Reform of the Resource Management Act is imminent. This controversial and divisive legislation is being revised to meet the "contemporary values and priorities" of all New Zealanders. But what does it mean for farmers? John Donnachie investigates.

Since its inception in 1991 the Resource Management Act has frustrated many farmers leaving them powerless and bitter, while lawyers have arguably got wealthier. Environmentalists have assumed a greater impact on land use decisions, providing further disruption and antagonism to farmers.

Statistics New Zealand recently revealed $800 million worth of projects had stalled over two years because applicants found the RMA procedures too frustrating. In its current form, the RMA process, not the merits of the project, determines whether or not it proceeds.

We have 78 local authorities, with more than 170 resource management planning documents covering 2272 different zones, management areas or policy overlays. By comparison, Scotland, with 5.2 million people, has just 37 comparable planning documents.


Furthermore, a past Federation study estimated the RMA collectively costed farmers more than $80m in compliance costs annually. It also established that Federated Farmers spends in excess of $1m representing farmers' interests in planning processes each year.

Involvement in RMA planning processes is the lion's share of our policy team and elected members' workload. This puts us in a good position to understand the strengths and weakness of the Act - a fact the Ministry for the Environment was made aware of in the Federation's submission against the Reform discussion document earlier this year.

The submission was based, in part, on the Federated Farmers project - 'RMA and Farming - A Farming Six Pack' published in 2008. It remains the blueprint for getting farmers a fairer deal under the RMA.

Regional policy manager Dr Paul Le Miere is pleased our considered and consistent message is gaining traction, advising that the proposed package of reforms broadly reflects most of the Federation's original six objectives.

"We are both pleased and unsurprised that findings of the independent Technical Advisory Group, established to inform the Government's RMA reforms, echoed many of the concerns identified by our six pack," Dr Le Miere said.

Current proposals are designed to reduce costs, uncertainties and delays which stymie the existing resource management system. This will be achieved with a number of changes to the principles and process sections of the Act.

The proposed changes to the principles in Part 2 of the RMA cause the most controversy. The principles describe a set of non-exclusive values and directions that are to be considered when giving effect to the sustainable management purpose of the Act. The all important section 5 purpose of the act, together with the principles in sections 6, 7 and 8, make up Part 2, with changes being proposed only to sections 6 and 7.

Essentially sections 6 and 7 will be merged to remove the hierarchy between environmental matters of national importance and other social, cultural and economic matters for consideration.

The logic for this is perhaps best articulated by Environment Minister Amy Adams who, when introducing the reforms, reminded New Zealand that the RMA is not just about environmental protection. It is also our planning law.

Federated Farmers understands that point and, other than wanting better recognition of rural production values, is comfortable with the changes.

Opponents are focused on the environment, with most concerned amendments will result in weakened environmental protection and flawed decision-making.

The fear seems to be that the structural change will render 20 years of case law irrelevant and the addition of explicit social, economic and community values will tip the balance in favour of development over the environment every time.

Federated Farmers can see why there is nervousness. These reforms are intended to be more directive and any change to Part 2 demands respect.

"We do accept that there is likely to be an initial period of uncertainty as the new terms are interpreted. But this is true anytime you change a statute and we believe the changes will be for the best, longer term," Dr Le Miere said.

He also doesn't accept the environment is the loser of these reforms.

"Of the 16 proposed matters of national importance, 11 are primarily environmentally-focused. The existing section 6 principles remain largely unchanged.

"It is interesting that opponents focus mainly on the collapsed hierarchy as a negative for the environment, when in our opinion most of the environmental matters of section 7 have been given increased status by being elevated to matters of national importance," he said.

Federated Farmers applauds the ministry for doing the hard yards. It believes it was a bold and decisive move.

With more than 13,000 submissions made on the discussion document, and a number of changes to the latest proposal as a result of those submissions, the ministry is clearly listening to public concerns.

Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly joins Federated Farmers in welcoming the RMA changes. "We need a better decision-making framework so the environment can be protected and development can also occur," he said.

Mr O'Reilly said the merger of both sections 6 and 7 principles was a step forward and would assist decision-makers ensuring "environmental and development issues were both taken into account".

