28 Feb 2013

Government accused of stripping out RMA safeguards

8:56 pm on 28 February 2013

The Government is being accused of ripping power off local authorities and stripping back safeguards in proposed changes to the Resource Mananagement Act.

The changes in a discussion document released on Thursday include a national template for resource management plans, making more consents non-notifiable and extending central government's powers to direct councils on what they can include in plans.

Amy Adams.

Amy Adams. Photo: NATIONAL PARTY

Environment Minister Amy Adams says a standardised template for district plans would provide consistency throughout New Zealand.

Local councils would also have just 10 working days to process non-notified consents and it is suggested that more consents would become non-notifiable.

Ms Adams says a new Crown agency could be set up which could sort out consent issues or free up more land supply for housing and to sort out major problems with consents.

"Local government has been consistent in their messaging to us that they do need more central government guidance. The biggest part of this is around guidance, assistance, consistency and there are some backstop powers if everything doesn't go to plan, but that's the smallest part of it."

It is also proposed that five principles in the RMA be removed including requirements to recognise the quality of the environment and the intrinsic values of ecosystems.

The consultation document says those requirements are already effectively covered in another section of the act.

But the Green Party's environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage disagrees, saying the principles earmarked for removal form the basis of many appeals to the Environment Court.

Ms Sage says the Government's proposals are anti-environment and anti-local democracy.

"To strip out five of the core environmental principles in part two of the act, which is the purpose of the act, and to significantly increase the ministers' powers to intervene to direct councils to change their plans squashes the voice of local communities and their elected councillors."

Ms Sage says the proposals favour business and development and are toxic to the environment.

The Labour Party's environment spokesperson, Maryan Street, is also unhappy about powers that ministers will get, and highlights the suggestion that councils could be directed to give up land for housing.

"Because people may not want urban sprawl. People who live in the Waitakeres, for example, may not want urban sprawl for the sake of additional housing and there are other alternatives to that particular problem. So the ministers' ability to over-ride local preferences I think is a serious, serious fault in this report."

But Prime Minister John Key says parts of the Resource Management Act are too ambiguous, it takes too long and the act needs updating.

"I think if you go out there and ask New Zealanders whether they think the RMA is working efficiently for them I think you'd hear them say that they, on balance, do not believe that's the case.

"Of course, we do need to have good environmental law and very robust planning laws - but we also need efficiency in what we're doing and I think that balance is not quite right at the moment."

The public can have their say on the proposals until 2 April and Mr Key is confident that the Government will have enough support to get the changes passed into law.

LGNZ supports changes

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule says the discussion document is the most significant review of the Resource Management Act since it was introduced 22 years ago.

Mr Yule said on Thursday that Environment Minister Amy Adams is to be congratulated on the boldness of some of the ideas.

The minster says the resource management system needs to be easier to use, faster and more predictable. She told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme on Thursday the current act, introduced in 1991, means jobs are lost because of unnecessary delays to new developments.

The minister said there would be a series of public meetings over the next month on the proposals, which would also require councils to report on their performance in relation to the act. She also called for the Environment Court to resolve its cases more quickly.

Mr Yule said Local Goverment New Zealand supports many of the proposed changes, including a move to limit the use of that court to appeal against plans.

"The community would set the policy, the consents would be measured against that policy. If the consent holder didn't like the outcome, then they could go to the Environment Court. What we currently have is quite a few plans going to the Environment Court and sometimes that can take three, four, five years to be resolved."

Mr Yule said the ideas such as one plan for each district could take some time to work through.

The Property Council says developers would welcome changes to the RMA aimed at providing greater consistency and certainty.

But Cath Wallace, co-chair of the Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand, says the environment is being viewed by the Government as just one other consideration.

"They're saying we're going to remove the requirement to maintain the quality of the environment, we're going to remove the requirement that we have an ethic of stewardship. They're essentially saying if there are short-term to be made, to hell with the future."

Ms Wallace says she is deeply suspicious of the claim that such clauses are being deleted as they're already encompassed in another section of the Resource Management Act.