RMA at the heart of our nature

Even more significant than the government's former ideas about mining our national parks, a long-awaited government advisory group report would spell disaster for the Resource Management Act if it were implemented

Proposals are afoot to change the way things are managed all over the country, where New Zealanders live every day. That means changes to planning and decision-making about everything that is built, or not, as the case may be. The changes proposed are big, and they’re being dressed up and glossed over like a pig in a bit of lipstick.

The Minister for the Environment’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) had been asked by the government to review sections 6 and 7 of the Resource Management Act (RMA). Along with section 5, these are the Act’s most important sections, which set out its environmental “bottom line” - the sustainable management of natural and physical resources - and “matters of national importance” which are about environmental protection and preservation.

They are about our taonga. And they affect the interpretation of the whole of the rest of the Act, and all of the regulations and planning documents made under it. They set the foundations for making decisions that affect all of our natural resources: air, rivers, landscapes, trees, green spaces, soil, everything. The conditions for life, and love of this country.

This week, Forest & Bird joined the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), Fish & Game, Ecologic, Greenpeace New Zealand, and WWF-New Zealand in an open letter to Mrs Adams, expressing environment groups’ alarm at the proposals.

The advisory group proposes completely redrafting sections 6 and 7, combining them into one section, omitting some parts, adding others, and redrafting the remainder. In the redraft, important language requiring decision-makers to recognise and provide for certain things to be protected, preserved, maintained or enhanced would be removed.

The sections aren’t perfect, and have been amended before. Nor were they perfect to start with: they were the result, right from the beginning, of political trade-offs, that have been amended in quite an ad hoc way over time. But the current proposals are much worse.

Despite their faults, these sections of the RMA are almost like a constitution for our environment, and the foundation of everything that gets built. They're simply, the best we've got. And if you want to get anywhere with a development, you don’t take your foundation to pieces and start again every time there’s a change of government.

Until now, for 21 years, political consensus has largely endured about this part of our environmental law - that is, part 2 of the Act, at its heart. Hon Simon Upton was the Minister in charge of the RMA when it was passed. He’s spoken since about the intellectual effort that went in to it, spearheaded by himself and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, and the philosophical shift that the legislation represented.

The RMA was revolutionary, in writing a commitment to sustainability into environmental law, and recognising that this does require a bottom line. Internationally, Upton and Palmer are admired and celebrated for their work; and from a “100% pure” point of view, we change it at our peril.

The hubris demonstrated here, in these ill-thought through proposals, is mind-blowing.

The sections don’t list all decision-making factors. They focus on pro-environmental factors. But even so, in practice, the environmental protection conferred by the RMA isn’t all that strong.

Introducing it, in 1989, then Minister for the Environment Geoffrey Palmer explained why the new Act wasn’t, in fact about being “100% pure” (although obviously, that slogan hadn’t yet been coined, and he didn't use that language). It is concerned with balance, Palmer said. That is: the current government’s policy.

However, the RMA’s new (in 1991) requirement for certain non-negotiables gave decision-makers guidance, at a minimum, about how much balance. It's been more of a line in the sand, than a stake in the ground - but still, the line is drawn.

There was a reason for that. While the TAG authors have made much of the virtues of flexibility - “Flexibility is required if the economy is to be responsive to changing times”, they wrote - nature does have bottom lines.

Where the RMA hasn’t worked well, it’s because of the failure of secondary things written or developed under it - the regional planning, and government policy statements, that were always going to be needed, and were intended, for the Act to function properly.

The major beef the TAG report’s authors seem to have with these sections - really, the only one it’s impossible to disagree with - is that the Act is 20 years old! No argument there. It is. Good things take time.

But then they go on: because it’s 20 years old, it no longer reflects New Zealanders’ priorities, they said.

After two decades, we say it is time for a new approach and fresh statement of those RMA principles relevant for the second decade of the 21st century.

Ironic then, that they propose reverting to something more similar to the law that we had 20 years ago under the Town and Country Planning legislation, which was a mess.

In fact, in a pre-election survey in 2011, in which the environment was ranked by voters as their number one election issue - and when 40,000 of us marched down Queen St protesting against mining national parks - New Zealanders showed that our values haven’t changed. We told the government then that there are some environmental boundaries that it would be political suicide to cross. We ought to be as angry now.

There is no government mandate for reform of this very fundamental kind, certainly not without extensive public process, which has not been the case. The Minister is not proposing to consult formally on the TAG report; although, you can write to her MFE officials about it.

Instead, Mrs Adams has said bland things, about better providing for natural hazards in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes.

Forest & Bird will be looking further at the natural hazards issue, which is important, but we do not think the present proposals respond to it. Others’ advice, including from a different expert TAG, convened by the EDS, agrees.

The government has been signalling its intention to review sections 6 and 7 of the Act since well before the Christchurch earthquakes, on which I blogged earlier, saying that we should be worried:

To help the government’s goal of “building infrastructure for growth”, the foundations of the Resource Management Act are being quietly reviewed, without a scrap of evidence that infrastructure is being impeded by the current law.

The Christchurch tragedies are being used - again - as a Trojan horse, and we should be angry about that, too.

The coalition of national and international environment groups, united against these proposals - including some, like Ecologic’s Guy Salmon, not normally so outspoken - shows the importance of what is proposed.

While the report is not yet government policy, all ENGOs were agreed upon this, and on the need to be communicating unequivocally to the government at an early stage about it.

The open letter explains why suggestions from TAG authors that this would merely codify current law are wrong. This would change the law, which would cost everybody time and money. All of the planning documents developed under the former legislation would need to be redone, many decisions relitigated, at all court levels.

It’s a long letter, with a large number of detailed concerns. But I think you can sum them up in a line or two.

The TAG’s own terms of reference directed that group to consider “improving economic efficiency of implementation without compromising underlying environmental integrity” (my emphasis). This will not meet that directive, and the letter explains why - and why the TAG, on behalf of government, has crossed a line New Zealanders shouldn't tolerate.


Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate.