Doubts and misgivings, if not downright alarm, mark business lobby groups' reaction to a preliminary draft of legislation to replace the Resource Management Act.
The need for reform is widely accepted. The current system has failed to protect the natural environment while also failing to cater for the legitimate needs of one important native species, ourselves, not least for housing.
Parliament's environment select committee is considering hundreds of submissions on an exposure draft of key aspects of a Natural and Built Environments Bill, which will be the primary replacement for the RMA.
It spells out the intended purpose and objectives of the bill and the proposed institutional architecture for delivering them — specifically, a national planning framework to guide and circumscribe the regional plans which are to replace the plethora of local plans now governing resource consents.
The Employers and Manufacturers Association says the purpose clause puts an over-riding emphasis on environmental outcomes, to the potential detriment of wider economic development.
Business NZ also considers that taking the purpose statement at face value, economic wellbeing will be relegated to a much lower place in the pecking order than is currently the case.
They have a point. Among a lot of language about upholding "Te Oranga o te Taiao" by protecting and enhancing the natural environment, complying with environmental limits, and promoting outcomes which benefit the environment, there is only a perfunctory nod towards enabling people to use the environment in a way that supports the wellbeing of present generations without, of course, compromising the wellbeing of future generations.
A central aim of the reform is to replace the current law's focus on avoiding adverse effects of site-specific planning consents sought, with a focus on promoting positive outcomes which recognise the benefits of well-planned changes.
Sounds like progress. But as drafted, the bill lists no fewer than 16 such outcomes, only four of which have anything to do with the quality of urban life, housing supply or infrastructure, or promoting resilient rural communities.
Conflicts, tensions and the need for tradeoffs between so extensive a wish-list of desirable outcomes are inevitable.
Suppose, for example, that the proposal for a pumped hydro scheme in the hills overlooking the Clutha River to manage dry-year risk to electricity supply were to proceed. How would you weigh one of the statutory desired outcomes — reducing greenhouse gas emissions — against another — protecting the "mana and mauri" of the river?
We are told that a new national planning framework will provide strategic and regulatory direction from central government, much more comprehensive and integrated than the RMA requires, and that where possible it will give direction on resolving conflicts across the system.
But, says BusinessNZ, "central government, unfortunately, does not necessarily have all the answers and much of what is specified could very likely prove certain but inflexible".
"Even the best-thought-out planning framework will be unable to meet the legitimate expectations of both growth and environmental protection. What can only be hoped for is that fair compromises can be achieved."
Consolidation and centralisation are clearly central to the reforms. Or to put it another way, fewer consents and less scope for dissent.
Ministry for the Environment officials in their (heavily constrained) regulatory impact statement say that "more investment in planning, when done well, can reduce the number of consents that are required, shifting the costs from users to central and local government (and ultimately to the broader public)." To the extent that the current system is a charter for Nimbyism and vexatious obstruction, or at least a bias towards the status quo, that is welcome.
"Public input should be focused more on strategic decisions and less on site-specific decisions ... There should be fewer appeals", though officials add the important caveat that where a public body or agency makes a decision affecting a person's rights or interests, that person should generally be able to have the decision reviewed in some way.
Exactly who will make these decisions and the mechanisms for appeal are among the many features of the new regime which have yet to be decided.
But they will have to be decided before the full bill is introduced, scheduled to be early next year with a view to passage in the current parliamentary term.
The exposure draft has adopted the Randerson review's proposal that there should be just one plan per region, instead of the current system where over 100 regional and district plans and RMA policy statements are a recipe for maddening inconsistencies in both policy and implementation.
BusinessNZ has two major issues with this. "First, how will the ability to make tradeoffs at a local level be provided for? Second, given the number of relevant views from a broad cross-section of society, it is difficult to see how coherent plans can be developed in a timely manner, in view of the very wide range of environmental outcomes promoted."
Local pushback is likely if planning is to be the sole prerogative of regional councils, it says.
The Employers and Manufacturers Association, for its part, warns that local authorities' resistance to Three Waters reform will be repeated when it comes to the Natural and Built Environments Bill.
A review into the future for local government is under way, with an interim report due this month.
In the meantime, it is unsurprising that MfE officials have found, in their consultations with local government, a view that "those who are accountable for policies and their implementation need to have a meaningful role in the development and approval of those policies" and a wariness about a top-down approach to planning.
The exposure draft has adopted the Randerson review's proposal that each of the 14 regional plans be prepared by a committee comprising representatives from local government (regional and territorial), from central government (specifically the Minister of Conservation) and mana whenua.
The EMA notes the absence of business from the list of stakeholders and asks, if it is necessary to have the Minister of Conservation represented and why not then include ministers such as transport or infrastructure?