Announcing a planned overhaul of the Resource Management Act yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke of aiming to unlock the "lost growth potential and untangle the red tape suffocating everyone from homeowners to businesses". That is an ambitious objective, and the Government has more than 100 changes in mind. Its clear emphasis, however, is on speeding up consents for major buildings and infrastructure. The welcome cornerstone of the amended legislation will be a new Environmental Protection Authority that will handle applications of national significance and run boards of inquiry to deal with them, a process boasting a nine-month deadline.
John Key said the recession added fresh urgency to the need for changes. In reality, however, these were overdue whatever the economic climate. In the 18 years since its well-intentioned introduction, the act has struggled to be a credible vehicle for genuinely sustainable resource use. Most fundamentally, the mechanisms for issuing consents have been too easily abused. Commercial rivals have used them to handicap competitors by lodging objections, neighbours have settled scores by refusing to consent to housing extensions and suchlike, and too many developers have been at the mercy of rival claimants to tangata whenua status and been charged excessive consultation fees. The upshot in all instances has been unacceptable costs and delays.
The Government says its changes will prevent frivolous, vexatious and anti-competitive objections, including the ability to make general challenges. The focus here is a much-needed punitive regime designed to result in companies that oppose projects on business grounds having to pay significant costs. But, in one respect, Mr Key's hands have been tied. Notably absent is a proposal to remove references to the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori cultural and spiritual values. It was part of National's election manifesto but has fallen foul of the new relationship with the Maori Party. Now, somewhat lamely, the Government says the dropping of the Treaty clause has been rendered unnecessary by case law and improved practices.
Other aspects of the overhaul are also notably milder than that proposed by National four years ago. Then, for example, the party planned to scrap the act's legal aid objection fund. This moderation is probably advisable. In any rebalancing of the act, the right for community interests to be heard must not be overrun by the need for efficient decision-making. In that respect, the Environmental Defence Society appears to have a valid concern over the plan to limit further the notification of resource consents.
The Government has also acknowledged the frustrations endured by some of those seeking the most mundane of resource consents from local authorities. It will require councils to provide discounts if they fail to process a consent within the statutory time frame. As well-meaning as this is in terms of accountability, it is unlikely to drive local authorities to work more efficiently. In many cases, their tardiness relates more to resourcing and other factors than inactivity. Discounts may deliver a degree of compensation to the applicant but are likely to achieve little else.
This is the first but most important phase of a two-stage Government exercise. The second part, less all-embracing, will flesh out the Environmental Protection Authority and offer more on the likes of urban design and infrastructure. Already, however, the Government has ventured into areas that its green-tinged predecessor would have avoided. In the main, it has trod carefully. In quick time, it has arrived at a better balanced and more consistent Resource Management Act.