - this has huge impacts on forcing car dependence.
By taking an effects basis I would be able to as of right (not have to go through an expensive approval process) amalgamate 2 titles and build higher density while still mitigating the adverse environmental impacts of e.g. sunlight on neighboring properties.

Geoffrey Palmer never intended the RMA to resort back to town & country planning style zoning. It was simply hijacked.

If we went effects based, these could be national level policies/rules. We don't need district plans stacked as high as the skytower to manage urban development for 5 million people.

Agreed. Palmer was still a tad shy of real sustainability, and in hindsight, had a 3-decade window until those pigeons cam home to roost. But they're here now - so effects it has to be, and long-term at that.

One glaring omission is the total avoidance of the prime energy-source behind everything fro dairying to tourism. It's finite, and a drawing-down, which means almost nothing applied for is actually sustainable.

My suggestion is the 'representation for future generations' one - ten equal-rights advocates for the next ten generations, vs one advocate for any application by this one. That would overningt, put things in perspective. Would be anathema to the current generation of politician, reporter, business-person and voter, though. So unlikely.

Yes i agree. The most efficient plans to get to the environmental goals are the hybrids, a mix of activities and effects based.

Quality rant. Lols aplenty. "Learn to code" heh.

I think that one of the problems with the RMA is that there can be such a massive power/money imbalance between parties doing battle, and that it costs objectors a tiny amount compared to those trying to get something through. Objection on even the flimsiest grounds is nearly free. That financial asymmetry is used by eg big retailers to prevent competition from being established in a lot of communities thereby shoring up their quasi-monopolys.

I have an Italian friend who tells me that the positive side of corruption is that you know you can get stuff done if you pay people off sufficiently - which is the case with paying off Maori objectors in NZ too, a corrupt process that at least is sure in its outcome. But the time and money + uncertain outcome risk in NZ is too high and kills off a lot of potential positive development. Maybe we just need to institute an 'indulgence' clause. pay 10-20% of the finished value to the govt and you can do whatever you want (within some limits) and ignore the objectors.

MfE is rolling out templates for the standardisation of District Plans, to reduce the variation, make it easier to administer and understand, and get costs down. It can't come soon enough.

Best way to get land costs down would be to allow Councils to rate differently on undeveloped land that has already been rezoned for development but is being landbanked.

They have exactly that already: read the Rating Act.

What's missing?

  1. The intellectual horsepower at Staff and Councillor level to conceive a viable usage of differentials to this very end
  2. The political cojones to actualise the scheme under severe vested-interest, re-election and staff-resistance pressures (staff tend to prefer a stress-free life)
  3. The vertebrae at all levels to persist with the scheme (or refinements thereto) for long enough for the desired objectives to emerge in the banked-land market segment. It could take decades.
  4. The gumption to resist the siren call of more-revenue (from this source) gleefully applied to some dopey Well-being somewhere far removed from land development. It would have to be ring-fenced in some way, otherwise it's just more OPM for Festival Organisers and their minions to Play With.

I've seen TLA behaviours over several decades, and from both Staff and Councillor standpoints. The above list is not exhaustive, but is indicative of the very real impediments to change at individual TLA level.

“Omnes auctoritate nihil praestaret.” Vive! The Brown Cardigan Brigade.

I have a slightly different view. To me the RMA was never intended to function it was always intended to obstruct. How else could you explain such a bad peice of legislation and the fact it remained unchanged despite it so obviously not working. I can only think of the Bradford energy reforms as worse. And they have never been reversed either...because thats all about ensuring making corporations rich off our old assets. Complacency reigns supreme! Back to the RMA... Its net effect is to obstruct anyone but the wealthiest of us from hopping aboard the wealth elevator that is property development in this country. Now we can't all make planet size profits so those without the money to grease the gears of the RMA miss out and in true neo lib fashion the opportunity to make to big bucks goes to those who already have big bucks while the rest have to be content with trying to get ahead doing up old units or paying through the nose for a new build whos's owner has done marvelously well out of, yet again. Are you sick of being done over yet kiwis?