Opinion: Our environment is in dire straits. But what the incoming government will mean for its future remains to be seen. Policy differences between National, Act and New Zealand First make predictions challenging. A lot will come down to the detailed undertakings in any coalition agreement.

What we don’t want, however, is clear. We don’t want more extinctions; continuing freshwater and marine pollution; overfishing; and backtracking on marine reserves. And we cannot kick the climate change can any further – we’re running out of roadway.

Humanity’s health depends on environment’s health
Resource management reform targets carbon emissions
The missing pieces of the RMA reform puzzle

The question of what to do about resource management reform – always a thorny issue – will be front and centre early in the new administration.

All three potential coalition partners have said that the Natural and Built Environment Act and the Spatial Planning Act, which in August this year replaced the much maligned and increasingly ineffective Resource Management Act, should be repealed.

Act would have us revert to a largely unregulated system relying on the law of torts, where people would be responsible for taking their own action under common law for any infringement of their property rights. It would be largely a free-for-all when it came to environmental damage. Such an approach is antiquated, out of step with the rest of the world, and simply wouldn’t work. It is a truly astonishing proposition.

New Zealand First wants to revert to a Town and Country Planning Act, which we abandoned over 30 years ago in 1991, when the Resource Management Act integrated land use planning with broader environmental controls.

There’s no justification for throwing everything out and starting over with another expensive and time-consuming policy process

National talks about reinstating the Resource Management Act, but amending it to fast-track renewables (strangely, as there is already provision in the Act for this). It would then work up separate ‘planning’ and ‘environment’ acts for introduction this term and enactment in the next.

All this needs a serious reality check. What we don’t want is our core resource management laws flip-flopping with successive governments. The amount of work that has gone into the Natural and Built Environment Act and the Spatial Planning Act is unprecedented: at least four years of expert panels, reference groups, working parties, extensive consultation and knocking them into shape via two select committee processes, all driven by wide consensus that the Resource Management Act isn’t working for the economy or the environment. The reforms aren’t perfect but they’re a big step forward.

National’s criticisms of the new laws are limited to some quite specific issues that could be addressed through amendments. There’s no justification for throwing everything out and starting over with another expensive and time-consuming policy process.

Let’s cast our eyes back three decades for a lesson in law reform. In 1990, the Labour government introduced the Resource Management Bill before it lost the election. On taking office, the new Minister for the Environment established a technical advisory group to put the bill under close scrutiny. This resulted in a series of amendments before the bill was passed by National in 1991. That’s the approach needed now.

What are the actual complaints National has with the new laws? Let’s start with the Spatial Planning Act. National and other parties are committed to a more strategic approach to infrastructure provision. Great! This is exactly what the act enables. It provides for long-term, strategic spatial planning at a regional level – deciding what goes where and when. The act is stand-alone, to maintain a broad remit, and it largely avoids the formal regulatory plan-making processes under the Natural and Built Environment Act.

The Spatial Planning Act would be a powerful tool to address the burgeoning infrastructure deficit, aligning infrastructure with funding and land use. Broad scale constraints mapping – identifying go and no-go areas in advance – can help direct development to the right places and reduce red tape and constant arguments about environmental protection. That is a good thing for everyone. There’s simply no sensible argument for wholesale repeal of the act.

National has more specific concerns about the Natural and Built Environment Act, but even they are limited in number and scope. They include issues with the inclusion of Māori concepts (such as te Oranga o te Taiao) and extent of Māori engagement; the centralisation of some decision-making; and the removal of direct planning authority from local authorities in favour of regional planning committees composed of members appointed by councils and tangata whenua.

These issues – to the extent they are problematic – can all be fixed with targeted amendments. The Government could panel-beat the legislation into its preferred shape, without writing it off in its entirety, following the approach taken with the Resource Management Bill in 1991.

That could all be achieved in 12 months, and businesses would have the certainty they crave, rather than staggering on with the outdated Resource Management Act for another four or more years while waiting for a yet-to-be-specified replacement. After all, National has for many years highlighted that the Resource Management Act must go.

It’s worth remembering, too, the many good things in the Natural and Built Environment Act that should be kept. It proposes fewer plans (down from 112 to 15); faster plan-making; a focus on achieving real-world positive outcomes instead of just mitigating adverse effects; environmental limits and targets; a system of science-based biophysical limits and targets; protection of places of national importance; more fast-track decision-making; much improved compliance and enforcement provisions; more directive plans and a big reduction in the numbers of resource consents.

It proposes bringing all existing national direction into a National Planning Framework, the engine-room of the act, and reconciling conflicts between different instruments in advance. All of this is intended to provide more certainty, and allow things to get done, while improving environmental outcomes.

The Natural and Built Environment Act’s bones are good – including many limbs that reflect exactly the kinds of things National has been calling for.

Resource management is critically important to our economic and environmental welfare. It is a complex system that needs careful thought and design. Knee-jerk reactions are unhelpful. Retail politics might have led to the “repeal by Christmas” slogan, but that’s far too simplistic. It is time for National to shift from electioneering into governing and that requires a more nuanced and responsible consideration of policies. It’s inconsistent to talk up economic progress while maintaining the Resource Management Act as a chokehold on the country. We need to move forward.  

So come on, National, think this through properly. And let’s get our environment and economy both on track.

Gary Taylor is the CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.

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