Opinion: If I was Minister for the Environment

The Wellington Branch of the NZPI held a semi-serious panel discussion to an audience of planners, lawyers and government officials. Robert Schofield was one of six resource management experts who shared what they would do if they were Minister for the Environment, and in charge of the RMA review. The views expressed are personal and intended to be thought-provoking.

The Government has recently launched the start of a major overhaul of the Resource Management system, “to produce a revamped law fit for purpose in the 21st Century that will cut complexity and cost while better protecting our environment”[1].

Following the Government’s announcement over reforming the resource management system, the National Party’s spokesperson for RMA Reform, Judith Collins, suggested an alternative approach: “I think we need to take it out the back and shoot it”[2].

The Government, on the other hand, will instead take it to the vet — otherwise known as an Expert Advisory Panel — to see if they can find a cure.  I’ve resisted the impulse to say “fix it” as that has quite a different meaning for a vet (although some might say the RMA is already neutered).

I have a bucket of possible ideas, many of which are already in the public realm.  But what to choose for “The Big Idea”?

  • Perhaps mandatory spatial plans (outside the RMA, but linked to and implemented through the RMA, Land Transport Act Management Act and Local Government Act), which include growth strategies for the larger urban areas within each region?
  • Perhaps requiring spatial plans be implemented through mandatory strategic policies in each District Plan, given effect through zoning and rules?
  • Perhaps beefing up the Environmental Protection Authority with wider environmental powers and responsibilities such as to establish mandatory national environmental standards and ensure compliance nationally, and perhaps take on the most degraded environments?
  • For nationally important infrastructure, have a separate planning policy and consenting pathway for all authorisations (not just under the RMA) needed to build a nationally important infrastructural project – this would include not only designations and resource consents, but also property acquisition powers, archaeology authorities, wildlife permits etc?

But you know, the one thing I’d like is a government with sufficient moxie to meet these key challenges rather than directing local authorities to sort it out, maybe with a bit of ‘learnt-after-the-fact’ guidance.  Managing coastal hazards is the classic example.  Get some oven gloves on to deal with those hot potatoes!

Of course, that begs the question, can you codify “moxie” into the RMA?

In thinking about it further, I started questioning why we have just the one mandatory National Policy Statement (NPS) in New Zealand?  Is our coastal environment the only part of our environment justifying a compulsory national policy strategy?

We have eight Matters of National Importance in section 6 of the RMA, and yet we only have the one NPS which addresses aspects of those matters that lie within the coastal environment.  If these are nationally important matters, then why not some national direction?

The idea then is, why not expand the number of mandatory National Policy Statements to all (or most) section 6 matters?  And while I’m on that topic, how is it that we have a National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, and yet freshwater isn’t a Matter of National Importance in section 6?

My Big Idea then started to grow. Why just National Policy Statements? Why not also have mandatory National Environmental Standards (NES) on key natural resources to provide nationally consistent approach to managing our natural and physical resources, instead of having regional councils taking different approaches all around the country?  That’s what I believed the intention of National Environmental Standards to be, originally, in the way-back-when.

I could envision a complete set of standards for our natural environment across New Zealand: water quality — both coastal and freshwater; and air quality.

The process to get national direction, however, can be turgid and lengthy.
We therefore need to avoid relying on National Policy Statements to direct local authorities on issues where urgent action is needed; otherwise, we can wait up to ten years for Plans to ‘give effect’, with a resultant regulatory hotchpotch across New Zealand.

I can see real potential for the use of the national direction power under section 46A: that is, developing combined National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards, with clear objectives and policies on how to manage the issue, and standards to be deemed rules across the nation.

For example, the National Policy Statement on Renewable Electricity Generation (which needs beefing up) could have a supplementary set of National Environmental Standards that could provide a nationwide regulatory framework for reconsenting renewable electricity generation schemes.

However just to throw a spanner in the works a common and quite valid criticism is the siloed nature of National Policy Statements and the difficulty of joining the (policy) dots between them, which is a Big Flaw in my Big Idea.  It’s a legal quagmire trying to determine weight between, for example, enabling policies with protect policies.

Then I came across the National Policy Framework in the UK; which is a single, joined-up set of directions (in one document) that all local plans (that is, district plans) must follow.  This framework provides a overarching cohesive direction on what sustainable management is to look like in the UK, explained in the form of a narrative rather than sets and sets of objectives and policies.

Now there’s an idea …streamlining and simplifying national policies!

[1] Media release by Hon David Parker, Minister for the Environment, 24 July 2019
[2] https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/07/25/697835/government-charts-own-path-on-rma-reform

For further information please contact Robert Schofield

23 August 2019