New Zealanders can have their first look at the main legislation set to supplant the outdated, ‘unduly complex patchwork’ that is the Resource Management Act

The first draft of a new law replacing the much-maligned Resource Management Act has been released for public consultation and a special select committee process.

The Natural and Built Environments Bill, covering land use and environmental legislation, will serve as the primary replacement for the 900-page, unwieldy RMA. 

The legislation largely sticks to the changes recommended by the independent Randerson review panel, which in mid-2020 described the RMA as “an unduly complex patchwork of provisions” with inefficient processes which led to unnecessary expense and delay.

Its replacement is unlikely to be passed into law before the end of 2022, but the Government has released an exposure draft now to get public feedback on its initial plans and make any necessary changes.

A parliamentary paper accompanying the draft said the resource management system “needs to transform our relationship with the environment and better enable development and infrastructure”, improving on the RMA in two key ways: by being more explicit about needing to comply with environmental limits, and setting up a framework of outcomes to restore, enhance or improve the natural environment as well as promoting specific development and cultural outcomes.

A new national planning framework would improve certainty and consistency for developers, local government, infrastructure providers and the community, providing strategic and regulatory direction and guidance on the likes of infrastructure and zoning rules.

With a major criticism of the RMA being its failure to adequately protect the natural environment, the replacement law would require the Environment Minister to set limits setting out “a minimum acceptable state of an aspect of the environment, or a maximum amount of harm that can be caused to that state”.

“All levels and all players in the system will need to have in place the capability and capacity to deliver the reform objectives. Culture change will be essential to the transformation required.”

There would also be broader outcomes in the law which decision-makers would be required to promote, such as cultural heritage, protection of customary rights, housing, and rural development.

Another change would be requiring decision-makers to “give effect to” the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, replacing the current RMA requirement to “take into account” those principles.

The paper said the alteration reflected the importance of the environment to Māori and the Crown’s obligations under te Tiriti to iwi and hapū, and would be put into effect through mechanisms like participatory rights and the use of iwi management plans.

Treaty settlement negotiations linked to the RMA would continue while the new act was developed, and the exposure draft did not preclude options for addressing freshwater rights and interests as part of ongoing discussions with iwi, hapū and Māori.

The paper said a well-planned and well-executed establishment of the new system was essential, with the RMA’s poor implementation contributing to its poor outcomes.

“All levels and all players in the system will need to have in place the capability and capacity to deliver the reform objectives. Culture change will be essential to the transformation required.”

The Government would work with local councils and te Tiriti partners to provide support and funding, but in the meantime councils had to keep working on the RMA’s requirements and current national directions to meet existing challenges.

‘Once in a generation opportunity’

Environment Minister David Parker said the exposure draft was the first of two opportunities for people to give feedback on the reforms.

After the initial, three-month inquiry, a second select committee process would take place when the full bill was introduced to Parliament in early 2022. 

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to get this right, so we want to make sure we do get it right.”

Parker said the RMA process took too long, cost too much and hadn’t protected the environment, with its proposed replacement setting out ways to better ensure the wellbeing of current and future generations.

A new national planning framework would include mandatory environmental limits that could not be crossed, relating to freshwater, coastal waters, air and biodiversity among other areas.

Other legislative outcomes would include well-functioning urban areas, enabling infrastructure and improving the supply of housing, with more than 100 existing plans and policy statements to be consolidated into around 14 plans across the country.

“While not the sole cause of the housing crisis, planning rules are partly to blame. Simplifying processes will also add to system efficiency,” Parker said.

The Government is planning to pass two other laws as part of the RMA replacement process: a Strategic Planning Bill, to be passed at the same time as the National and Built Environments Bill, and a new Climate Change Adaptation Bill to deal with legal complexities surrounding managed retreat from coastlines and other areas exposed to the impacts of climate change.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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