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) is also optimistic, but has reservations. It is concerned there is more focus on process than planning. The costing also concerns, with the Government effectively putting the onus on councils to find the budget.

Dr Le Miere agreed that often central government has the luxury of an 'all care, no responsibility' position with the costs of developing RMA policy being borne by councils, however, the purpose of these reforms is to reduce costs, uncertainties and delays for councils and the public.

"The section 7(c) requirement to have particular regard to the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values is an example where there has been unnecessary costs and impositions," he said.

"In our experience the lines between section 6(b) outstanding natural landscapes and section 7(c) amenity values has been duplicated and blurred inappropriately, causing undue restrictions in modified, working landscapes.

"We are confident that truly outstanding landscapes will continue to receive the level of protection required and we celebrate the commonsense decision to delete amenity values out of section 7. Amenity and landscape issues have caused considerable head, heart and pocket-ache for too many of our members," he said.

The lack of economic consideration and inadequate cost-benefit analysis used in decision-making has also been a major issue for Federated Farmers.

Part of the Government's package of RMA reforms includes changes to the offending section 32. These changes have been enacted to address concerns about the lack of high-quality information, lack of direction and inadequate consideration of the positive economic and social outcomes. Evaluations under section 32 now require specific consideration and quantification of economic growth and employment opportunities.

Though these changes are welcome, necessary and offer some comfort to farmers for future, Dr Le Miere said it's a shame these criteria weren't applied to the Horizons One Plan as he believed it would have led to a different outcome.

The other key changes designed to address planning and consent process issues is considerably less contentious, with most agreeing the changes were necessary and the goals of shortened timeframes, costs and reducing duplication should be achieved.

For Federated Farmers, one of the most notable changes is an increased focus on early consultation, in an attempt to get it right first time. It was satisfying to see reforms include a number of proposed changes intended to increase early and effective consultation with affected parties. It has always been the Federation's position that the best outcomes will be achieved by increased landowner involvement in decisions affecting their land.

Increased consultation is a common theme across the range of proposed planning processes. The changes can be grouped into three categories; improving resource management planning, efficient and effective resource consents and council performance. All three have elements which should benefit farmers.

For example, the introduction of a national template to standardise planning documents should help increase consistency and certainty, and reduce costs at both development and implementation stages.

The principle of having common definitions and standard terms is supported. These are regularly debated and appealed during development and notified stages. It would reduce stakeholder time and money if there was nationwide consistency.

However, as the template will, in part, establish the triggers for consent applications, Federated Farmers will make sure it is fully involved as the draft template is developed.

Interestingly, some of the proposed changes around collaborative planning have already been adopted by Auckland Council, Federated Farmers' senior policy advisor Richard Gardner said.

"There have been a number of collaborative workshops and constructive consultation among parties. We're finding processes are rolling out a lot quicker than previously," he said .

The Federation is also encouraged to see consent processes streamlined, with provisions to fast-track minor and less complex projects. Submissions and appeals notices will need to be more specific and focused on the contentious aspects not anticipated by the plan.

"Further changes are being made to the notification requirements and together these amendments should speed up planning decisions for those minor, less complex projects while preventing time-wasters and vexatious submitters," said Dr Le Miere.

Other aspects of the reforms seem geared for the future, such as the requirement for councils to ensure there is enough land available to satisfy projected 10-year growth demands and the signal to relax subdivision controls. These changes should be positive for those farmers wanting to subdivide off a house site or create title for developing farm succession plans.

Changes to Part 2 look to strike a better balance between resource use and resource protection. The Federation believes there is still room to be explicit and recognise the value of rural production. The Federation will be lobbying hard to have rural production recognised as the proposals are drafted.

With regards to process matters Federated Farmers is confident that Ministry intentions are sound. However, without seeing the draft bill it is difficult to know exactly how the membership and greater New Zealand will benefit.

Indications suggest that plans will be more accessible, resource management approaches more consistent and resource consents more focused. These are positives for resource use and protection alike.

This is certainly how the Government sees it with the Minister Amy Adams stating: "We see effective resource management as critically important to New Zealand's economic, environmental and social well-being".

It is encouraging that the majority of public debate is about whether the proposals will achieve their intended and desirable outcomes. The Federation believes this sends a strong message to the Government that it is on the right track.