Preserving New Zealand’s habitat

Reform of the Resource Management Act will be the biggest and most profoundly important legislative work undertaken by this Government.

The RMA is 836 pages long, and its complexities have been controversial since it passed into law in 1991.

The Act was intended to both preserve New Zealand’s natural habitat and allow safe, sustainable economic use of land, air and water resources.

Instead, it created a bureaucratic consenting regime which has angered developers — who say it hinders legitimate economic activity — and environmentalists, who say it offers insufficient protections.

All parties who use the Act, a pervasive piece of law which influences almost every activity we undertake, have been frustrated by its inadequacies and hankered for change.

They have their wish, although the announcement on Wednesday by Environment Minister David Parker left vital details for another day.

We do know that the Act will be replaced by three new laws.

The first, the Natural And Built Environments Bill, focuses on building, the second on strategic regional planning, and the third on mitigation of climate change.

This may be a sensible approach to focus and streamline the process, or alternatively three new laws may further ravel an already convoluted process — the devil will be in the still unreleased detail.

There will be a lot of detail to consider, and a special select committee will be set up to consider the law changes.

The committee will first consider an "exposure draft" of the Bill, a process which may uncover potential problems early, but also leads to questions whether omissions and loopholes which scrutiny of a full and final Bill might catch could be overlooked.

It also begs the question when the public will have its say through the submission process.

Given the pervasive influence of the RMA and its importance in the legal landscape, that chance to comment must not be curtailed.

The RMA is a fundamentally constitutional piece of law, which places limits on the historical right to free enjoyment of one’s land.

The planned reforms are set to add another layer of constitutionality to questions of land usage, with a Government pledge that the new laws will include strengthened recognition of tikanga Maori and the Treaty of Waitangi.

Many will say that is as it should be in a Treaty partnership. Others will disagree.

Wider consultation need not mean greater consternation in the planning process, and an iwi perspective should be productive, not tokenistic.

Local perspectives must also be considered.

The second Bill, the Strategic Planning Bill, will set up a regional framework with broad decision-making powers.

Southern mayors fear that could abridge local involvement in matters which affect their constituents.

This is a reasonable concern rather than kneejerk parochialism: to give just one example, Queenstown’s building issues are not Balclutha’s building issues.

The Bill must strike a delicate balance between simplifying the planning process but not running roughshod over those affected.

The Climate Change Adaptation Bill may be the most significant of the three.

RMA reform comes soon after the Climate Change Commission released its draft plan for New Zealand to meet emission targets.

It proposed transformative action, changes which could easily be bogged down in planning regulations until it was too late.

Also to be fully understood is how climate change requirements will interact with other planning decisions, and what those requirements will entail for existing consents.

Even if they are as long, or longer, than the RMA, the new Bills will be intensely read and debated because they are laws which affect everyone.

The Government’s task is to ensure that they are efficient, effective and treat all equally.

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