Wider reform of the country's environmental planning laws will take time and will need to address the capabilities and the cultures of the institutions involved, Environment Minister David Parker says.
A broader review of the Resource Management Act – expected to be scoped later this year – will have to be coherent, with priority reforms currently underway on fresh water management, climate change and the development of an Urban Development Authority, he says.
But Parker said the work is going to be complex and it will have to be advanced in a manageable way.
"You've got to be careful that you just don't bring forward wholesale reform all at once, because it's so hard to make it work in practice," he told about 100 officials, environmentalists, councillors and executives at an Environmental Defence Society function last night.
Parker was speaking at the society's launch of its Next Generation report – a 342-page discussion document on reform of the RMA and the legislative and institutional framework that surrounds it. The society is aiming, through workshops and other consultation, to narrow three conceptual models for reform down to a preferred option by the end of the year.
Parker commended EDS on the work, which was advanced during the past 18 months with Infrastructure New Zealand, Property Council New Zealand and the Employers and Manufacturers Association.
He said the RMA, introduced in 1991, had been a step forward in good environmental management.
But in practice, he said it had become too complex and had under-performed in critical areas. Plan-making was too slow and the cumulative impact of intensification of land-use, particularly on water quality, wasn't recognised
The country also lost sight of the need for good spatial planning, possibly because it wasn't considered "effects-based" enough under the RMA, and because urban growth had been low, he said.
Councils use spatial plans to provide long-term guidance on the location and mix of residential, business and rural activities and the transport and other infrastructure needed to support them.
Parker said the government of the day also missed a prime opportunity by not providing exemplar plans for councils to follow, which would have been the most practical and least-cost approach. He said it's "lamentable" that after a decade the country is still trying to achieve greater consistency of planning standards across councils and other authorities.
But Parker said any future reform is going to have to be broad, as the RMA had often been the scapegoat for the failings of others – central and local government in particular.
"Law changes cannot of themselves fix ... implementation failures by both central and local government. Local government mayors and councillors have responsibility for how their building and planning departments perform," he said.
Parker commended EDS for recognising the roles that institutions play in environmental planning, and the importance of matching their functions with their capability and capacity.
He said he is interested in new mechanisms that could help councils exercise their responsibilities, noting that central government appears to have far greater control over their agencies than elected councillors have over their planning and building departments.
"I personally think that is one of the problems that we are going to have to address in order to address some of the cultural issues that can never be fixed by legislation."
The models in the EDS paper range from keeping most of the existing legislation in place under a new Spatial Planning Act and the Zero Carbon Act, through to a more fundamental reform that would split the RMA, the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act, the Climate Change Response Act and a collection of other fisheries, forestry, conservation and heritage acts into a Resources Stewardship Act, an Environmental Protection Act and an Allocation Act.
Report co-author Raewyn Peart said the paper is not trying to replace the wider reform the government has signalled, but is intended to make a "tangible" contribution to it.
She hoped the process would deliver a more "positive" planning framework that set clear environmental bottom-lines but was also more enabling and provided better alignment of the environment with the economy.
Parker said he will discuss with Cabinet the scope and process for the RMA review during the next couple of months. Further consultation with key stakeholders on scope and process will follow.
He noted the Ministry for the Environment had wanted to "charge into" the wider review after the 2017 election.
His decision to instead focus on fresh water, climate change and urban development work will be more manageable and will also help when the broader reform gets underway.
The Interim Climate Change Committee is due to report back by April on the government's proposed 100 per cent renewable electricity target and ways to include agriculture in the emissions trading scheme.
Parker said work is progressing on legislation to help speed up urban housing development using a system "not uncommon" overseas. Consultation on a regulatory reform package for fresh water will get underway later this year, he said.
Fresh water is a priority and the detailed policy work is well underway, he said.
"I'm not going to wait for some great holistic review of the RMA. We've actually largely got the tools that we need to make improvements."