More RMA Reform on the horizon

Resource Management

As predicted by many commentators, the election of a new Government in 2017 has meant a flurry of interest in further changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA).

This has included calls for a fundamental review of the “resource management system” including the RMA, along with a review of the most recent set of changes and calls to repeal recent new provisions that were seen by some as misguided (such as the idea of “deemed permitted activities”), having an adverse effect on public participation in RMA processes (including rights of appeal), or placing too much power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment. Though relinquishing the latter may prove a stern test.

The Labour led Government has made it clear that water quality is a major issue it wants to confront, including the introduction of the goal of swimmability into the National Policy Statement on Freshwater. This could well include further controls on the types and amounts of discharges from industry and, in particular, farming, that can have an effect on water quality. However, many of these changes are already underway so the extent of any policy “shift” will remain to be seen.

It seems likely that in light of the make-up of the governing coalition the issue of public participation will be revisited. There has been a noticeable move over successive amendments to restrict participation in RMA processes as a means of securing more timely outcomes. Some commentators consider the pendulum has swung too far with the latest changes to notification rules, though others felt the changes mostly clarified the intent of previous amendments. Whatever the correct position on those changes, enhancing opportunities for public participation, including reversing some of the controls placed on the rights of appeal to the Environment Court, appears a priority for the Government.

However, the impact of that intention and the tension it may cause appears likely to be felt in respect of efforts to increase the supply and affordability of housing. That will inevitably require some form of fast-tracking to ensure that it is handled in a timely fashion. But it was in the name of fast-tracking (or streamlining) that public participation in decision-making has been limited in the past. It will be interesting see how the Government intends reconciling that apparent tension.

In the meantime, the amendments to the RMA enacted in 2017 remain in force and some, such as the development of standards for the formatting of, and some content in, District Plans are edging closer to implementation.

The end result is that change, which has been something of a constant under the RMA, seems likely to continue to some extent. Meanwhile, that “churn” of change has led to calls for a more fundamental overhaul of the Resource Management System. To further that potential end, a review of the entire system is currently being conducted by the Environmental Defence Society, with funding from the Law Foundation. This is intended to provide the catalyst for an informed discussion on what such a system needs to address and to what end? It is not intended to detail specific changes to the law but may indicate more clearly whether the RMA is (or can be made) fit for purpose or whether fundamental change is now needed.

For advice on how the current or proposed changes to the RMA might affect you or your business please contact our RM Partner Andrew Schulte.

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