The Resource Management Act failed to protect our water quality, reduce emissions or halt declining biodiversity. But it also didn’t avoid traffic congestion or deliver affordable housing. That’s why infrastructure planning must be a critical part of RMA reform, says the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission Te Waihanga. (Partner Content)

Anyone who has spent any time stewing in city traffic or has lost a favourite swimming spot to pollution knows that New Zealand has a significant infrastructure problem.

After years of insufficient action, we are facing what the professionals call an infrastructure deficit, and our future productivity and quality of life relies on sorting it out as soon as possible. Contaminated waterways, the housing shortage, road gridlock, ageing schools – all of it comes back to the deeply unsexy yet essential foundation our lives rely on: infrastructure.

The overall competitiveness of New Zealand’s infrastructure is so lacklustre that the World Economic Forum rates it 46th in the developed world.

There are multiple, complicated reasons for this, says Ross Copland, chief executive of the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga.

But one of the most significant is the inefficiency of the planning system created by the Resource Management Act 1991, which is to be repealed and replaced with three new acts focused on land use and environmental regulation, strategic planning, and adapting to climate change.

The RMA review, led by Court of Appeal Judge Tony Randerson QC, found it had failed to protect our environment while also failing to manage urban growth, leading to a critical lack of affordable housing, increasing traffic congestion and pollution, declining biodiversity, and lost productivity.

In short, the RMA process is too time-consuming, too expensive and too complicated, and despite the time and cost of the process, it hasn’t protected the environment. The end result is simply not good enough.

Ross Copland says the RMA process is time-consuming, expensive and complicated, and hasn’t protected the environment. Photo supplied

“There are very few absolutes and very little coordinated national direction,” Copland says. “The RMA system allows you to apply for almost anything, almost anywhere and, if you have enough money and time, you can go through the process of finding out if it’s possible. It’s neither fair or right that those who do not have the money or time simply miss out.

Infrastructure and resource management reform

Established in late 2019, Te Waihanga is tasked with improving the wellbeing of all New Zealanders through better infrastructure – everything from clean waterways to adequate medical facilities to technological pathways that allow people to work efficiently from home, thereby unclogging the roads.

To that end, the commission is preparing a draft 30-year strategy to be delivered to the Minister for Infrastructure Grant Robertson in September. The aim is to get people talking about how we fund infrastructure, who pays for it, and how we define success.

As part of that process, Te Waihanga has launched “Aotearoa 2050”, with a survey asking New Zealanders to take part in the discussion about infrastructure priorities.

You can access the survey here. As we said in our recent article, getting involved could just be the most important thing you do for your grandchildren this year. 

The Aotearoa 2050 survey underscores that infrastructure development is relevant and critical to everyone. Source: Te Waihanga

One of the commission’s other roles is to act as the government’s lead advisor on infrastructure, which involves participating in key policy developments like resource management reform.

“Our job is to really look at the time and cost elements,” says Copland. “How can we achieve a more efficient system that clearly differentiates between urban and non-urban, and which differentiates between amenity values like views and heritage, as distinct from environmental values like pollution and air quality?”

Leading Te Waihanga’s involvement in resource management reform is chief policy advisor Rob Addison, who sees reform of the resource management system as critical to the Government achieving many of its targets.

“The reality is infrastructure is at the heart of many of the Government’s wellbeing objectives. If we want to have 100 percent renewable electricity supply by 2030, this will mean consenting more wind farms and pumped hydroschemes. If we want to avoid having to pump wastewater into our harbours, we must get more wastewater infrastructure consented. If we want more homes in our cities, this means delivering the roads, pipes and powerlines needed to connect those homes.

If we want 100% renewable electricity, we have to consent more wind farms. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“The new Resource Management system will make or break whether enough infrastructure can be consented so that the Government can achieve these goals.”

The Resource Management Act, the closest thing we have to a centralised planning document, is tasked with everything from protecting endangered species from habitat loss to protecting homeowners from an ugly paint job across the street. It has even been used by competing supermarket chains to block the development of new stores in contentious territories.

We don’t have to choose between the environment and infrastructure

So there is ample room for improvement.

Copland says it is time to have “the hard conversations” about what we value most, and the necessary tradeoffs. Do we place water quality above water cost or vice versa? Are we more concerned about protecting views in our cities or tackling congestion?

