The Christchurch earthquakes have given cause for the Government to re-examine the requirements of the Resource Management Act 1991 ("RMA‟) with the damage caused to thousands of homes by liquefaction being a significant factor.
The purpose of the RMA is to “promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources”. The catastrophic effects of the earthquakes have highlighted the importance of the RMA as not only protecting the environment from the impact of people and land use, but also to consider the effect on people from nature. To achieve its purpose, the RMA requires that decision makers consider matters of “national importance” in their determinations. However, natural hazards are not included as a matter of national importance.
As a result it is becoming apparent that the zoning of areas for residential use in district plans, and the consideration of Resource Consent applications do not sufficiently consider natural hazard risks. The recent Canterbury Fact Finding Project (“the Project‟) has investigated how much was known about liquefaction and lateral spreading risks in Christchurch, and the impact of such knowledge on zoning and development decisions. Since 1991 there have been reports available on the significant liquefaction risk in Christchurch, including “clear maps that are uncannily accurate” on the locations where liquefaction would occur. Hon. Dr Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment noted in a speech given recently that a significant number of resource consents, covering about 20% of the severely liquefied properties in Christchurch, were approved after the area specific reports funded by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and GNS Science (GNS) were released in 1991 and 1992 respectively.
The Project has found that Resource Consents issued under the RMA for the development of land in some areas did not take into account identified liquefaction risks. Even post 2004, it is considered consents were being granted without any regard for this significant and by then well documented risk. Not only was the information regarding identified risks non existent with the zoning and consent decision making with the development of these areas, but the risk of liquefaction was not clearly identified on Land Information Memorandum Reports (“LIM Reports‟) for the affected properties. The identification of liquefaction risk has now been incorporated into LIM Reports in Christchurch, and these risks will likely be considered with future residential development and zoning. The problems in Christchurch have however identified a shortcoming in the current consenting process, which must be readily addressed. The Government is to continue with their changes to the Resource Management Act, and have indicated that further substantial changes will be proposed to ensure the risks of natural hazards are considered in planning decisions.
Perhaps these amendments will ensure all Councils look to address the risk of natural hazards beyond flooding when approving applications under the Resource Management Act, and be vigilant in protecting residents from real identified risks. The inclusion of detailed information in LIM Reports will also assist in giving notice to property owners of the natural hazard risks to which the property may be subject, allowing them to account for such risks when building upon or otherwise developing their property.
Copyright © Cavell Leitch. All rights reserved. Redistribution is only permitted with express written permission. For enquiries please contact us. This article by its nature cannot be comprehensive and cannot be relied on by clients as advice. It is provided to assist clients to identify legal issues on which they should seek legal advice. Please consult the professional staff of Cavell Leitch for advice specific to your situation.