The Big Kahuna: Reforming the Resource Management Act

It’s now another government’s turn to have a crack at reforming the RMA. A couple of good summaries…

Ah, the RMA. It was world-leading in its time (back in 1991) in managing all the effects of human activity together. It was our flagship for “sustainable management”. Also new was its “effects-based” intervention logic: the gummint will only mess with the “black box” of your project if it has more than minor effects on the environment, or is beyond the envelope of activity that the District Plan allows in that place.

As Parliamentary Press Gallery stalwart Peter Wilson writes on RNZ: “National tried for years to change the Resource Management Act (RMA) and failed. Now the Labour government is having a go and might not find it any easier.

“The review of the RMA, announced last week by Environment Minister David Parker, is fraught. It’s a monumental piece of legislation. Passed in 1991, it encompassed more than 50 separate Acts and since then has been amended more than 20 times. It’s nearly twice as long as it was and in Mr Parker’s words, it is difficult to interpret.” A wide-eyed Wilson writes “Even its architect, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, said it’s no longer fit for purpose.”

Um, yes, no kidding Peter. The RMA consolidated and replaced 77 different bits of legislation in 1991, and over the intervening 28 years it’s been continually fiddled with by successive governments with different ideas about what the priorities should be (like the renewable energy amendment), and what we should and shouldn’t do so we get the world we want to have. That fiddling is what happens to bits of legislation over the years. If the RMA was a person it’d be almost old enough to (legally) be a grandparent. So that’s a lot of time for fiddling.

One act, so many stereotypes

Wilson goes on to repeat a common trope about the RMA (emphasis added): “That’s the crux of the problem Labour is addressing: Under the RMA, environmental protection is delaying and even preventing development, particularly new housing. Planning rules have become cumbersome, costly and very time-consuming.”

He’s quite right about the planning rules – the Productivity Commission found as much.

But it ain’t just ENVIRONMENT VERSUS DEVELOPMENT in THE ETERNAL BATTLE OF OUR TIMES. In fact, through the cascades of District and Regional Plans that implement the RMA in every town, lots of weird and some downright stupid things are being deemed to be “environmental effects”, and thwarting good developments as well as bad.

So reform will be really hard, and really important – especially given we’re in dire straits when it comes to urban water quality, housing, climate, infrastructure resilience, and – imminently – arable land.

Here’s an excellent summary of it all: Kathryn Ryan speaking with John Tookey, a professor of construction development at AUT, and Gary Taylor from the Environmental Defence Society.

Plus Dr Cathy Strong from Massey University on The Panel talking about it.

Read a bit about the RMA on the website of its administering government department, the Ministry for the Environment

Feelin’ nerdy? Check out the process of making and using district plans on the Quality Planning website.

Fun game: test your local body candidates on whether they know the difference between regional council and territorial authority (city or district council) jurisdictions under the RMA!

Image credit: Christchurch –

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