Climate change, inequality, productivity. Covid has accelerated the need to get on top of our biggest challenges and the Ardern Government has the mandate to get on with it.
The first thing we need to see is a list of the big national outcomes this Government wants to promote.
It is hard to believe that there is nowhere that anyone can go to find a list of strategic objectives the Government wants to achieve.
Is merely addressing child poverty a priority, or solving it?
And is it more or less important than higher taxes or debt?
After we write down all the key things we want to achieve — the "outcomes" — the Government can formulate an approach to get there.
This is the strategy. It is the bit between the vision and the plan and is another area where New Zealand is struggling.
For over 30 years, our basic approach to achieve (non-specified) outcomes has been for the Government to hold down costs, spending and, theoretically at least, regulation, allowing individuals and businesses to strike their own path.
It has substantially achieved a fiscal outcome — New Zealand had one of the most enviable fiscal positions pre-Covid — and to varying degrees has given New Zealanders freedom to make their own decisions.
But it has failed in almost every other category. New Zealand remains poorer, more unequal and with faster declining environmental performance than most other developed nations.
Outcomes for some groups, including Māori, are unacceptable.
So we need a new strategy. How are we going to achieve the things we know we all want (once we work out what they are)?
The most obvious way, and the one used by other small countries we can compare ourselves to, is to plan.
Planning is a fiendishly ambiguous term, but what it refers to here is understanding what the physical requirements are to achieve priorities and coming up with an approach to deliver them.
If ensuring everyone has a warm, dry home is a priority outcome, then how many homes do we need, where do we think they are needed, what sort of homes might they be and what other services like water and roads are needed to build them?
Planning will not capture everything. Most educational and health outcomes, for example, are less dependent on the physical environment than on intangibles like teaching and care.
But we can be equally sure that we will not achieve education and health outcomes without schools and hospitals as we are sure that schools and hospitals are not the only factor.
Planning is about giving New Zealand the physical platform for all economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing to be promoted.
Unfortunately, we cannot effectively plan in New Zealand.
The Resource Management Act (RMA) impedes long term planning by focusing on the immediate effects of development rather than the long term outcomes and is disaggregated from the funding needed to deliver infrastructure.
In its effort to stop overly-zealous national development planning from bankrupting the country and dictating private decisions, the RMA has decimated our ability to integrate public services, co-ordinate investment and achieve positive outcomes.
Ironically, and contrary to every intent of the Act, it has become a straitjacket for private development decisions and is now dictating what sort of homes people should have, where, and what they can do with their land.
The RMA will likely be replaced in this Government term, but it is not clear that planning can become an effective tool to promote public policy.
Recommendations from the recent resource management review panel include retaining planning as an environmental regulatory tool and separating strategic planning into its own Act.
Spatial plans agreed between central and local government would under this approach smash head on into a revised "RMA" with no certainty that national and regional priorities would prevail. We could just move into RMA 2.0.
What really needs to happen is for old-fashioned planning to be separated into its own Act, the same way it is in most countries.
That way, New Zealand can use planning the way it was meant to be used — to promote economic, social, cultural and environmental public policy objectives.
●The Government could lead the planning system with a set of prioritised national strategic outcomes. These would inform a long term spatial strategy to understand where growth is anticipated and what public services would be needed to meet both it and the outcomes.
●The Infrastructure Commission could develop its national infrastructure strategy to meet this challenge and regions could perform detailed planning and delivery.
●Environmental protection would get its own Act and bottom lines would protect both our natural and built environments from activities which harm our people and environment.
This is a much more coherent approach to achieving the things we all want to achieve. But to achieve it we have to leave the past behind us.
Our planning system needs a complete overhaul, not just from the perspective of resource management, but from the perspective of achieving individual, local and national policy priorities.
That is, after all, what we expect from our governing bodies.
- Hamish Glenn is Policy Director at Infrastructure New Zealand.