Economic development can be prioritised without sacrificing the environment, writes Gary Taylor.
The Government has a mandate to reform the Resource Management Act. Some might argue about just how many people voted National on that single topic but that would be churlish. In any case, there's widespread agreement among informed stakeholders that reform is needed. So after the appointment of a new Minister for the Environment we can expect things to move quickly.
The RMA is a very important piece of legislation. It governs the way in which people can use land, air, freshwater and parts of the marine environment. It contains some environmental bottom lines that have to be met, a fact confirmed in a recent decision of the Supreme Court.
The bottom lines include priorities like safeguarding the ecological health of rivers; protecting unspoiled coast from inappropriate subdivision; protecting New Zealand's scenic areas; and protecting our unique indigenous biodiversity. If economic development takes place, it is subject to those bottom lines.
Finer-grained obligations are contained in National Policy Statements and in regional and district plans. These have to be consistent with the act and give effect to the bottom lines. The case law in this area is now well settled after many years of litigation.
Where there are clear problems, though, is in the plan-making process. It is time-consuming and bureaucratic. Plans are typically complex and often replete with impenetrable jargon. There is no consistency of approach between councils. Until recently, there has been little national guidance. Plan-making is a frustrating, expensive and difficult business.
The Government can fix these problems. It can create common and simplified templates for plans; develop common definitions; implement process improvements; require plans to be more strategic and less concerned with annoying minutiae; encourage single plans for each region; and remove regulation that is disproportional.
It can also implement the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum and enable new, collaborative processes for freshwater plans. These will engage directly with communities and develop a limits framework subject to national bottom lines.
Resource consenting can undoubtedly be improved too. We do not need multiple consenting layers for new housing areas: one will do. That single change would speed up housing development, lower consenting costs and make housing a little more affordable.
Timelines are improving as a result of earlier reforms. In 2012-13, 97 per cent of resource consents were processed on time. Only a tiny proportion of consents were refused and 0.7 per cent appealed. This demonstrates that the RMA's bad press isn't always accurate.
The Government wants to prioritise the importance of economic development, infrastructure and avoiding unstable land. These matters can be dealt with too, but carefully and in a way that doesn't upset the case law and lead to years of litigation to sort out what a more radical rewrite might require.
The idea of weakening and then merging sections 6 ("matters of national importance" including biophysical bottom lines) and section 7 ("other matters") was controversial and led to support parties in the last Government thwarting the then minister's intentions. Their ability to hold out has gone, given the election outcome.
But the merger idea is still wrong-headed, counter-productive and based on a misinterpretation of the existing law. Moreover, it would lead to a reduction in environmental quality across New Zealand and a surge in costly litigation.
Instead of having to meet environmental bottom lines, merger of those sections would mean economic and environmental matters would compete for primacy. We all know what that would mean for the environment. It is no wonder Federated Farmers was effusive in its expectations, seeing reform as enabling even more dairy intensification and freshwater degradation. There is no mandate for that.
In looking afresh at RMA reform, the Government should consider what the Supreme Court had to say in EDS v King Salmon on environmental bottom lines. It said that having bottom lines in place creates more certainty. It is better than a broader discretion where the outcomes rely more on the personal values of decision-makers rather than clear and predictable law.
There are other less radical and damaging ways of achieving National's objectives of removing development road-blocks. National voters do care about the environment and the party itself adheres to blue-green values. Prime Minister John Key has talked about moderation: well here's the first big test of those values and that commitment.
When a new Environment Minister is appointed, let's have a short, sharp, inclusive re-engagement on how the RMA reforms should proceed. Let's look at the range of ways that economic development can be prioritised without sacrificing the environment.
We tabled some suggestions with the Prime Minister just prior to the election that he undertook to consider. There will be other approaches that would be worth considering such as implementing some new National Policy Statements on economic development preferences.
If we could get broad agreement and the Government could land a solution that would stand the test of time, it would give everyone certainty and let the RMA bed down into a stable and enduring platform for economic growth and a healthy environment.
Gary Taylor is chairman of the Environmental Defence Society.