Brakes on RMA reforms

Prime Minister John Key's statement that National will have to ''rip up'' its proposed changes to the Resource Management Act in the wake of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters' win in the Northland by-election seems somewhat petulant given longstanding and widespread opposition to the plans.

Mr Peters' win in the longtime National seat sees the Government's numbers drop to 59 seats - no longer a majority, even with support partner Act's one seat.

Labour, the Greens, United Future and the Maori Party oppose National's proposed changes to the core principles of the Act, which it has been unable to get the numbers to pass.

It has already made less substantial changes to the legislation.

Its previous third-term majority, plus the support of Act, meant it would have got its next tranche of changes - what it promised to be a substantial overhaul of the Act - through Parliament this year.

The RMA has been used as a stick to beat those accused of being anti-progress.

It has repeatedly been paraded as the major hurdle in resolving the Auckland housing crisis, for example.

National sought to ''balance'' the environmental principles of the Act with economic development considerations.

Opponents said that would effectively ''gut'' the Act's core principles - to protect the environment.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, says the RMA is no place for such a balance: ''It is not and should not become an economic development Act.''

Some of the criticisms of the RMA are valid.

It is a comprehensive and complicated piece of legislation.

All parties believe some changes to the Act are required, particularly around processes.

There was goodwill to work on those changes.

All parties surely want the best opportunities for individuals and businesses in their communities, our country and our overseas trade and enterprise.

The anti-progress tag is a cheap shot, however.

There are many who believe the major changes proposed will not solve fundamental problems - lack of infrastructure, land, consent delays and cost - and could in fact cause a raft of other legal issues.

Many of the problems have been blamed on central and local government bureaucracy and inefficiencies.

Erosion of environmental foundations once begun will be very hard to claw back.

It must be noted there is already significant weight placed on economic development - through legislation and dedicated ministries.

Even the likes of Department of Conservation, through its charter, must consider economic development in its decision-making.

Environmental and economic development concerns are not mutually exclusive. Our greatest asset is our largely unspoilt landscape.

Our primary production sector (our biggest export earner) relies on our environment being sustainable, and our second-highest export earner, tourism, also relies on our clean green image and 100% Pure brand.

Dr Wright is right.

There must be a voice at the forefront for the environment and the RMA provides that through ''sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment''.

This seems particularly important at a time when consecutive reports have shown declining water quality in New Zealand, for example.

Dr Wright has also acknowledged New Zealand faces a classic ''environment versus development'' dilemma.

With two such fundamental areas at stake, it seems essential that changes should be made carefully, with the support of all parties, for the benefit of all New Zealanders now and in the future.

It makes no sense to ram through major changes, which may impact on other legislation, and which could be reversed with any change of government.

Far better to work on the necessary ''clean-up'' of the legislation together, and tackle the complicating factors involving local and regional councils.

Development is certainly desirable, but not at the expense of what most New Zealanders cherish, and what defines us in the world.

Back to the drawing board may prove to be the best way forward.

Add a Comment