The Government has revealed the legislative timeline for repealing and replacing the massive Resource Management Act with three smaller laws, Marc Daalder reports

By the end of the year, the Government will introduce legislation to replace the behemoth Resource Management Act (RMA), which runs to 900 pages and governs everything from whether you can add a new bath in your house to the allowable levels of certain pollutants in the country’s waterways.

Environment Minister David Parker revealed the timeline for a previously-promised overhaul of the RMA. It will be replaced with a new Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) and a Strategic Planning Act (SPA), in line with the recommendations of a review commissioned by the Government in 2019. The review also recommended a new Climate Change Adaptation Act (CCA) be passed to deal with legal complexities surrounding managed retreat from coastlines and other areas exposed to the impacts of climate change.

Parker said the NBA and SPA would be introduced jointly to Parliament in December. However, an exposure draft of the NBA – with some policy details yet to be sorted – will go through a special select committee inquiry from May through September, allowing major issues to be sorted and expediting the expected time to pass the two bills next year.

However, the laws aren’t expected to be fully phased in for three years or more.

Special process

The exposure draft will be developed by a Ministerial Oversight Group consisting of Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Parker, Māori Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis, Housing Minister Megan Woods, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, Building and Construction Minister Poto Williams, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson, Transport Minister Michael Wood, Conservation Minister Kiri Allan, Associate Environment Minister Phil Twyford and Climate Change Minister James Shaw.

The draft will not contain “details such as consenting processes, designations, proposals of national significance, Environment Court workings, water conservation, allocation methods, compliance, monitoring and enforcement and transitional arrangements” which “will continue to be developed in parallel to the select committee inquiry,” according to a briefing document on the reforms.

The CCA, meanwhile, is being worked on by Shaw. Shaw and Parker expect to report to Cabinet on the CCA and SPA in coming months, according to a proactively released Cabinet paper about the reforms.

The main replacement law, the NBA, “proposes a system of outcomes, limits and targets set through a national planning framework which will be incorporated into regional combined plans prepared by local and central government and mana whenua”.

Planning will also look different under the SPA. The current 100-plus resource management plans will be simplified to 14 regional ones and national direction will play an increased role.

The details of the CCA are still under consideration and it remains unclear whether the Government will endorse one of the review’s key recommendations, that a central government fund be set up to help councils adapt to the impacts of climate change.

“All of the Panel’s recommendations for the CCA are being further developed by officials and will come to Cabinet via Minister Shaw as Minister of Climate Change. Local government input will be critical to making sure this legislation is workable, and there will be a chance for further engagement on this in due course,” the briefing document noted.

The reforms are also expected to improve access to housing as “poor quality and restrictive planning” is stripped away to make room for “better coordination of infrastructure with land use, development and urban growth”.

Stakeholders react

“The new laws will improve the natural environment, enable more development within environmental limits, provide an effective role for Māori, and improve housing supply and affordability,” Parker said.

Shaw, speaking about the CCA, said in a statement that, “We are already working on New Zealand’s first National Adaptation Plan, which will be informed by last year’s risk assessment and set out our long term approach to adapting to the effects of climate change. Today we have announced that we will also progress legislation to provide a framework that can support local councils and communities in how they adapt to climate change.”

Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman said the new legislation should have strong environmental bottom lines.

“The RMA created a consenting process that traded off private profit driven development against environmental destruction, which cumulatively resulted in an environmental death spiral,” he said.

“It is hopeful that the proposed new legislation will incorporate biophysical limits that must not be breached. The test of the new legislation will be exactly what those limits are and whether these public interest environmental protections trump private profit driven applications. Whatever replaces the RMA must effectively regulate our most polluting industry – dairying. That means stopping nitrate pollution entering freshwater from milk processing, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and too many cows.”

ACT environment spokesperson Simon Court, meanwhile, condemned the legislation as a “three-headed hydra”.

“RMA reform must uphold the rights of property owners while freeing up land for development and making it easier to develop, a balance which is completely missing from today’s announced repeal and replacement of New Zealand’s consenting system,” he said.

Parker said he would provide early drafts of the legislation to every party in an effort to consult beyond the usual select committee process.

“The information so far indicates there has been a major motivation to install clearer processes to take environmental limits into account. That will provide a contrast to the RMA, in place for three decades, which mainly focusses on local perceptions of tradeoffs between costs and benefits to manage individual activity,” Professor Troy Baisden of the Environmental Research Institute at the University of Waikato said.

“Across the three new acts, the devil will be in the details. There is reasonable hope there will be better and clearer points of engagement and decision-making for input from communities as well as science and research, and a more manageable and effective role for iwi and hapū in line with Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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