Claire Browning: RMA changes a step back in time

Tinkering with Resource Management Act will take us back to the dark days of Think Big, says Claire Browning.

Former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer was the architect of the original RMA. Photo / Supplied
Former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer was the architect of the original RMA. Photo / Supplied

Twenty years ago, the Resource Management Act passed with the backing of both major parties in Parliament, and the people, who - as the act's original drafter, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, told a small Wellington audience this week - had been "consulted to death". It was a deeply democratic law, in every way.

The National Development Act, which preceded the RMA, and the 54 planning and environment statutes and 20 sets of regulations that the RMA repealed were things we were glad to be rid of, because they had failed.

Under the National Development Act, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's "Think Big" brainchild, ministers were in charge of development. Palmer called it a "constitutionally highly objectionable approach" that was an affront to environmental standards, due process and the rule of law. It truncated legal processes and allowed standards to be cut through.

The RMA gave the public and its representatives, often environment groups, the chance to object and be heard.

It brought planning and environment laws together, because they are intricately related. It was about governing for the many and the future, not the few.

What we now face under Government proposals is a return in everything but name to a National Development Act, with sweeping ministerial powers, and risk of their abuse.

Environment factors are stripped out or weakened, and development factors added. New Zealanders' views on planning and RMA decision-making will be heard in even fewer cases than the present tiny 4 per cent. The Environment Court has fewer powers but will incur higher costs in administering them.

Like me, Phil O'Reilly (Herald, Friday May 24) doesn't want ministers in charge. The Government, he says, has interfered too much. The RMA took a deliberately hands-off approach, to allow people and markets to make choices - and he extrapolates from this to conclude that private property rights should prevail. Really, business should just be allowed to get on with things, while New Zealanders and government get out of the way.

Roughly, the charges laid against the Act are its uncertainty and cost ("a bureaucratic and costly nightmare"), and that it hinders economic development and gives the environment too much weight.

In fact, the evidence is quite clear - under the RMA, environmental standards, water quality and biodiversity in particular, are getting worse. If anything, proposals to significantly and seriously weaken the law on which our economy, New Zealanders' identity, and recreational enjoyment all so heavily depend ought to be cause for serious alarm.

And in her extreme and poorly supported set of proposals now under consideration, the Environment Minister has missed a chance to work with everyone who agrees on the imperfections of the RMA, to get a lasting result for best outcomes and least cost.

O'Reilly has his data wrong. In the most recent year for which figures are available (2010-11), 0.56 per cent (203 of 36,154) resource consent applications were denied, not the 5 per cent he suggests.

But it is not just about whether projects are granted or declined. The RMA exists to help work out the right conditions, as well as manage effects, which under O'Reilly's approach would not occur.

Not infrequently, parties are going through a process of coming to consensus on many and complex matters.

What is now proposed by Mrs Adams will carry incalculable uncertainty and cost. Law clarifying the act's application has been settled, but that will be swept away, leaving decision-makers without guidance.

The RMA is the tool we have and use to protect beaches, bush, rivers, landscapes and communities. O'Reilly considers that it unreasonably interferes with the exercise of private property rights by ordinary individuals. He wants compensation. But private acts have public effects, cumulatively, very large effects. Nowhere is this more clear than in our declining water quality. The RMA exists to set and administer some bottom lines, for the public enjoyment and good, including the good of future generations.

The RMA sustains things we can all enjoy and profit from, no matter how rich, or poor. It supports enterprise and the private good, by sustaining its natural capital base and ensuring continued profit from the services that nature so freely provides. There is no private loss.

Governments, not the act itself, have failed - and are about to fail again.

For New Zealanders, what is at stake is the whole character of our place. This isn't about the RMA. It's about New Zealand values, and a social contract made in 1991 that should be kept, and built on.

Claire Browning is a Forest and Bird conservation advocate.

- NZ Herald

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