The most interesting aspect of the Government's latest proposed reform of the Resource Management Act is that two of its parliamentary partners, the Maori Party and Peter Dunne, had no knowledge of it before the announcement. This suggests National and Act are pressing ahead with the most contentious element of its proposals - the insertion of economic considerations into the act's stated purposes - which the Maori Party and Mr Dunne would not support in the previous term.
The reform now can be passed by National and Act alone, though the Prime Minister has said that he will seek wider support, an intention confirmed by Environment Minister Nick Smith when outlining the latest proposals. But the decision not to consult its dissenting partners in advance this time means the issue may become much clearer to the public than it was when the Government was making its case largely behind Beehive doors.
Dr Smith, now also Minister of Building and Housing, stressed the added costs and delays the RMA causes for housing developments and builders, but the fine tuning he announced for its consent procedures have been the least contentious of the proposals. The Labour Party has expressed some guarded support for the procedural improvements though it is probably right that they will make little difference to housing affordability.
Building costs are too high in New Zealand, for reasons identified by the Productivity Commission long ago. The time and cost involved in consent hearings and appeals is one, council restrictions on the supply of residential land is another. But it is doubtful that supply improvements can make more than a marginal difference to house prices in a market of practically insatiable demand.
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Dr Smith produced a commissioned study based on the perceptions of developers, who estimated that regulations under the RMA were adding $15,000 to the cost of each house in a subdivision and $30,000 to an apartment. The apartment figure reflects height restrictions among other things. Height limits are fiercely supported by most people, at least for their own neighbourhood. The RMA's protections are not widely recognised; critics living in pleasant, leafy places should be careful what they wish for.
Striking the right balance between public amenity values and private property rights, environmental protection and economic development, is not easy. The Government contends that the RMA is weighted too heavily to the environment. It wants landscape and heritage protections to be balanced with economic values such as affordable housing, infrastructure, employment, exports and growth.
Opponents fear that if economic development is given equal weight in the act the environment will be the loser in most cases. They may be assuaged if "sustainable management" remains the act's over-riding purpose, and the Government's intended changes do not upset 25 years of case law.
But if a reform of this importance to the economy and environment is to be made, it should be a decision of more than a bare majority.