“There is no perfect planning system and we absolutely 100 percent believe it’s still going to be hard, there are still going to be tradeoffs, but we think the process by which we can get to those decisions could be a lot more streamlined, a lot more efficient, and more productive.”

Part of the objection to the RMA has been its failure to adequately address the tension between development and environmental protection. Copland says that tension is exaggerated and misunderstood. Amenity values, such as an uninterrupted sea view, have become blurred with environmental values such as maintaining biodiversity.

Building new wastewater treatment plants or sewerage/stormwater separation schemes addresses the issue of water pollution. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“Environment and infrastructure are not at odds, you do not have to make a choice,” he says. “Infrastructure very often is built to address an environmental issue – light rail to get cars off the road, or telco infrastructure to allow people to work from home.”

Or wastewater plants. We know we have a water quality problem – if you live in Hawkes Bay, you especially understand this – yet it is taking up to 10 years to get consents for building wastewater treatment plants, with 20 percent of the cost being gobbled up by the consent process. Meanwhile polluted water is streaming down our rivers and out to the ocean.

Addison says one of the failures of the RMA has been its narrow focus.

“With each consent application, we need to consider the question ‘What happens if we do nothing?’ What happens if we choose not to widen a road to put in a safety barrier because we think it’s more important to protect a neighbouring wetland? It could mean more deaths on our roads.

“What happens if we don’t consent enough wind turbines because we would rather preserve the natural beauty of a ridgetop? It could mean staying reliant on fossil fuelled electricity generation.”

Unfortunately, the RMA doesn’t really allow people making those decisions to think about the alternatives from a wider community perspective – it just looks at the environmental effects. This is one area the new legislation must improve.”

“There’s very little infrastructure that is built that can’t be undone as technology develops.”
Ross Copland

Wind farms are another example. No, they are not particularly attractive, but they offer a needed clean energy source. If and when something even better replaces them, they can be dismantled and the landscape returned to its original state.

“There’s very little infrastructure that is built that can’t be undone as technology develops,” says Copland, who was part of the team that remediated the land now occupied by Auckland’s Victory Christian Church near the entrance to the Northern Motorway at Beaumont Street. It used to be a contaminated site, where coal had been heated to produce gas for city-wide lighting.

Let’s not forget the housing crisis…

Housing is just one piece of the puzzle for Te Waihanga, but there is no doubt it is the one that sucks up the most oxygen – in the minds of the public, at least. Our affordable housing crisis is right up there with Covid-19 as the story of the moment. This is despite the fact we have an abundance of available land and just five million people to house.

“We’ve managed to create scarcity through planning, and that has an impact on prices,” explains Copland.

Kiwi distaste for high density living has helped fuel the housing crisis. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Land banking is one reason. Someone buys land on a town boundary, sits on it and waits for the zone to change. Additionally, we have a distaste for high density housing and an obsession with maintaining views. Residents in traditionally leafy locales such as Remuera in Auckland, for example, do not want to see the large sections attached to character homes carved up and developed into multi-unit housing, even though the desire for such housing is high.

“There’s no magical one issue we could solve, and it would all be better. We’ve got to make tradeoffs.”
Ross Copland

“We need to trade off amenity, character and views against the burden and cost implications of pushing people further and further away from where they would optimally live if they could choose,” says Copland. “Urban sprawl is often a function of planning.”

There must be different rules for urban areas and pristine environments, says Rob Addison. Photo supplied

Meanwhile Addison says the new Act will need to allow for the unavoidable conflicts between environment and development in our urban areas.

“Urban areas are already massively altered environments – it makes no sense to treat them like we would a pristine natural environment. Different rules need to apply.

“Building more houses will have environmental impacts. For example, increased stormwater and impacts on nearby wetlands. But building more houses is important, so the new Act will have to allow councils to make this trade-offs, while ensuring environmental impacts are managed by developers in a reasonable way and do not impose excessive time and cost.”

When it comes time to review district plans, it is the voices of existing property owners that are prioritised above those people who would like to live in a region.

In the end, all of this comes down to education and communication, says Copland. “These are the kinds of conversations that are really hard to have. There’s no magical one issue we could solve, and then it would all be better. We’ve got to make tradeoffs.”

To have your say on New Zealand’s 30-year infrastructure plan take the survey here

This is the fifth in a series of articles as part of a content partnership between Newsroom and Te Waihanga.

Eleanor Black is an Auckland freelance journalist and former senior writer at Stuff and the New Zealand Herald

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