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The Resource Management Act - which promotes the sustainable management of natural and physical resources in New Zealand - has undergone a raft of reviews and amendments since it was spearheaded by the Labour government in the late 1980s and enacted by the National government in 1991. Environment Minister Amy Adams is leading the current and controversial two-phase reforms.
The first introduced the Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Act 2009. The second contains a package of reforms that will make their way through Parliament next year, including freshwater management proposals built on recommendations from the Land and Water Forum. The Bill introduces a streamlined process for Auckland's first unitary plan, a six-month time limit for processing consents for medium-sized projects, easier direct referral to the Environment Court for major regional projects, and stronger requirements for councils to base planning decisions on robust and thorough cost-benefit analysis.
Ms Adams says the changes will speed up, clarify, and reduce costs associated with the current system, which are hampering growth and putting undue pressure on communities: ''RMA and freshwater reform are a key part of the Government's Business Growth Agenda. We need a system that enables growth, provides good environmental outcomes and can adapt to changing values, pressures and technology.''
The Bill passed its first reading by 71 to 49 with National, NZ First, Maori Party, Act and United Future in favour. It now progresses to the Local Government and Environment Committee. But Labour deputy leader and environment spokesman Grant Robertson claimed some of the changes signalled a return to the Muldoon days, the Government's ''ongoing desire to centralise power away from communities, reduce public input and tip the scales away from sustainable development'' and reintroduced some areas which failed in its 2009 reforms.
He was critical of the reduced consent period, saying an improved process was welcome but it must not ''undermine public participation'' or short-cut ''the analysis required to understand the full impact of the consent''. He claimed the Government had an ''emphasis on economic development above environmental protection'' in terms of the cost-benefit analysis of proposed plans.
Labour's Auckland issues spokesman, Phil Twyford, said the proposed changes were worrying in terms of the Government's increased control over local government:
''We have seen it with the suspension of elections for Environment Canterbury, with the local government legislation just passed, the transport Bill before the House, and now the hijacking of Auckland's plan.
Green Party environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage has previously accused the Government of actively undermining environmental protection through its proposed changes to the RMA and its ''gutting'' of the emissions trading scheme.
There is no doubt it is a fine line and a balance must be made to encourage economic growth and job opportunities through projects, whilst respecting both indigenous rights and our ''clean, green'' image. But, as critics here and overseas have noted recently, the environmental perception on which we pride - and market - ourselves is on increasingly rocky ground.
The RMA has been much debated and criticised through the years and it is clear there are elements that are unworkable for some. However, it would surely be a loss to the country's image - and future generations - if any new changes were to undermine the Act's original principles of ''sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment''.