First they came for the trees ...

Look deeper into RMA reforms and you might find it's more exciting than you think: an Environment Minister taking her axe to urban trees, and the latest in a series of “democracy deficits” - this time affecting Auckland

Wake up, New Zealand. Yo, Auckland!

I want you - the 87 percent of you who live in a city or town in New Zealand - to have a think about trees. What do trees mean to you?

Shade on a baking day like today; pretty light on your lawn in the mornings? Nesting and perching space for the morning chorus and their babies? Some light entertainment? - drunk tui, chattery fantail, those solemn kereru clowns? Your kids and kittens climbing, swinging; kids playing cricket underneath? Privacy from noisy or nosy neighbours; a shield from next door’s ugly house, or the road? Shelter from blustering winds? Ringing the changes from autumn, through winter, to spring?

Here’s the Environmental Defence Society’s list of some of the things trees do: all of those things, and more.

  • Trees provide crucial biodiversity habitat, wildlife corridors through built-up areas - and stream corridors, where shading is necessary to achieve stream temperatures in which aquatic species can survive.
  • Trees improve water quality, through the filtering of nutrients and contaminants.
  • Trees reduce storm water run-off - particularly important in urban areas, with a lot of impermeable ground cover.
  • Trees assist with erosion control.
  • Trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change.
  • Trees raise the amenity values - and also actual values - of people’s homes.

All of that under threat, and you’re being misled about it: the government’s latest proposal to take an axe to urban trees is described in the explanatory note to the Resource Management Reform Bill 2012 as a “technical change”, to “clarify and improve the workability of the RMA”.

In the Bill (clause 12), the RMA would be changed so that a tree protection rule in a council plan can only apply to a particular tree, or a group (cluster, line or grove) of trees on the same or adjacent properties, listed in the plan.

If it proceeds, many fewer trees will be protected, because of the bureaucratic difficulty and cost of individually assessing and adding every tree to the plan, in a schedule.

Many more trees will be cut down, in a proposal described as “pandering to” the vested interests of the Property Council.

The government tried to make similar changes in their 2009 RMA reforms. They lost: Waitakere City took a case, and the law change now proposed would overturn the resulting Environment Court decision.

The Bill says that -

  • specifying all trees of one or more named species in a defined area or zone of the plan (for example, all kauri in the Waitakere Ranges) 
  • or all trees in a class with defined characteristics in an area or zone (for example, all exotic trees exceeding specified height or girth in Remuera)
  • or all trees in a named ecosystem -

won’t meet the new requirements.

Fair enough: sometimes trees are a nuisance. So is, sometimes, every other thing you’ll ever hug in your life. But thinking now about everything they bring to our lives: can we afford not to approach them with a bit of balance and care, with aroha, and awe?

The government’s own RMA policy has been to ‘simplify and streamline’. The bureaucratic demands and cost of specifying every protected tree or adjacent group of trees will be huge.

But before you nod off completely: this isn’t about the ‘RMA’. It’s about New Zealand.

The trees are an example of how small-looking changes on paper to the RMA have really profound implications for you, and the places where we all live.

Lately, the volume is - finally - getting turned up on Joyce & co’s rough handling of basic parts of the loose set of laws and conventions that Kiwis call a constitution, when that gets in the way of jobs and growth.

The Ombudsman’s concerned at the “unconstitutional nature” of exempting charter schools from public scrutiny, under the OIA.

Minister explains Canterbury democracy might get in the way of all the governing they need to do,” summed up Lyndon Hood on Twitter @lyndonhood, referring to the latest instalment of the ECan tragedy, in many parts.  

Recently described by Geoffrey Palmer as “leaving a toxic taste in the constitutional mouth”, Environment Canterbury and Christchurch have seen extraordinary legislation, bad decisions made under it, and now, an extension to 2016 of appointed commissioners’ powers.

Returning to the RMA Reform Bill, it includes proposals for the making of the first Auckland combined plan that don’t require sacking the Council. What it does, however, is restrict appeal rights from decisions of the government-appointed Hearing Panel.

“The Hearings Panel is not limited to making recommendations only within the scope of the submissions made on the proposed plan; and may make recommendations on any other matters relating to the proposed plan identified by the Panel or any other person during the hearing.” The Panel could, in short, come to the table with an agenda quite other than anything on the minds of submitters.

The Bill provides for regulations to be made:

  • Prescribing matters in respect of the preparation of the first Auckland combined plan that may be in addition to or in place of the primary legislation.
  • Providing that provisions of the primary legislation or the RMA do not apply, or apply with modifications, to the preparation of the first Auckland combined plan.

These two paragraphs are known as ‘Henry VIII’ clauses. They would let the government, by regulation, trump laws passed by Parliament.

They are generally unacceptable to the Justice Ministry’s independent, prestigious Legislation Advisory Committee, whose role is to scrutinise legislation, and frowned on by Parliament’s own Regulations Review Committee.

These will be temporary powers. But again, look at what’s happened in Canterbury, and ask: do you trust those extraordinary powers to be responsibly exercised, and allowed to cease when promised, in 2017? And even if you do, is trust good enough?

This government is the instigator of a Constitutional Review - a proper one, I mean, not the ad hoc one that’s happening in the Beehive most days. It’s time for a bit of schooling on checks and balances.


Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate. Forest & Bird is campaigning against these RMA changes. If you too would like to tell the government that their policy is wrong, you can read the Bill and make a submission here.