There can be few phrases more likely to strike a combination of fear and despair in the land than 'RMA reform'.
Since its passage in 1991, the Resource Management Act has gone from ground-breaking legislation that enshrined sustainable development at the heart of New Zealand's planning system to a whipping boy for every project that ever took too long or never got off the ground.
Incremental reform has been constant.
Results have been mixed.
While its supporters have insisted that the RMA doesn't require trade-offs between economic and environmental priorities, its detractors say that's because such compromise has too often been impossible.
Meanwhile, scattering RMA-related decision-making to the country's panoply of local authorities has created a miasma of inconsistent, often overly complex resource consent processes that give neither developers nor environmentalists comfort that a nationally consistent approach is being taken.
Both the current and previous governments have tried dealing with that by belatedly making use of the National Policy Statement provisions in the RMA, which allow central government to give strong national direction on desired outcomes.
Political ping-pong also saw process changes made under National reversed under Labour.
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Now, Environment Minister David Parker – never a man to shy away from diving head-first into the trickiest public policy issues – has begun a more fundamental review of the RMA, seeking the kind of once-in-a-generation reform that the legislation now clearly needs.
Described by the Environmental Defence Society as "arguably the most important environmental review panel of our times", the Resource Management Review Panel is led by retired judge Tony Randerson and issued a 53-page discussion document earlier this month.
"The options included are not comprehensive of all those that will be considered, nor are they fully developed proposals," the discussion document says. "Rather they should be thought of as indicative of the types of reform ideas that are being considered by the review."
That may be so.
But a couple of key themes emerge.
Firstly, the conflict between environmental bottom lines and urban planning requirements will almost be broken by splitting the current RMA into two separate pieces of legislation, one for environmental protection, the other for urban development.
"The overall aim is to improve environmental outcomes and enable better and timely development in urban areas and elsewhere within environmental limits," says Randerson in the document's preface.
However, it also looks likely that the key sections of the RMA, which enshrine over-arching environmental concepts, will still govern both pieces of legislation.
Less complex administration should also result.
"Institutional reform is not a driver of the review," the panel says. "However, in making recommendations, the review will consider which entities are best placed to perform resource management functions."
A current "bias towards the status quo" is built into existing legislative frameworks, particularly for urban development, it says.
"Some argue that insufficient recognition in the purpose and principles of the RMA of the positive benefits of housing, infrastructure and other development has hampered planning for development. The lack of content about these issues left decision-makers with little guidance on how to plan for development in urban and other areas.
"Processes are complex, litigious, and costly, and frequently disproportionate to the decision being sought or the risk or impact of the proposal", with matters that should be in plans left to be fought out on a case-by-case basis in resource consent applications.
Yet, for all the concentration on legal form, the most significant area of change could turn out to be less about how new law is written and more about requiring the effective harnessing of the explosion in available data about land use, water and air quality, and infrastructure needs that now exists.
This would see the role of spatial planning – a nerdy expression that boils down to thinking holistically about how large chunks of the country are put to best use while preserving environmental integrity – enshrined in a revamped RMA.
One good example: the government's desire to see Auckland grow south rather than north by creating a continuous urban corridor between Auckland and Hamilton over the next few decades.
To be effective, that plan will require big picture planning for high quality public transport by rail and road down that corridor; housing developments that cluster around access to public transport; preservation of the highly productive volcanic soils around Pukekohe; and clarity about where industrial development will occur.
Yet no consistent framework for spatial planning exists in New Zealand, let alone a legislative mandate creating formal links between spatial planning, regulatory resource management, and funding plans.
This will be necessary as a key element of modernised environmental and urban development legislation and may yet prove the review panel's most important contribution to the tortuous, sometimes eye-glazing process of RMA reform to come.
Perhaps if we reframed the central role of spatial planning as "New Zealand's next space programme", the reform task might seem a little less daunting.