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Is the RMA really the problem?

By Anna Bensemann | Nov 10, 2020

The Resource Management Act (RMA) has come under fire since it came into force in 1991, with many governments tweaking its provisions in an effort to better protect our environment while streamlining development. It seems in an election year the RMA has come under fire once again with threats to scrap the system and start with new legislation.

One option presented by our politicians is to follow the examples from overseas and have two pieces of legislation; one to provide us with an urban planning framework and a second to protect our precious environment (essentially a non-urban planning framework). This is not a new concept with similar split planning frameworks in Australia and the UK. However as with any legislation changes, the details will be important, and we need to question if a new legislative framework is a right solution.

For years we have heard the issue that development gets held up for resource consents and this adds significant costs and delays to development. But is the RMA to blame for this or is it the way developers and councils work together to achieve positive planning outcomes? With each district responsible for developing its own permitted standards, residential subdivision and urban development are limited by the expectations created through the provisions of the district plan. As community documents, district plans are subject to public scrutiny, and alterations. This means competing interests can push our planning documents in different directions resulting in rules that hinder streamlined land development. Equally the RMA now focuses more on developers having all the aspects of their development covered off before they lodge their resource consents, front loading the information and cost in the process. This occurs with variable success depending on the attitude or knowledge of the developer and the council’s willingness or availability to work with developers before the resource consent processing clock is ticking.

In terms of our wider environmental concerns a new planning framework that deals with how we farm, harvest forestry, manage our waterways and care for our forests sounds amazing, but the same issues of conflict between rural commercial interests and maintaining our pristine environments will still exist. Any new legislation will be challenged with finding a way to ensure the environmental bottom lines are achieved and balancing this with the need to enable primary production and development to occur. Simply imposing costs on land owners to achieve compliance with the new legislation will not enable progress in our primary sector.

Any new planning legislation will need to be aware that any requirement to seek consents, commission a report, or ask for public input in a user pays system will place additional costs on landowners and developers. This will not reduce the red tape, the hassle or the frustration felt by these users, it will simply create a new system to learn, new hoops to jump through, and new legislation to complain about at each election. Developing now under the RMA may be a preferable option than under a post-election unknown planning framework.

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