Ten key areas of RMA reform have been signalled, largely framed around targeting housing issues but with implications for broader industry.
Smith said the government was planning “the most significant overhaul of the Act since its inception 25 years ago”
“We want to ensure the Act remains focused on environmental effects but with a better appreciation of the way plans and rules impact on housing affordability, jobs and economic growth, and the development of our cities,” Smith says.
Labour leader Andrew Little described the government’s proposals as “underwhelming” while United Future leader Peter Dunne said Smith had “launched a full-scale assault” and the Green Party said the “radical reforms” were “gutting the environmental protections secured by the RMA”
The government is aiming to have the new laws passed by the end of the year.
Smith says that four particular changes are “crucial” for the Act to work better: adding the management of significant natural hazards; properly recognising the urban environment; recognising the importance of affordable housing; and, adding the provision for appropriate infrastructure to the purpose of the RMA.
“Good infrastructure is essential to the functioning of a modern nation – whether it be for transport, communication, water or energy,” Smith says.
“The absence of any mention of the importance of good infrastructure is an anomaly in the RMA that needs addressing.”
The reforms will likely see additions made to Sections 6 and 7 of the RMA, which combined, list 18 “matters of national importance” and other key matters that decision-makers need to consider.
Smith says he does not “subscribe to the view that the current 18 issues … are something akin to the Ten Commandments and carved in stone”
And he says that economic growth, jobs and exports “need recognition.”
“The idea that the only consideration in resource consenting is protection of nature is naive. This is not the National Parks Act. When consideration is being given to allow a new factory, a new road, a new marine farm, a mine or a new tourism attraction, we need to carefully weigh up the effects on the environment alongside the benefits of economic growth and jobs.”
The proposal is less severe than the government’s previous plan to merge those two sections into a prioritised list; it walked away from the policy last year after failing to garner the support of its coalition partners.
The reforms will also see: property rights given more recognition in the Act; consolidation of RMA rules across councils; speeding-up councils' plan-making processes; allowing greater collaboration on resource management issues; strengthening the powers for national regulation; and, moving the consent process online.
Mining industry group Straterra says while it supports the government’s overall policy goals, objectives and problem definition, it is waiting on more specific proposals.
Straterra CEO Chris Baker says an issue for the minerals sector is how to achieve things like: faster planning; streamlined consenting; stronger national direction on issues of national and regional importance; collaborative approaches to resolving issues; and, reduced contentiousness and litigation when making decisions, on plans and consents.
“What business wants is a much clearer, and manageable framework within which to operate and plan their businesses,” he says.
“This is not about lowering standards, as is often implied by those with concerns over economic activities.”
Straterra will continue to push the government for a stronger national direction on resources in New Zealand.
“We believe that a standard approach to exploration drilling as a permitted activity is the appropriate way of dealing with this low-impact, and relatively low-cost activity,” he says.
“We also believe that mining proposals should be considered on their individual merits – every project is different as to the geology, engineering, mine design, and many other matters besides, as well as the environmental effects and how best they should be managed, to meet the purpose of the RMA.”
Baker notes that the proposal for “national regulation” may help achieve that objective.
And he says that nationally drafted provisions for insertion into every regional policy statement in New Zealand may promote fair, reasonable and fact-based consideration of minerals exploration and mining proposals.
“That would bring consistency and an appropriate approach into regional and district plans around the country, to recognise the national and regional importance of minerals and mining.”
The Environmental Defence Society chair Gary Taylor says most of the government’s proposed changes have been anticipated and are “broadly acceptable in principle.”
Though he adds that EDS is unsure whether Smith intends to limit the role of the Environment Court on plan appeals.
“Such a change would need careful consideration and discussion and would be controversial,” he says.
Straterra is considering advocating for the removal of at least one of the appeal rights under the RMA to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, as a way of streamlining planning and consenting processes.