Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Concern over changes to Resource Management Act

Critics say changes to the Act favour urban sprawl over environmental protection. Photo / APN
Critics say changes to the Act favour urban sprawl over environmental protection. Photo / APN

Government ministers will have a "disturbing" ability to intervene in resource consents and diminish the role of the Environment Court, Opposition members have warned at the release of new Government reforms.

Labour, Greens and environmental groups were concerned at the proposal to "clarify and extend" central government's powers over the planning process, which was part of sweeping changes to the Resource Management Act unveiled yesterday in a discussion paper.

Government already had power to direct councils or "call in" consents to a board of inquiry.

But the paper said it was not clear when and how these national-level tools could be used. Government wanted to be able to streamline the consent process for urgent issues, and give ministers ability to directly change an existing plan.

This move alarmed some groups.

Environmental Defence Society (EDS) said the changes would be at expense of community input, and were of concern when combined with proposals to narrow the role of the Environment Court.

Forest and Bird said the proposals introduced a disturbing level of hands-on ministerial control.

Labour environment minister Maryan Street told Parliament it was "another power grab by Government."

Ms Adams dismissed the concerns, saying these changes amounted to "backstop powers if things don't go according to plan."

"It's ridiculous to expect 78 local authorities to make this stuff up, individually, by themselves, time and time again. A lot of this needs national guidance."

Of greatest concern was the proposal to change the governing principles on which the RMA was founded, which Government felt were dated after 22 years.

The discussion paper said the Act did not reflect up-to-date values and was "frozen in time". It said there was concern that its principles placed too greater emphasis on environmental matters, which overshadowed the positive effects of economic or social activities.

Ms Street said it was old-fashioned to consider resource management as a trade-off between environmental protection and economic development.

"I think environmental protection is economic development - Government is making a false dichotomy" she said.

EDS chair Gary Taylor said New Zealanders environmental, social and economic aspirations were unlikely to have changed in the last two decades and the reforms appeared to be stacking the process to favour development over environmental bottom lines.

"There is no evidence to suggest that New Zealanders want urban sprawl or that huge increases in land supply would materially impact in housing affordability."

Act Party leader John Banks, on the other hand, argued that the reforms needed to go further by strengthening the private property rights of landowners.

He said housing should be made more affordable by removing "artificial" restrictions on land.

Q&A

Why is the Resource Management Act being reformed?

Government feels the legislation and its systems have become too cumbersome and uncertain, and this was costing residents, businesses, and councils too much time and money. This in turn was creating delays in new construction and development and stifling job creation and raising house prices.

What is being proposed in the latest round of reforms?

A single resource management plan for every district, instead of three or four per region, and a standardised list of definition for plans across the country. A reduced role for the Environment Court, so that it was tasked with interpreting policy, not determining the values of the Act. Greater direction from central government on important issues such as housing affordability and natural hazards. A 10-day time limit for simple, non-notified consents. Reporting requirements for councils on their service performance.

How do the public have a say?

A discussion paper on the latest proposals can be found at www.mfe.govt.nz. Submissions can be made before April 22, 2013.

- NZ Herald

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