The Resource Management Act has failed to live up to expectations protecting New Zealand's environment, according to a report just out which calls for sweeping reforms.
Evaluating the Environmental Outcomes of the RMA was written by the Environmental Defence Society, the Employers and Manufacturers Association, NZ Council for Infrastructure Development and the Property Council, evaluating whether the 25-year-old law had delivered desired environment outcomes for New Zealand.
"This report concludes that the environmental outcomes of the RMA have not met expectations, largely as a result of poor implementation but also due to a wide range of other factors," the report says.
"The challenge is far from dissipating. Projected population and economic growth will only sharpen pressures on the environment and restructuring of economic systems will be required to achieve genuine sustainability," the report concluded.
Ten big issues were identified:
• Lack of integration when it comes to environmental outcomes
• Lack of effective strategy and oversight
• 'Overall balance' approach undermined application of the act
• Agency capture of local government by vested interests
• Lack of national direction has limited the potential of the act
• The Government has not given financial or logistical support
• A systematic review of the system is now needed
• There has been limited monitoring of outcomes
• Narrow range of instruments used in applying act
• Reform must be based on evidence.
The report's conclusions were scathing.
"While aspirations were high, the outcomes have not ultimately reflected the desires set down in 1991. Overall, the implementation of the RMA has been weak," the report concluded.
"The oversight body - the Ministry for the Environment - has been historically quite remiss in adjudicating the implementation of the RMA and many regional councils have been slow to hold their district and city councils to account.
"While there are signs of improvement, much more focus is required."
Report author and Environmental Defence Society policy analyst Dr Marie Brown said the paper drew on wide range of sources, including a literature review, case studies of particular decisions and many interviews.
"The interviews were particularly interesting, and reflected a frustration with the behaviour of central government, disappointment with the performance of councils and a recognition that the Act was only partly making good on its promises.
"Most recognised that we're in a better place than we'd have been without it, however."
The RMA was introduced with lofty aims. We have heard from constituents, business and green groups for years that it is not working as well as it should.
The themes outlined in the report fell clearly from the analysis - the most common being that the act had been weakly implemented through a combination of shortfalls in institutional capacity, agency capture and factors such as incorrect jurisprudence.
"Overall, the key take home message is that materially improved environmental outcomes are unlikely to arise from the repeat fiddling we have seen with the legislation to date," Brown told the Herald.
"These issues are systemic and relate to institutional arrangements and practical implementation.
"Making progress across the ten issues identified is what we want to see, and that requires a careful and robust analysis of the best way to address them and a clear picture of what success looks like."
Acting Environment Minister Maggie Barry said the Government did not agree that, after 25 years of the RMA, its apparent shortcomings could be blamed on implementation alone.
"We have heard for years that the RMA itself is fine, but the implementation is the problem.
"We do not accept that, and that is why this Government embarked upon a two-phase reform programme in 2008 to amend the legislation and improve the operation of the RMA."
The second phase of the Government's reform programme, the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, was currently before a Select Committee, she said.
"The quality of our environment, particularly in respect of point source air and water pollution, has improved markedly under the operation of the RMA during the past 25 years.
"We have still to come to terms with properly addressing non-point source diffuse pollutants to water."
Unlike many other countries, our principle environmental legislation was also our primary planning statute, Barry said.
"In that regard, the land use planning aspects of the RMA, when it comes to housing and infrastructure development, have not been working as well as they should.
"That is why the objectives of the Government's reforms are to support business growth and housing development while also ensuring more effective environmental management."
I think it's a very significant and balanced piece of work, and we need to take heed of it.
The Government had also implemented the Environmental Reporting Act to significantly improve the quality and independent rigour applied to the collection and compilation of environmental data and monitoring.
"We have also embarked on an ambitious programme of improved national direction and guidance by way of National Policy Statements, National Environmental Standards and Regulations under the RMA.
"The RMA was introduced with lofty aims. We have heard from constituents, business and green groups for years that it is not working as well as it should. That's why we are focused on making improvements," Barry said.
Responding to Barry's comments, Brown said the report demonstrated that the poor natural environment outcomes were caused "primarily" by weak implementation - but not exclusively.
"That does not exclude matters such as urban planning and infrastructure from justifying significant structural reform," Brown said.
"What matters is that there a platform to have a broad and integrated discussion."
The RMA's original architect, former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, said he backed the report and its recommendations.
"I think it's a very significant and balanced piece of work, and we need to take heed of it," Palmer told the Herald.